Sunday, July 30, 2006

What To Eat

I know I mentioned this book in a previous post, but I've since finished it, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in corporate marketing strategies, the politics of food, eating healthfully, organics, locally-grown produce, or anything in between. But instead of taking a hard-line "eat vegan" or "go organic" approach, author Marion Nestle simply outlines the facts, assesses the situation, and makes her recommendations, most of which are quite centrist. She explains, in detail, the facts about methylmercury/PCBs and fish, and the huge potential for harm, but recognizes that some fish consumption can still be safe.

And throughout the book Nestle articulates and decries the multi-billion-dollar food industry's often-successful attempts to shift responsibility for food safety and healthful eating onto the consumer. Yes, she realizes, we are ultimately responsible for what we eat, but we should have waterways clean enough that eating fish more than once a week isn't dangerous; food-labeling should be clear and concise, not nearly impossible to decipher amidst non-standard serving sizes, outlandish health claims on packaging, and difficult-to-understand daily requirements; and the production and transportation process for foods like eggs or beef should be clean and heavily monitored to avoid outbreaks of E. coli and other harmful bacteria (and she supports her claim that this is possible with lots of evidence), rather than focusing on consumer cooking practices.

Even the most skeptical food consumer will find this book eye-opening. The chapter on whole grains was especially edifying - the tales of how cereal manufacturers earned the right to put "heart healthy" on even the sugariest, most calorie-laden children's breakfast cereals are quite sordid. I realized that I've been trusting food labels subconsciously, even while professing skepticism; when it comes to claims about omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, I'm especially gullible. Also, the chapter on fats is as a handy reference for levels of nutrients and fatty acids in different cooking/salad oils - and now I understand why monounsaturated fats are the best, rather than just knowing that they are.

Most importantly, though, especially for summer readers - Nestle's style is conversational (but not condescending) and quite engaging, so it's a fun read, and the toughest concepts to grasp are outlined and explained with tables, as well as friendly analogy. The bad news is that it just came out, so it's still only available in hardcover.

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