What to Eat
By Marion Nestle
North Point Press
Reviewed by Nafisa Fera, Education Officer
Royal Anthropological Institute, London
When you visit a supermarket, what influences your food choices? Perhaps, governed by habit, you follow a well trodden path through which you swerve through the aisles picking food products with which you are familiar. Or possibly, you are on a thirty minute lunch break where you quickly buy a pre-made sandwich, and while waiting to pay, reach for a candy bar placed conveniently at the front of the till. Familiarity, convenience, as well as cultural, monetary, and ethical concerns, are just a few of the variety of factors which account for the food we choose to eat. To what extent however, are we aware of the myriad of ways in which food companies and supermarkets control our food options and steer our dietary decisions?
In What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at New York University, critically analyses the macroeconomic and political structures, which govern the manifest and subtle means through which food companies attempt to influence consumers’ food choices. Using the context of a supermarket, Dr. Nestle guides the reader through a virtual tour of the different food aisles, looking at issues such as food safety, ethical practices, and labelling concerns that exist in relation to the products we buy. In so doing, she not only consolidates our understanding of the supermarket layout, (identifying which products occupy the store’s ‘prime real estate’) but also, makes us reflect on the way in which we approach our supermarket journey.
Dr. Nestle combines her nutritional knowledge, gained from her active involvement for over twenty years in researching dietary influences and practices, with extensive research and consultation with numerous stakeholders involved in the food industry. The result, is to create a unique book which gives practical advice to questions such as how do I reduce my caloric intake? which supplement should I take?, while also offering insights to the complexities behind ‘certified organic’ labels, and reasons for why the American Heart Association’s logo is on a box of sugary cereal aimed at children.
Given the space restrictions of this review, it is not possible to comment on all the relevant nutritional issues the book raises in its five hundred pages. Rather, I wish to explore some of the repeated themes which are woven through individual chapters; such as how marketing strategies of food companies, are linked with the social environment of food choice and government politics.
What becomes apparent in Dr. Nestle’s exploration of the practices of food companies, ranging from those involved in the meat industries, to bottled water or sugar production, is the relentless ways in which they aim to increase their market share, in order to please their stockholders. The book informs readers of the many ways in which food corporations use their buying power to manipulate our food choices. Examples include restricting information consumers receive (such as country of origin labelling for meat); becoming bedfellows with health organisations and getting them to endorse supposed ‘health benefits’ of their products; proliferating ways to foster an ‘eat more’ culture through bigger packaging, and spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns fostering brand loyalty with children. This marketing ‘magic’ makes the supermarket a minefield of options. Confusion proliferates amongst the general public as to what can or can’t be trusted, and what is or isn’t healthy. By looking at the complexities behind these strategies, Dr. Nestle reveals the marketing illusions for what they truly are, a way to increase profit often at the expense (health and otherwise) of individuals.
Reflecting on American diets, Dr. Nestle demonstrates that the ‘eat more’ culture goes beyond supermarkets, affecting portion sizes in restaurants, fast food outlets and the accessibility, and affordability of processed foods in local areas. The current environment of food choice in America, coupled with what Greg Critser describes (in his book FatLand) as ‘an acceptance of excess,’ prevents many Americans from choosing healthy and eating less. Food company representatives often argue that they are providing options based on demand, and that it is up to individuals to be responsible for their decisions. Throughout the book, the blurred boundaries between personal, corporate and government responsibility is examined, in relation to various aspects regarding dietary choices.
One of the most disconcerting issues that Dr. Nestle raises repeatedly in the book is the question of food safety. Emerging from her thorough research into conventional meat, fish, and produce industries, Dr. Nestle demonstrates how most of the safety practices which these industries follow, are based on an ‘honor system’ of good practice rather than stringent rules which are regularly enforced. The book explores the myriad of reasons for why this is, such as: lack of adequate funding and staff as well as conflicting interests of regulating bodies, and persuasive economic and political tactics which companies employ to influence decisions made by Congress. The end result is that responsibility is placed on individuals to inform themselves of how safe products they’re consuming might be.
By demonstrating the socioeconomic and political factors, as well as marketing strategies that affect the food we buy, Dr. Nestle advises us how to be informed, conscientious and critical consumers. She provides invaluable information to help guide us through the many food dilemmas we may confront, and asks us to reflect on issues such as sustainability, safety, fair trade, and organic labelling. Dr. Nestle sees buying food as a political act where individuals can exercise their influence by voting with the dollars they spend. Price however, is a large determinant of who is able to participate in what she describes as ‘democracy in action’. Regardless of certain individuals’ desire to choose fair trade or organic, if they’re on a restricted budget, they are automatically excluded from being able to cast their vote. Additionally, despite often being the most convenient means of acquiring food, supermarkets are not necessarily the most economically viable option. I think the book could have benefited from a chapter examining our support of supermarkets in general, and looking at alternative means of food acquisition, such as organic box schemes, or local distributors. Nevertheless, despite these details, this book is a tremendous tool for anyone, regardless of their background or whether or not they live in America. For me, What To Eat, has inspired me to learn more about my local food sources, read ingredients and food labels critically, and whenever possible, make choices which change the food environment for myself and those around me for the better.