by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Books

Jan 20 2017

Weekend reading: Caring about Hunger

George Kent.  Caring about Hunger.  Irene Publishing, 2016

Kent is a former professor of political science at the University of Hawai’i who in his retirement is teaching at the University of Sydney in Australia and Saybrook University in California.  His book is about the causes of hunger and how to overcome them.   He’s been at this for a long time and can boil the causes down to brief summaries.

  • Disjunction: Hunger and poverty persist largely because the people who have the power to solve the problems are not the ones who have the problems.
  • Compassion: On the whole, the people who have the power do not have much compassion for the powerless.
  • Material interests: The powerful serve mainly the powerful, not the powerless, because the powerless cannot do much for the benefit of the powerful.

Much of the book focuses on compassion and what he calls “caring.”

  • Hunger is less likely to occur where people care about one another’s well being.
  • Caring behavior is strengthened when people work and play together.
  • Hunger in any community is likely to be reduced by encouraging people to work and play together, especially in food-related activities.

He gives plenty of examples of how to make all this work.

Utopian?  Yes, but we need to start somewhere.

Jan 13 2017

Weekend reading: GMO food fights

McKay Jenkins.  Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet.  Avery, 2017.

I wrote my own book about GMOs, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (revised and expanded edition, 2010).  Its first chapter and second half of the book are about the topic.  Many other books have written about GMOs, but I thought this one was good enough to blurb:

McKay Jenkins has done the impossible.  He has produced a remarkably fair and balanced account of the contentious role of GMOs in the U.S. food supply, calling the shots as he sees them.  Pro- and anti-GMO proponents will find plenty to argue with, but anyone wanting to understand what the fights are really about and why they matter will find this book a big help.

Dec 30 2016

Reading for the new year: Gary Taubes’ Case Against Sugar

Gary Taubes: The Case Against Sugar.  Knopf, 2016.

The title of this book says just what it is: a legal brief arguing that sugar is the cause of just about everything that ails us: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, of course, but also cancer, high blood pressure and, therefore, stroke, as well as gout and Alzheimer’s disease.

This book makes a different argument: that sugars like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup are fundamental causes of diabetes and obesity, using the same simple concept of causality that we employ when we say smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.  It’s not because we eat too much of these sugars…but because they have unique physiological, metabolic, and endocrinological (i.e. hormonal) effects in the human body that directly trigger these disorders.

Sugar, Taubes says, is the basis of a simple unifying hypothesis—insulin resistance—to explain all of these conditions.  To make this case, he provides vast amounts of evidence: historical, observational, and interventional.

Is he right?  Many of his hypotheses are testable and it is greatly to his credit that he has organized the Nutrition Science Initiative (NuSi) to do just that.

Taubes is an excellent writer, clear and compelling, and he covers an enormous territory here, from slavery to manipulation of research by the sugar industry.

I worry that focusing on one substance—sugar—smacks of “nutritionism,” reducing the complexities of dietary patterns and health risks to just sugar.   I also think questions remain about the dietary context in which we consume sugar, particularly calories but also complex carbohydrates (starch), which gets digested to sugar—glucose.  Should we not be worried about excess glucose on its own?

If I understand the last chapter correctly, Taubes ducks the question of how much sugar is OK to eat.  Or maybe it’s not ducking.  Maybe what he is saying is that the only safe level of sugar is none.

If so, that is well below the 10% of calories recommended as an upper daily limit by the US Dietary Guidelines and the World Health Organization on the basis of those committees’ reviews of the science.

Let’s get those hypotheses tested.

In the meantime, I am all for eating less sugar.

If this book encourages people to cut down on sugar, it’s all to the good.

Dec 23 2016

Weekend reading: Larry Cohen’s Prevention Diaries

Larry Cohen.  Prevention Diaries: The Practice and Pursuit of Health for All.  Oxford, 2016.

Image result for larry cohen prevention diaries

Larry Cohen is an old friend and I was happy to be asked to do a blurb for his terrific book:

Prevention Diaries is Larry Cohen’s intensely personal and introspective account of why stopping health problems before they start makes sense for individuals and for societies—and is possible.  His stories of how advocates have successfully intervened to prevent problems caused by unhealthy eating, cigarettes, automobiles, guns, violence, and system inequalities should inspire everyone interested in public health to get involved in prevention programs that will make a real difference in people’s lives.

