Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What to Eat - A book review

What to Eat (by Marion Nestle)

A fan of her blog by the same name, I finally got around to checking out one of Nestle’s books from our local library.  Let me start by saying – If you eat, this is a must read. And no, I’m not being dramatic. Ok, maybe just a little bit.

Seriously, though, What to Eat takes you isle by isle through your grocery store teaching you what all those labels mean and, more importantly, the politics behind the foods you eat. I knew that there were politics involved in the food system. I mean, who doesn’t? But Nestle takes us on an amazing journey through her own research. At times it’s shocking. At times it’s depressing. At times, you’ll wish your farmers market vendor was nearby for a great big hug to thank him for saving you from the hype of marketing, corporate deception, and governmental cover-ups. Can you believe the labels on supplements? Fish? (You’d be surprised at the answer). What do health endorsements on cereals mean?  Should we buy local, organic, conventional, fair trade? How should our priorities rank? How we even make it to the checkout counter is beyond me!

As question after question came from friends and loved ones, she quotes, “Eventually I came to realized that, for many people, food feels nothing at all like a source of pleasure; it feels more like a minefield.” So Nestle, a nutritionist, professor, and author, decided to do a little extra homework. In the introduction, after discussing the overwhelming amount of research she did to write the book, she comments, “I tell you this not so much to impress you with the extent of the research as to explain that this is the kind of effort it took me to figure out what was going on, and I am supposed to know about such things. If you have trouble dealing with supermarkets, it is for good reason. You need to know an amazing amount about our food system and about nutrition to make intelligent choices, but most of this information is anything but obvious. It is not supposed to be obvious.”

As she moves through the grocery discussing each isle from the bakery to the frozen food section, she reveals time and again how corporations and industry push personal responsibility onto the consumer instead of advocating and practicing regulations and safer standards at the agricultural or production level. Heaven forbid they make food safer. No. Both health and safety, it seems, is up to the consumer. But keep in mind, industry does just about everything it can from allowing information that is critical in good decision making to find it’s way to the public. What are we to do?

Nestle recommends four things. First, as I mentioned, she takes you isle by isle and uncovers some of the mystery behind those foods and explains how she, as an expert, prioritizes her own food choices. Second she advocates doing some of your own research – read labels, talk to your store managers, contact consumer advocacy groups for information on industry and company best practices. Third, she reminds us that once you have the information in hand, food choices aren’t so difficult. Be sure to eat a wide variety of foods and quit worrying so much about individual vitamins and nutrients. Be balanced and be smart – eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and veggies, go easy on the junk food. Finally, talk to your government representatives who have the power to make the necessary changes. 

I’ll conclude with Nestle’s own final remarks, “The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children. They are about nothing less than democracy in action. I truly believe that one person can make a difference and that food is a great place to begin to make that difference. Yes, you should use personal responsibility – informed personal responsibility – to make food choices you believe in. Exercise your First Amendment rights and speak out. And enjoy your dinner."


Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

I love Marion Nestle - you should also check out her books "Food Politics" and "Safe Food".

Heather @ SGF said...

jennifer - I'll definitely be checking out her other books. Have you read them? She's really interesting!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Yes, I have read Food Politics, Safe Food, and What To Eat. Food Politics was by far my favorite one. It really made me re-think the USDA's "Food Pyramid" and it's value to us for nutritional information. The book made me angry, confused, and also made certain things make a lot more sense - like why certain food additives are put on the market before we really know they are safe. Safe Food is really fascinating, especially in light of all the food contamination we've had. They all definitely make me think that a local diet of mostly plants is the best way to live.

I also understand she is coming out with a book called Pet Food Politics. I have two cats, so I will likely read that one as well.

Heather @ SGF said...

jennifer - Thanks! I'm looking forward to reading them!