At the risk of being predictable – well it is the time for New Year’s resolutions, and for some unsurprising reason these often involve what goes in our mouths – I’ve gathered a few tasty morsels below that may tempt those with an interest in food and health (as well as good reading).
1. The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by Dr David Kessler (Rodale, 2009)
Kessler is a paediatrician, academic and former chair of the US Food and Drug Administration. He has also battled weight gain and over-eating for much of his life.
This book is a personal and a scientific investigation of the American food industry. The central thesis is that foods high in sugar, fat and salt are rewiring peoples’ brains, so that they cannot control their responses to highly palatable foods. “The food industry is not only generating billions of dollars for itself by designing hyperpalatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt – it’s also creating products that have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of these products,” writes Kessler.
Some of the descriptions of what gets sold as food made me want to puke – such as the double baked mashed potatoes wrapped in fried spring rolls served with cheese and bacon. Sold at one Las Vegas cafe as an appetiser, they come eight to a serving. “That’s a sinple carbohydrate loaded with fat, then surrounded by layers of salt on fat on salt on fat,” says Kessler.
He also has plenty of unappetising descriptions of the use of artifical flavours. There are companies selling just about any sort of flavouring you could imagine – beef, pork, turkey, bacon or fruit. Kraft says its powders and dairy flavours “deliver cheese flavour in any product application”. What this means is that a topping covering tortilla chips can look like cheese but contain mostly oil and flavouring, while meat that hasn’t been grilled can taste like it has been.
Kessler sets out a “food rehab program” to help overeaters, but it’s only towards the end of the book that he puts on his public health glasses, and provides some bigger picture suggestions.
He draws some strong comparisons between the “big food” and tobacco industries, and calls for food marketing to be monitored and exposed. Just as we’ve moved from glorifying to demonising tobacco, so should there be public education campaigns to change the way we think about “big food”.
“People need to hear repeatedly, from many sources, that selling, serving and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat and salt has negative unhealthy consequences,” he says. “We need to look differently at the people and the places that serve it.”
This book is well worth a read but for my money it’s only part of the equation. It is so focussed on junk food (and fair enough perhaps, as this is what Kessler set out to investigate) that it quite overlooks the pleasure to be found in food that is both healthy and delicious. Maybe Americans just don’t know what real food is. That’s certainly the suspicion that this book arouses.
You can see a short promotional video featuring the author here. (And thanks to Simon Chapman for giving me this book).
2. In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2008)
This book, if you haven’t already found it, is a good antidote to Kessler’s. Pollan’s critique of the big food industry is no less damning, but he brings the added advantages of being a fine writer with a holistic appreciation of food and food cultures.
His central thesis is that “nutritionism”, the reductionist approach which focuses on particular nutrients in foods, may have been a very useful tool for the food industry, but it has been to the detriment of public health.
I had always thought Pollan invented this term, as he has been so widely associated with it, but in his book he credits an Australian sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis for coining the term in a 2002 essay published in Meanjin. So there you go!
Professor Kerin O’Dea is the only other Australian whose work I noticed getting a plug – for the research she conducted in the 1980s showing the health benefits for Aboriginal people of a traditional diet and lifestyle.
There is much to enjoy in this book, and I particularly liked its ending tips for good eating. These include:
• Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.
• Avoid food products that make health claims. This might sound counterintuitive but the least healthy foods are often those making health claims, while there is not so much commercial interest in promoting the true health benefits of good old fruit and veg.
• Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. There is a double health whammy here – these foods are both nutrient rich and calorie poor.
• Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. People eating according to a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet.
• Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
• Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. Then you will be so busy trying to make use of your harvest that there won’t be any space on your plate for the rubbish.
(And thanks to Ray Moynihan for introducing me to Pollan’s work.)
3. Marion Nestle’s predictions for food in 2010
One reason that a luddite like me has evolved into a fan of new media is the leading public health nutritionist Marion Nestle.
In the days before Twitter and blogs, and when specialist journals were locked up in libraries for a select readership, I could only read Nestle when she published a new book. It is now so much easier to stay in touch with her work, and you can read her predictions for the coming year here, at her blog.
Many of the issues she raises – high levels of salt in processed foods, the revision of dietary guidelines, food safety, obesity, and the environmental impact of livestock industries – are as relevant for Australia as the US.
In summary, my tip for a healthy New Year’s resolution is to read more. It might even help you derive more health and more pleasure from your food.
Update ( 11 Jan): Have just discovered a new release from Pollan, a pocket-sized book: Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual.