Food Buzz

Because maybe you do care what I had for lunch...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Report: What To Eat

Welcome to the first book report on WIMFD! Today's book is What To Eat by Marion Nestle. Dr. Nestle is a Paulette Goddard professor in Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, where she is also a professor of sociology. She holds a PhD in molecular biology and an MPH in public health nutrition, both degrees from Berkeley. She is best known for writing and speaking about nutrition and the food industry. Her previous two books are Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002) and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (2003).

In What To Eat Nestle takes her experience not only from her career as a professor of nutrition but also from working with both the FDA and USDA to reveal the American food industry as we experience it and its implications for our diet. For Nestle, the short answer to "what to eat" is more fruits and vegetables. More! FRUITS AND VEGETABLES! But the food industry has loaded the deck against healthy choices in favor of processed, unhealthy food.

What To Eat
is organized by grocery section: produce, dairy, meat, frozen, processed, beverages, and other special items (like supplements). Within each section Nestle explains not only the nutritional value of foods in these groups (or lack thereof), but also the agencies and politics behind these foods, the safety concerns, and sometimes the ecological impact. She debunks many food myths and straightens out the tangled misinformation about "good" fats and "bad" fats and other quandaries.

A feature I especially liked in the book are the little tabs that pull out key ideas every few pages. You could, actually, skim the book just by reading the tabs and derive a lot of valuable information. But I recommend reading the whole thing from cover to cover. It reads like a novel! OK, it reads like a novel if you're a food writing geek like me. But Nestle's prose flows easily. This book may be chock full of technical information, but it is all described simply, clearly, and in a friendly tone.

Again and again, Nestle assures us that we can derive almost all of our nutritional needs just by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day: four daily servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables. Keep in mind that, according to these USDA guidelines, a serving is just half a cup (except in the case of salad greens, one cup). Yet, Nestle points out, "Unbelievable as it may seem, one-third of all vegetables consumed in the United States come from just three sources: french fries, potato chips, and iceberg lettuce." Americans, you are missing out on some great flavors! This makes me want to devote my blog entirely to produce.

By the way, did you know dairy foods are not a nutritional requirement? Apparently you can get all the nutrients attributed to dairy foods in fruits and vegetables. The dairy industry doesn't want you to know that, and so we have a "dairy" section in our food pyramid. Americans also eat more protein that we really need. Here's Nestle on vegetarian and vegan diets:

And as long as you eat any other animal product at all -- dairy, fish, or eggs -- you can avoid eating meat without affecting the nutritional quality of your diet... If you follow vegan practices, you need to be sure to eat a variety of grains and beans (to get enough protein), to take in enough calories (so you don't lose weight), and to find an alternative source for vitamin B12 (the one vitamin that is found only in foods from animal sources.

I happen to love meat and dairy, but I'm trying to shift the focus of my dinners to the vegetables, with the meat more often playing a supportive rather than leading role.

But fish... the fish section of What To Eat put me off fish almost entirely. Our waterways are hopelessly polluted with pesticides, mercury, and other undesirable villains, our oceans are over fished, and even fish "farms" are stocked with antibiotics and PCBs, not to mention artificial colorings. Farmed fish often slip into the wild, altering the wild fish populations. Nesltle's advice is to be very particular about where you buy your fish and to ask a LOT of questions. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes useful guides for selecting fish (the emphasis is more on sustainability). Me, I think I'm sticking to the wild salmon the Park Slope Food Coop sells in the summer.

Nestle comes out in favor of organic foods, not least because organic labeling is, for now, well regulated. If you have an official stamp of approval you pretty much know what you're getting. This goes for produce as well as meat, eggs, dairy, and grains. Consumers should be wary of tricky, misleading food labels, however.

Careful label reading is especially important -- and difficult -- when it comes to processed foods. Nestle admits to loving butter and sugar. She, too, has a hard time stopping with just one cookie. But food packaging and labeling makes portion control difficult. Why do those potato chip bags contain "two" servings? How much sugar is there, really, in those granola bars if they contain ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, honey, maple sugar, and dextrose? A lot. Nestle makes it clear that sugar is sugar, be it refined white sugar or agave nectar.

Nestle also makes clear her disdain for junk food masquerading as health food, and fat/sugar substitutes. Don't fool yourself -- and don't let a food company fool you, either. You can enjoy the naughty stuff every once in a while, but if you think you can have your cake and eat it too you're wrong. There is a tradeoff for these impostors: trans fats, inferior flavors, disguised sugars, and the absence of anything actually edifying. Stick to the real thing.

A pervading theme that evolves in this book is that the USDA has conflicting goals (which you can read about here): expanding/supporting the agricultural market and enhancing nutrition/improving food safety. Again and again, the USDA starts to do the right thing by drawing safety guidelines and defining standards only to back down in the face of industry lobbying groups. Now, instead of real accountability and oversight we have warning labels on our food and "voluntary" meat recalls (um, if you don't mind, we kind of found out your meat already consumed by thousands of school children is probably contaminated, so if you wouldn't mind, could you, like, stop selling it?). The burden of safety is placed mainly on the consumers rather than the producers.

As for nutrition, you're on your own there, too. The USDA Dietary Guidelines have slithered here and there to appease various industry pressure groups, weakening language from statements like "Avoid too much sugar" (we don't have precise statements about sugar limits at all) to "moderate your intake of sugar." Sugar lobbyists couldn't even stand the statement "limit your intake of sugar."

The FDA doesn't do much better. In 1990 they were put in charge of designing nutritional labels that explain the calories, nutrients, and ingredients. These labels were also to allow consumers to "compare the nutrient content of a food product to the amount you should be eating in an entire day," encourage consumers to make healthy choices, and fit all this information in a little box on food packages. Nestle devotes several pages to the quagmire that resulted from the Food Labeling Act.

So those are the agencies we employ to product our health and food safety. What about the food industry itself? Unfettered by any ethical imperatives, your local grocery store is the wild, wild west. Anything goes! Step right in and you'll be lassoed into the center aisles with their frozen entrees, potato chips, cookies, and faux nutritional snacks. You have to brave this dangerous territory in order to get to the "real" food -- the aforementioned FRUITS AND VEGETABLES, the meat, the dairy.

What do you do? Start by informing yourself. Learn how to read the nutrition labels. Strike a defensive pose while shopping and stick to the perifery of the grocery store. Avoid the center aisles. Don't encourage your child to use those little "shopper in training" carts (Nestle includes a chapter on "kid's foods" with strategies for avoiding them). Be aware of the manipulations of food companies. Ask a lot of questions. Vote for healthy choices with your dollars. Shop at farmer's markets. Join consumer advocacy groups. Write your congress representatives and demand greater accountability from our food agencies. Remember, "The current enviornment of food choice is not inevitable."

Nestle ends with a lovely vision of what could be: "What if food companies stopped marketing directly to children?... What if fast-food companies sold salads at a lower price than hamburgers? ... What if government agencies issued unambiguous dietary advice? ... What if Congress did not accept corporate contributions to election campaigns? ... What if Wall Street rewarded long-term corporate sustainability rather than short-term gain?"

What if. What if I committed myself to this vision today?

1 comment:

Swizzies said...

I'm not kidding at all when I say the US food supply and production methods really in a way scare me, and is one of the reasons I am not keen to move back.

VERY good review. Two thumbs up. Now even *I* want to read it. :-)