Phrased as a question, the title of Marion Nestle’s latest book is something we all face every day: What to eat? More to the point, what should we eat when we have to choose among far too many options?
Leave out restaurants for now and consider the lowly supermarket. “About 320,000 food and beverage products are available in the United States, and an average supermarket carries 30,000 to 40,000 of them,” writes Nestle. No wonder we feel bewildered.
Her friends, Nestle noticed, were always asking her for shopping advice: “Eating, they told me, feels nothing less than hazardous.” So Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and the author of two previous books about our modern industrial food system (Safe Food and Food Politics), decided to tackle this contemporary confusion by way of the supermarket.
Why are supermarkets laid out with fresh produce right at the front but fresh dairy hidden at the back? Why are there entire aisles of cereal and chips? What do food labels mean?
What, in other words, should we buy or not buy?
What to Eat takes readers on a tour of the typical American supermarket, starting with all that lovely produce on display at the front doors and then wandering around the perimeter (dairy, meat, fish) and down the center aisles (frozen food, snacks, drinks) before winding up at the specialty counters (the bakery, the deli, the health-food ghetto). This structural device is elegantly efficient, allowing Nestle to explain foods by category while providing a mental floor plan.
At more than 600 pages, What to Eat looks like a mighty tome, but its clever organization and, above all, its witty and clean writing make it a swift read. Nestle belongs to that rare and admirable species known as the Scientist Who Can Also Write, which makes What to Eat both a handy reference guide and pure entertainment. Here she is on what, exactly, calories are all about:
If you eat a frozen dinner worth 600 calories, you will be getting enough energy to boil 6 quarts of water — the entire volume of blood in the human body. So how come eating dinner does not make your blood boil?
We should have all had science professors like this.
Nutritional advice, as Nestle is quick to point out, changes with the latest scientific study, and she reminds readers to be wary of any study funded by a special-interest group. Readers should also be mindful that Nestle’s opinions don’t always match those of her peers. She’s not a fan of eggs, for example, although Harvard’s Walter Willett plumped for them in his 2001 classic Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. She’s not wild about milk, either, thinking its fats useless; Nina Planck, on the other hand, has plenty of praise for dairy in her 2006 book Real Food. And, finally, Nestle flat-out states that “eating a lot of meat is not so healthy for anyone.” Maybe not on our modern diet, but a meat diet certainly worked just fine for the Inuit for thousands of years.
Still, Nestle’s basic principles of good eating are unobjectionable: Eat less, move more, and eat lots of fruit and vegetables. And she’ll give you the appropriate details exactly when you want them. Worried about those fruits and veggies? “Whenever I have the choice, here are my priorities in that section: 1) organic and locally grown, 2) organic, 3) conventional and locally grown, 4) conventional.”
Nestle is also adamant in her anger over the fact that the federal government and food companies do as little as possible to ensure food safety, while marketing unhealthy products to the hilt. How are consumers supposed to be responsible for the health and safety of what they eat when labeling is misleading and regulation lax?
The government no longer guarantees the safety of drinking water. Instead, you are responsible for getting your utility’s safety report, paying for having your tap water tested, and installing a filter. It makes good sense to do these things, but here is another place where economists talk about “externalized” costs. The government allows companies to dump chemicals into streams and contaminate drinking water, but instead of requiring them to pay for prevention or cleanup, it shifts the burden to you. Your water utility bill does not cover anywhere near the true costs of providing clean water, so you pay for water in three additional ways: in taxes to pay for cleaning up polluted water, in taxes that pay for subsidizing companies that do the polluting in the first place, and in the price you pay for bottled water at the grocery store.
And that’s just for water, not even food.
What to Eat is both a tool for consumer empowerment and a call to arms for regulatory reform. It is thought-provoking in the best way, engaging and educational at once. “Food choices are about your future and that of your children,” Nestle concludes. “They are about nothing less than democracy in action. Exercise your First Amendment rights and speak out. And enjoy your dinner.”
Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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