Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: What to Eat

Spring break is over and its back to the grind. One of the luxuries I cannot really afford during school is fun reading, so during my break I took the time to dive into Marion Nestle's latest book “What to Eat”. I have read a lot of book on nutrition, food education and politics. And I can honestly say this book is one of the most interesting and unbiased books on food I have ever read. Now I am not saying it is completely unbiased, I doubt such a thing exists. But Marion a Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, Public Health, Sociology and Nutritional Sciences really knows her shit and she does a great job of informing without pushing an agenda (other than do what is best for you).

I am only about half way through the book, but have really enjoyed that her ideas about food and health dovetail my own in that everyone is different, your nutritional needs are different, so a blanket nutritional path isn’t going to be the best advice for everyone. She also points out that eating can sometimes be a case of picking your battles. It’s been said many times, but every time you buy food you are voting with your fork.  Conventional, free-range, organic, GMO free, vegan, vegetarian, no hormones, no pesticides, the possibilities are truly endless. Instead of making things more confusing she has complied a great summary of information regarding all of these choices and leaves each chapter open, allowing the reader to consider who they want to vote and what is best from themselves.

Some of the biggest problems with conventional food production is the hidden costs that consumers don’t see. In an attempt at brevity lets run with the cow example. Conventionally raised cows are fed a combination of soy and corn meal. Soy and corn are subsidized by government funds which in reality is the tax money that each of us pays out of our paycheck each month (hidden cost number one to consumers). Corn and soy used for animal feed is rarley organic because heavy farming of the same crop over a number of years depletes soil nutrition, the plants are pumped full of commercial and chemical fertilizers which then seep into surrounding areas leeching chemicals into wildlife(hidden cost number two). It takes about 220 gallons of oil to raise a 1200lbs cow, most of this energy is paid for by farmers and passed onto consumers in every rising beef and dairy costs (hidden cost number three).  Cows kept in close proximity have an easier chance of passing on infections and diseases which means they are treated more often with antibiotics, the more often cows are treated with antibiotics the less their bodies break down the drug and the more is passed onto you (hidden cost number four). Cows are kept in close proximity to cut costs but this poses a problem of how to clean up waste and where to dispose of it, the people are hired to do this are hired at the absolute minimum wage and exposed to obscene working conditions, conditionas are very dangerous and also they are exposed to any number of infections that are being passed around between cows via close feeding, and waste producing proximity (hidden cost number five). Last but not least conventionally raised cows are allowed to be treated with rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) go to the link if you want to read more about the possible dangers of this growth hormone, whether or not it is truly harmful to humans the fact that it is produced by the Monsanto Corporation which makes 300 billion a year off its sales, this in itself is enough to make me want to run for organic (hidden cost number six). Most of these problems are at least addressed and reduced in going organic. But the point is there is a lot to think about when choosing foods, and a lot that goes into a simple product like a steak.

There are even more companies, and special interest groups go to great lengths to keep this information from consumers.  There is a lot of conflicting nutritional information out there, and Marion’s book does a great job touching on why this is. Mostly its meant to be that way. Each base product has a special interest group, lobbyists and large corporations with large stakes invested in commercial farms. When you see a cereal box boasting that three servings of milk a day will help promote a healthy life style there are a lot of things going on here that most people don’t think about. Number one, why is a cereal box advertising for milk? Chances are the parent company behind that cereal box also owns a portion of a large dairy farm, buy a box of cereal you have to buy a carton of milk. Double profit. Number two you may want to check any disclaimers on that box, you may learn that the actual eating of said advertized milk and cereal don’t actually promote a healthy life style but eating them with a healthy life style (lots of veggies and exercise will help you lose weight) it’s not the milk and cereal that’s making you healthy it the exercise and veggies should you chose to make those changes as well. Number three the company that is promoting the cereal pays about 36 million in a year is “education and development” which is just  fancy way of saying testing groups and industry research to find the best ways to appeal to their target audience.  Number four these companies pay absurd placement dues to groceries stores to have their produced placed in prime locations to get you as a consumer to ditch your shopping list and pick up impulse buys. The average shopper takes home two impulse buys to every one premeditated buy. Number five any scientific claims boasted on packaging may be very true, deep down. But take a look at who funded the research, it will be those who profit off the sales of the product and a lot of money goes into putting a positive spin on nutritional studies in an attempt to pass off food at healthy.  

One of the most important messages I have taken from Marion’s book so far is that food is an industry, a big industry in America and there are a lot of passionate people with a lot of varying  ideas on the subject vested in it. You can’t forget that it is a corporate and political machine that doesn’t always have the consumers best interest in mind. But what I truly like best about Marian’s book is that all of this information is presented very simply with the idea that, here is the information now go chose your own battle. There are plenty here to fight, large corporations, special interest groups, humane treatment of animals, humane treatment of workers, environmental costs, unnecessary use of oil, personal dietary needs, personal health, food allergies and consumption of unnecessary and sometimes harmful bi-products to name just a few. So think about this when you read nutritional information or health claims. It’s all relative to the battle that you chose to fight.

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