Book Review: What To Eat

Author: Marion Nestle
Publisher: North Point Press
Publish Date: 2006

Wow! What a book! I hope and pray that somebody has nominated Marion Nestle for the so-called “alternate Nobel prize”, namely Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award which she richly deserves. With this book she has performed a unique and extraordinary service to humanity.

Marion Nestle is Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. Having served as a policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and on the scientific advisory committees of the FDA, she is intimately acquainted with the ruthless tactics the five giant food retailers use to ensure shareholder satisfaction at the expense of nutritional science and public health. She shows us how commercial foods are the reason we have a diabetes epidemic and why 60 per cent of Americans are obese. Nestle knows all about those labeling and marketing methods which are designed “to be invisible” so as to “slip below the radar screen of critical thinking”.

Nestle’s advisory work for the FDA also gave her an insider’s view of how government and corporations interact, namely as client and servant – the servant being government which furthers corporate profits regardless of the consequences for public health. (Nestle gave us a hair-curling account of that relationship in her 2003 book Food Politics which describes how these giant food corporations have transformed our government watchdogs into lap dogs.)

In What to Eat, she takes the reader through a local American supermarket – aisle by aisle, shelf by shelf, product by product – and tells us what the food industry would rather we didn’t know about everything that’s frozen, canned, bottled, pickled, plastic-packaged, and produced by nature (more or less). In the process, she decodes for the reader what masquerades as science in all that fine print. In the process, she makes us aware of the powerful use of images intended to speak to the heart, the gut, our nurturing instincts, and above all to our spontaneous appetites.

There are currently about 320,000 different food and beverage products available in the U.S., and even a small supermarket will carry about 30,000 items. The five major corporations generate about $350 billion in sales annually, with a profit of about $3.5 billion. Wal-Mart alone rakes in $64 billion in sales from produce, about 1/4 of its total annual sales. In order to fan the fire of more and more demand, sophisticated research methods are employed which can be accurately verified by comparing surveys with the actual items bought: the check-out scanners contain the history of what you bought last Saturday. Low prices (often made possible by Third World exploitation) combined with oversize packaging works to increase sales, resulting in more consumption and the obesity that goes with it. Measured in quarts, an 8-ounce can of pop costs $1.50, while a 2-litre bottle comes to just 75 cents.

Supermarket aisles are real estate measured and rented in linear feet and then organized to fit the customers’ age: the sugary cereals are on eye-level with little kids, the products with all sorts of snazzy health claims and scientific gobbledygook are at 60 inches above ground to ensure that adults can read the packaging with or without glasses; the potentially really healthy stuff is at the top for which astute and educated shoppers have to reach, because they really know what they want, being presumably fit enough to do so.

Revving up the recently flagging sales of Coca Cola products, for example, involved marketing campaigns of about $600 million; just $11 million was spent on promoting a single item, namely Kraft/Altria’s candy called Crème Savers. That, Nestle tells us, is five times as much as the U.S. government ever spent on their campaign to promote eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Especially helpful is the way in which the author unravels the claims of “natural” as opposed to “certified organic”, the politics and science behind irradiation, the difference between farmed and wild fish, the health hype involving margarines, the socially irresponsible dirt hidden behind standard coffees and teas as opposed to fair trade products – indeed, all those topics about which Vitality readers would like to get reliable information.

The two key questions Nestle poses and answers are first, “Who benefits?”; and second, “What are the basic principles of healthy diets?”. The answer to the first takes up the whole book and the reader learns that most of the time the customer is not the one who benefits. The answer to the second question consists of ten words: “Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruit and vegetables.”

Canada’s former chief drug regulator-turned-health activist, Dr. Michelle Brill-Edwards, formulated the great phrase “speaking truth to power” to describe what an activist does. Nestle did just that at the 2005 World Trade Organization meeting in Davos to which she was invited, being an internationally renowned food scientist. There, she socked it to the food industry to such an extent that I cheered through the last chapter. She ends the book describing what she imagines the food industry might do instead of what it actually does – and how such a change from greed to quality would affect world health. Nestle deserves a standing ovation. She writes: “The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children.  They are about nothing less than democracy in action.”

Helke Ferrie is a medical science writer with a master's degree in physical anthropology. Her specialty lies in investigative research into ethical issues in medicine and the politics of health. She started her investigative journalism career in the mid-1990s, looking at issues of medicine and environment. She has been a regular contributor to Vitality Magazine ever since. Helke has also authored several books on various subjects including: "Ending Denial: The Lyme Disease Epidemic", "What Part of No! Don't They Understand: Rescuing Food and Medicine from Government Abuse", and "The Earth's Gift to Medicine". Read her article: When governments abandon the public interest — look out for your own health Find her book -What Part of No! Don't They Understand Helke has also been a regular contributor for the Vitality Magazine. Links to few of her articles: The Tyranny of Government Protection Success Story - How I Recovered from Lyme Disease IN THE NEWS: Fluoride Dangers; Roundup Lawsuits; Lyme Disease Epidemic Helke Ferrie now lives a retired life and can be reached at

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