Food industry executives love to hate Marion Nestle. In a nation where food long ago became a commodity whose worth was determined by Wall Street brokers, Nestle has been a lone voice asking food corporations why their profit margins must eclipse the nation's need for a healthy, fresh food supply.
A Lifetime Achievement Award winner from the James Beard Foundation and a distinguished nutrition and food science professor at New York University, Nestle pulls no punches when she looks at the complexity of the corporate-industrial American food system. In What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating, she takes her message directly to the consumer.
Nestle argues that as grocery stores have become super-discount warehouses and product placement on the shelves has become a battle of competitive marketing food choices have become infinitely more difficult and overwhelming.
Patiently and systematically in What to Eat, Nestle walks us through the supermarket, aisle by aisle, examining the contents of thousands of products, how they were developed, how they are marketed and the nature of their true nutritional value if they have any.
Organized like a supermarket, the book strolls first through a Produce Section, calculating the true price of imported fruits and vegetables, the nature of organics, and the puzzle of genetically-modified, irradiated and "politicized" produce.
The Dairy Section discusses conflicting data about the dietary needs for milk, the science of raw and cooked dairy foods and whether America's favorite health food, yogurt, is actually dessert.
The Meat and Fish Counter sections walk consumers through the confusing briar patch of food labeling, safety questions, fish farming and the dilemma of sustainability of supply.
Most enlightening are Center Aisles sections, especially the one on processed foods. This meticulously describes how these foods emerged as the platform of the American diet. Nestle analyzes added sugars, scrutinizes dubious health endorsements, and skewers marketing aimed directly at children.
Ever wondered about the health benefits of bottled water, vitamin-infused water, teas and coffees? The author delivers with the cool, measured deliberation of a scientific observer, explaining the decaffeination process, the biological process of the human body's absorption of vitamins, and the limitations of what we know about hyped herbal supplements.
Because we live in an age when supermarkets have dedicated more of their aisle space to prepared foods Whole Foods leading the way Nestle devotes a chapter to the aesthetics, nutritional and health values of salad bars, pre-made pizzas and sandwiches and gourmet items.
In her conclusion, Nestle urges consumers to understand "the intensely single-minded focus of food companies on sales and growth," as well as their preference that "we do not notice the ways in which they encourage us to buy more of their products."
Finally, Nestle offers a simple formula for healthy eating: "Food choices are not all that complicated you do just need to eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and go easy on the junk food. But to do this, you will first have to recognize, and then deal with, the hidden ways in which food companies promote the opposite."
Not so hidden anymore, thanks to What to Eat.
What to Eat
By Marion Nestle
North Point Press,$30/hardcover