What to Eat?

A review of Marion Nestle's new book about what - and what not - to eat.

At the beginning of her book, What to Eat, NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle asks: Why are people so worried about what they eat? Complicated question, for sure, but a valid and timely one. She goes on to remind us that eating is one of “life’s greatest pleasures,” and that over the past thirty years of teaching she has watched more and more people become confused and downright neurotic about food choices. Coming from someone who has spent too much of his time worrying about such things, I whole-heartedly understand, which is why reading her book was also a great pleasure.

While many topics she touched upon are worth articles of their own, the relationship between the food industry and governmental agencies like the USDA and FDA run throughout the forty chapters. Michael Pollan recently tackled this subject in an eye-opening editorial in the NY Times; considering he wrote that Nestle’s book was “absolutely indispensable” for its 2006 publication, the authors’ mutual influence on each other is obvious. The basic summation: what is often presented as healthy is often no more than political maneuvering and idealistic wordplay.

Nestle does not take nutritional sides. She wants to know what is good for us, what is not, and present the evidence. She discusses topics like environmentalism, organic foods, and animal ethics, and yes, these do influence her culinary decisions, but at heart, she wants you to make decisions for yourself. That’s why her book is written as a travel guide through the ubiquitous supermarket. Nestle’s at her best when raising questions for you to answer yourself, informing us of scientific tests and federal regulations, never demanding this or that—a refreshing change in a nutrition (marketing) industry currently governed by “thou shalts” and "thou shalt nots.”

Nestle spends five chapters at the fish counter, offering insights on methylmercury, farmed fish versus wild caught, sustainability of aquatic populations, and labeling quandaries. That last proved one of the most disturbing sections of the book. As she writes,

“For farm-raised seafood to be labeled as coming from the United States, it must be hatched, raised, harvested, and processed in U.S. waters. But wild fish are labeled according to the origin of the fishing boat, not the location of the waters where the fish are actually caught.”

Think about that: a fishing boat takes off from California, makes its catch in Asia, comes back and sells the fish as American wild caught. One contention, among many: certain regions are more polluted than others, and wise fish eaters take the care and time to find out exactly where what they eat is coming from. Farm-raised fish bring up too many problems to discuss here; suffice to say more conscious eaters seek out wild-caught. Besides the fact that farmed fish often escape into the wild and spawn with natural populations, consumers really have no idea where the origin of what they eat is.

It’s bad enough, as Nestle states throughout the book, that food companies make health claims yet take little to no responsibility for the consumers of their products to verify them, or know where to turn to to find out the information they seek. What’s worse is having an understaffed federal agency that is supposed to be regulating the food industry to provide safe and healthy cuisines, yet is bullied by Congressional representatives with corporate interests that pass legislations in favor of industry over health. What kind of absurd and blatantly demeaning law allows labels to list point of origin as location of catch? No wonder people are confused about what they put into their bodies; we no longer know what any of it is.

Except, of course, locally grown and organic foods. I happen to be a vegetarian, but I do not wield the gospel of anti-animal foods around. The thing about personal choice is that you have to exercise it for yourself. That’s part of the self-realization of a practice like yoga: figuring out who you are and coming to terms with it. You can’t understand your choices, however, if you don’t even know what it is that you’re choosing. While it might not seem right that all the responsibility falls upon us to figure out, that’s the situation we are faced with. We have to make the best of it, and spread the knowledge around as widely as possible. What to Eat is a great place to start doing just that.

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