The Locavore’s Bookshelf: What to Eat

When Marion Nestle sets out to write a consumer’s guide to food, she doesn’t mess around. She writes a big ole doorstop of a book, filled with facts and figures and some more facts and figures, and if you get tired of them, she throws a few more facts your way. The woman is a scientific powerhouse, with a PhD in molecular biology, and an MPH in public health nutrition, both from U.C. Berkeley. She’s written a great many articles, and several books, including the critically acclaimed (and really good book) Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism.

Having said all that, I don’t want you to think that this magnificently large tome is boring. It isn’t. It isn’t because while Nestle has an unimpeachable scientific background, she is also capable of writing in a way which is engaging to her audience. And in this case, she is writing to the average grocery store shopper who wants someone to make sense of the ever-nagging question of what they should be eating for their health, for taste, and for the health of the planet. And she is able, though the use of personal experience and example, to write in a way that is engaging, and entertaining to such a person while still conveying significantly large amounts of information with every sentence.

Nestle is just the writer a consumer needs to go to so she can explain why transfats are bad, and whether or not they are as bad as regular plain old saturated fats. Her writing is deft and capable of unravelling the intricacies of eating fish: the debate between the heathy Omega 3 fatty acids that fatty carnivorous fish such as salmon and tuna have and the dangerous levels of methylmercury that these fish also store in their flesh from being at the top of the oceanic food chain is a tangled net of science, nutrition, and biology which she presents simply and factually in a way that a layperson can understand.

My one problem with the book so far–and I am only one third of the way through it as yet, but I think it is so important that I want to get the word out before I am done–is the density of information that Nestle presents. I don’t think it is a flaw, necessarily, but it does make it difficult to sit down and power through the book, as is my usual wont. Instead, I read it in small chunks of a chapter or two at a time, then I have to take time off in between to digest what I have read and integrate it into my previous accumulation of knowledge about food, the food industry, the USDA, the FDA and other such topics. For the average reader with no nutrition or scientific background, the book is probably most useful as a reference work that is delved into to answer certain questions as they arise, rather than something to be read cover to cover as I am doing.

I think that What to Eat is a comprehensive, fascinating look at the state of food in America today, with all the political and cultural implications that come with it. Nestle is a master at weaving societal and political concerns into her narrative seamlessly, while still ramming home every pertinent fact she wants the reader to comprehend now, and for eternity. Her chapters on meat, in particular, stand as well-deserved indictments of the laxity with which the USDA treats issues of public safety and health which should rile any half-way intelligent reader who gets her hands on the book.

Even though I am still working on getting through the book, I cannot recommend it enough; I cannot imagine that the rest of the book is going to be less worthwhile of a read than the first third of it. I give it an unqualified two thumbs up–grab it up, and read it. You will be glad you did.


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  1. It looks like something I’d like to read. Is it useful for folks outside the US, too?

    Comment by Hadar — May 19, 2006 #

  2. Yes, Hadar, I think large chunks of the book would be useful for anyone, not just those in the US, even though it is aimed directly at an American audience.

    The chapters on vegetables, fish, and fruit are applicable. The discussions of transfats are applicable.

    What may not be applicable are the discussions of meats, because the way that CAFOs work in the rest of the world is different, and the regulatory agencies in other governments in the world actually take consumer health and safety into account, unlike US regulations. This is also true of any food regulations elsewhere in the world, but discussions of how vegetables are produced, and fish, in particular, and industrial food processing, are probably applicable. (Although I do know, for example, that European countries either banned the use of transfats or are in the process of doing so, so–everyone’s mileage may vary.)

    That said–were I you–I would see if I could purchase it used, rather than new, to save some money on it, just because many of the particulars may not apply to your situation. However, if you ever return to the US–it would be useful to you then.

    Comment by Barbara — May 20, 2006 #

  3. I think I’m going to try and get it; the meat discussion doesn’t much apply to us, anyway… thanks for the book recommendation, Barbara!

    Comment by Hadar — May 20, 2006 #

  4. Isn’t her last name ironic, though? Or maybe she’s trying to clear up bad karma from being related to people who sold baby formula to African mothers, which killed people when made with contaminated water.

    I saw her speak. She’s a little sparkplug.

    I am completely down on Spongebob Squarepants now. I HATE whoever came up with the idea to associate him with food products. And when I say “food,” I mean “caloric entertainment.”©

    : D

    Comment by Tana — May 20, 2006 #

  5. I read Food Politics last year, a very good book.

    Comment by mujeresliebres — May 21, 2006 #

  6. Tana–I am not certain if she is related to the folks whose name graces the Nestle corporation–as I understand it, it is a large family. But yes, it could be a bit of karmic balancing happening, couldn’t it?

    I remember that disgraceful incident with the formula. Breastmilk, especially in situations where water sanitation is questionable at best, is the -single- best food for babies and toddlers, period. They would have been better of giving supplemental food for the mothers so they could breastfeed their infants during a famine, than giving formula without adequate information on how to use it.

    I should very much like to hear her speak, myself. I have no doubts she is energetic!

    Mujeresliebres–it is an excellent book, you are right.

    Comment by Barbara — May 22, 2006 #

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