A Thumbs Up Book Review
What to Eat
By Marion Nestle
North Point Press, 2007
Reviewed by Joe Watters
Dr. Marion Nestle (no relation, as she indicates in her book, to the Swiss Nestle multinational) is Professor of Nutrition, Food Policy, and Public Health at New York University. Two of her previous books, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, have won numerous awards, even though they are scholarly in intent, and her current effort is apparently a bestseller in its category on Amazon.com.
Dr. Nestle’s curriculum vitae lists her academic focus at NYU as nutrition and food policy. This research focus is important to keep in mind when reading What to Eat because the book is mainly a survey of conventional US supermarkets, along with discourses on how these foods got where they are in the supermarket and the food safety issues associated with them. In other words, this book seems to be a more mainstream amalgam of her previous two books.
Dr. Nestle’s research interest is also important to understand because despite the fact that she is a professor of nutrition, her nutrition advice is entirely conventional, especially when it comes to fats and cholesterol. Dr. Nestle summarizes her nutritional perspective in a single sentence at the beginning of What to Eat: “Eat less, move more, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.” She also adds the modifier, “go easy on junk foods.” This is not bad advice for contemporary Americans, but it also is not general purpose advice. Whereas Dr. Weston Price and other investigators sought to understand the characteristics of optimal human diets that would necessarily hold through time and apply to many different human cultures, Marion Nestle’s perspective is simply a reaction to the current dietary patterns in the United States. Imagine the difficulty that the traditional herding Maasai people of Africa, for instance, would have applying Dr. Nestle’s advice, other than avoiding junk foods, of which none exist in their traditional culture. The doctor of dentistry carried out original research, with broadly applicable findings. The professor of nutrition, at least in this book, does no such thing.
What to Eat is organized as a tour through a modern supermarket, starting with a stroll around the periphery (produce, dairy, dairy substitutes, meat and fish), and then into the center aisles (chilled and frozen foods, processed foods and beverages), and finally into some special sections (infant formula, bakery and take-out, ready-made foods such as salad bars).
During the tour, we also get a peek at what Dr. Nestle herself eats. For those who’d like to know without reading the book, she buys organic produce, meat and milk. She buys fish from the east coast chain, Legal Sea Foods, “in a New York minute,” but is wary of most other fishmongers. She thinks that frozen vegetables are fine, certainly better than canned and sometimes more nutritious than fresh. She indulges in a few Oreo cookies every now and then, she admits, and has to resist eating an entire pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream right from the container in one sitting—a classic response to saturated fat deprivation if there ever was one.
Along with descriptions of the current state of the food aisles in a typical supermarket, Dr. Nestle recounts some history of how those foods came to be what they are today. As an example, she gives us a revealing history of margarine. Created in 1869 in France through a competition to invent a substitute for butter for Napoleon III’s armies, oleomargarine originally contained beef suet and milk. At the time, margarine would have been a nutritious food. It did not taste like butter, but it was usable in place of butter. Margarine made it to the United States in the 1870s. Over time, manufacturers replaced the suet with cottonseed oil and then soybean oil. Although margarine was much cheaper than butter, the dairy industry successfully kept national consumption to less than 2 pounds per capita until the mid 1930s. By this time, margarine was made with hydrogenated soybean oil, along with some added vitamin A and D. Consumption increased during the Depression years, and further increased significantly during World War II as butter was reserved for the soldiers fighting in Europe. Nestle remembers her own mother kneading yellow food coloring into the margarine before trying to get the family to eat it.
After the war, cardiologists noticed a sharp increase in coronary heart diseases. Cardiologists in the 1950s did not know about trans fats, and thus might be forgiven for erroneously identifying saturated fats as the culprit, but Marion Nestle has no such excuse. As she writes, her “trans fat file has papers on heart disease risk dating back to the mid 1970s.” Amazingly though, having outlined a quite plausible epidemiological explanation for the increase in heart disease starting in the 1950s due to the increased consumption of trans fat in margarine starting a decade or so earlier, she sticks right with the 1950s-originated myth that it is all due to saturated fat in the diet.
Although the nutritional advice is off the mark regarding fats, What to Eat is worth reading for the survey of the economic and political forces that have produced the supermarket foods we see today, along with a variety of sometimes alarming information on food safety issues. Nestle provides mostly good information on various food safety issues in all of the food sections. It is most useful for the discussion of seafood safety, such as methylmercury contamination of carnivorous ocean species like swordfish, albacore tuna, shark, and farmed salmon.
The book gives pointers to some very informative websites, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium sustainable seafood site (www.mbayaq.org), and ConsumerLabs.com, which independently tests the nutrient or compound content of dietary supplements. In the end, the best approach to What to Eat is to forget what this professor of nutrition has to say about nutrition, but remember what she has to say about food politics and food safety.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2007.