Beyond Labels: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time
By Sina McCullough, PhD and Joel Salatin, Farmer
Chelsea Green Publishing
What happens when you combine two unique individuals with a unique mission and book format? You get Beyond Labels. First, let’s start with the mission: “This book is dedicated to anyone who wants to eat better and doesn’t know how.” Sina McCullough and Joel Salatin are primarily hoping to reach individuals who are interested in eating better but are unsure what that means or how to make it happen. In other words, the book is for people like McCullough herself, who once “spent more time looking up movie and book reviews than I did looking up what’s in my food.”
Next let’s look at why McCullough and Salatin are unique. Often when people write and speak, they stick with their “lane” or area of expertise. Only on occasion do they get to interact with others in related fields. Beyond Labels represents the rare book that brings together the experiences and expertise of both authors.
Beyond Labels also follows a unique format. A question is posed to the two authors, and they talk through it—at times mentioning surprising or unexpected things in relation to the original question. Although the questions are wide-ranging—covering everything from reading labels to keeping chickens to making compost—they all support the goal of helping people make the transition to eating more real, locally-produced food.
The book is organized around seventy-two pieces of advice—or “bites.” Each “bite” is introduced with a “how” followed by a “why,” and the “why” is where Salatin and McCullough discuss all sorts of things that help people understand the importance and practice of the “how.” Even though this book harkens back more to the days when our family first began our real-food journey than where we find ourselves today, I learned a number of new things in the “whys,” which is something I appreciated.
The book prefaces the seventy-two bites with a section that encourages readers to set goals and develop a picture of what they want their relationship with food and life to look like. This includes thinking about questions such as “What is your ideal meal?” and “Where does it come from?” This section emphasizes taking responsibility but also giving yourself grace to learn and grow during what can be a difficult journey. Those with longstanding real-food experience need to remember what it is like to have never dealt with real food before. I remember years ago when people joined our buying club who had never seen a whole chicken! They needed encouragement, not condemnation. We need to remember that they walked through the door because they realized there was something wrong with their food choices, and they wanted to change the situation.
Because Beyond Labels is written for individuals who are not yet deeply “into” real and local foods, the book takes an interesting approach to some touchy subjects. Take soda. Almost everyone knows that soda isn’t good for you, but instead of telling readers outright that soda is bad, Salatin and McCullough try to help them realize it for themselves. They do this by first suggesting that people notice how they feel with and without soda and then give the reader a number of alternatives. They also help people understand the history, health effects and other factors (such as government subsidies) that stand behind the topic of soda.
The dietary advice in Beyond Labels is basic but sound. “Don’t fear the fat label!” (#15). “Eat real salt” (#25). “Say yes to wild-caught fish” (#26). “Eat a daily helping of microbes from ferments” (#44). The two authors even cover the importance of clean, high-quality structured water (#19) and recommend Dr. Tom Cowan’s recent book on the subject (Cancer and the New Biology of Water). Beyond Labels is also peppered with good advice (and warnings) about food additives (including artificial and natural flavors), non-stick cookware and dozens of other topics.
There is a ton of discussion to help people not be duped by labels and the rest of the labyrinth of lies that make up the modern food system and its often misleading marketing and claims. All of this flows naturally, and it is hoped will have a gentle impact on readers who are trying to make progress. The authors also mention Sally Fallon Morell, with Salatin speaking about how he loves her term “the diet dictocrats” because it “captures marvelously the elitist, tyrannical persona of experts who dare to impugn historically normal food.”
In a sea of books about the food system, what sets this one apart is how very practical it seeks to be. What do you want your food, your health and your world to look like? What changes are you making so that daily life begins to match that vision? The book seems well positioned to furnish not just information but also motivation and direction to those wanting to move toward real, traditional, local, nutrient-dense foods. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2020