Book Review – What To Eat

What to Eat – An Aisle by Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating by Marion Nestle

The supermarket can be an intimidating place if you’re trying to eat healthy. Figuring out good food choices can require an advanced education in math, science and possibly even advertising. It’s enough to send one running to the pastry aisle to drown your sorrows in a bag of donuts. But wait – do you know what’s in those donuts? Marion Nestle does.

What to Eat is an aisle by aisle synopsis of the good, the bad and the ugly of your average supermarket. And although I might be accused of spoiling the plot, I’ve gotta tell you, most of it is bad and ugly. Nestle explains everything you need to know about every category of item in the grocery store; from eggs to bottled water, from produce to packaged cereals. She explains how to read a label, how to calculate serving sizes, and how to talk to the staff at your supermarket to get the information the labels don’t tell you – such as the origin of fresh fish or produce.

Weighing in at a hefty 524 pages (before appendices, endnotes, bibliography or index), What to Eat is best read in small increments, as the subject matter is overwhelming and often confusing – food marketers tend to prefer it that way so you’ll just give up trying to figure out a serving and will eat the whole bag/box/package. Each chapter (or aisle, if you will) contains so much information that you’ll wish the book came in a downloadable format that could be loaded onto a Blackberry for easier access while shopping.

Nestle is sometimes vague on her studied opinion of certain foods, however, which can make the book a bit frustrating. Like most nutritionists, she advises that most foods are fine in small “moderate” amounts, but never really tells us what moderate is.

It’s also important to remember that while Nestle’s opinion is an extremely well-respected one, it is still just one opinion with dissenting voices (and not just those of food marketers) to be heard on each subject. For instance, in the section on bottled waters, she advises readers to pick brands with added fluoride to protect their children’s teeth, however general consensus on the fluoride issue is to avoid excess fluoride, as Americans, particularly children, already get too much.

Nestle is particularly critical of marketing aimed at children. In the chapter titled “Food For Kids”, she disabuses us of the idea that kids should have their own food, just for them. She states the obvious truth that many of us ignore, “If you offer healthy foods, your children will have the chance to eat them. If you offer junk foods to your children, they will eat junk foods.” She looks at how brand loyalty in children is anchored at an early age, and how companies rely on the “pester factor” to sell junky, sugary products that parents would prefer to avoid.

She offers a list of tips to help parents deal with marketing efforts aimed at children:

– don’t take tots grocery shopping or let them near one of those training carts
– if you must take them, set spending limits in advance (one parent that I know sets that limit at $1)
– don’t buy food products with cartoons or games on them
– don’t buy any packaged cereal or snack labeled as “fun”
– don’t buy food because they are vitamin-enriched
– count the sugars (a tablespoon is 15 grams)

And if you are really serious about what your kids eat, stick to the periphery and
– don’t set foot in the centre aisles

She is especially scornful of the techniques used to sell kids on the idea of “kid food” as opposed to adult food:

This “kids are only supposed to eat kids’ food” strategy also explains the invention of blue-colored french fries from Ore-Ida/Heinz and, not coincidentally, purple and green ketchups (also from Heinz) to put on them. In the same genre Kraft/Altria makes macaroni with blue cheese sauce; its box displays the popular cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, licensed by Nickeledeon, the commercial television channel aimed at children. Such products are sold as harmless amusements – and that may well be the manufacturers’ intention – but their overall effect is to teach kids not to like or refuse to try the “adult” foods their families are eating. When you hear parents say, “My kid only eats [this particular product] and won’t eat anything else,” you are witnessing targeted food marketing at its most effective.

My copy of What to Eat currently sports a dog-eared one-and-a-half stacks of small blue post-it note pages, most covered in scribbled ideas for future reference, marking topics that I want to learn more about, write about or do more research on. I could probably double or triple my post-it count if I read the book a second time.

Even if I don’t agree with every point Nestle makes, and even if I think she’s occasionally a bit too non-committal for a world-famous nutritionist whose written a book on traversing the supermarket aisle (or maybe I’m just expecting too much to assume the woman has a hard and fast opinion on every single product), What to Eat may still be the most important book written on food and nutrition in this decade. Anyone who reads it cannot help but look at the wide shiny aisles of their local food emporium differently, and that’s the very first step we all need to take to ensure we’re eating food that is beneficial to both us and the environment.