Here’s a brief excerpt from his “food for thought” chapter:

The realities of our food system can feel overwhelming—too large and too entrenched to change all at once.  But, as with so many big problems, communities and businesses are taking valuable steps to create the system we want and need.  Indeed, it feels like the United States is at the beginning of a sea-change in its pproach to food—with a swell of interest in seemingly old approaches, like farmers’ markets, heirloom produce, and cooking from scratch, which benefit consumers and workers.  As the movement has been building, its momentum and innovation have increasingly started to reshape government policies and industry practices in ways that ensure all people can enjoy the fruits of a healthier food system (p. 93).

From his lips to God’s ear, as the saying goes.

Dec 15 2016

Weekend reading: a how-to for sustainable food systems (again)

I’m not sure how this happened, but I posted the title and cover of this book in October without saying a thing about it.  My apologies.  Here it is again.

Darryl Benjamin and Lyndon Virkler.  Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

 

This is two books in one.

The first part, Farm, is about the real costs of industrial agriculture, environmental and human, and what can be and is being done about them.

The second part, Table, is a how-to for restaurants, schools, and institutions who want to source from local farms and for local farmers who want to supply those places.

The book gives specific examples illustrated with charts and photos and provides theory as well as practice suggestions.

The chapter on marketing gives the seven Ps–product, price, place, promotion, people, process, and physical evidence—along with things to consider and tips.

We have emphasized throughout this book that Farm-to-Table products sell themselves.  This is usually true once people have sampled their quality, understand their importance to the community and to the environment, and know where to find them.  The role of marketing is to facilitate those connections.

This is a great guide for beginners but there is plenty to learn hear for everyone.

Dec 9 2016

Weekend reading: Chow Chop Suey

Anne Mendelson.  Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey.  Columbia University Press, 2016.

When this book was sent to me for a blurb, my first thought was do we really need another book about Chinese food in America? As it turns out, we most definitely do.  I did the blurb, and happily:

Chow Chop Suey is an eye-opener, a book that will give everyone a deep appreciation of the exquisite skill required to produce authentic Chinese food and the sweep of history that brought Chinese cooking to America.  Anne Mendelson’s prodigious research has given us a highly respectful, insightful, refreshing, wonderfully written, and utterly compelling account of the role and plight of Chinese restaurant workers in this country.  I learned something new on every page.

An excerpt to give the flavor, from a section explaining the problems with translating Chinese cooking to American cooks.  In discussing an early attempt by Mrs. Yuenren Chao and her daughter Rulan:

Apparently Professor Chao had found Rulan’s translation too neatly compressed into proper usage and gone through it in a correctness-be-damned spirit, supplying back-formations with a more original take on Chinese nuances.  The result was sentences like “Roughly speaking, ch’ao [stir-frying] may be defined as a big-fire-shallow-fat-continual-stirring-quick-frying of cut-up material with wet seasoning.”  Anyone who has ever seen the action in a Chinese kitchen will recognize this as an unerring slap shot.

If, like me, you don’t think Chinese food is nearly as delicious as you remembered it from your childhood, you are right and this book explains why.

Nov 25 2016

Weekend reading: Fig Trees!

Mike Shanahan. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.  Chelsea Green, 2016.


I have a particular interest in this book.  The summer before last, I bought a small fig tree at New York City’s Union Square Farmers’ Market and stuck it in a pot on the terrace outside my apartment.   Pleasant surprise: it survived last winter and produced a modest crop of small, brown, sweet figs.

This puzzled me because as far as I could tell, the tree had never flowered.

Mystery solved, thanks to this book.

Shanahan, a rainforest ecologist, explains that figs do flower but the flowers are inside the “fruit.”

Even weirder, the flowers are pollinated by specific species of fig wasps, which works through whatever the “fruit” is and do their work.

The book does not explain what fig wasps are doing in Manhattan or how they found their way to my 12th floor terrace, but the figs were great and I thank them.

I also thank Shanahan for writing a truly informative book about why Ficus species are so important to forest ecology and to reforestation programs, and what figs have to do with Gods (figs in mythology) and Stranglers (a kind of fig tree).

I raise as post-Thanksgiving fig in his honor.

Nov 11 2016

Weekend reading: how to manage a small organic farm

Connor J. Fitzmaurice and Brian J. Gareau.  Organic Futures: Struggling for Sustainability on the Small Farm.  Yale University Press, 2016.  

This is an academic analysis of organic farming by two sociologists based on classic ethnographic fieldwork at a small organic farm in Massachusetts.  They introduce this book by exploring the meaning and consequences of organic “bifurcation,”

the observation that there are increasingly two organic sectors, one made up of relatively large farms that look more and more like the highly mechanized and highly capitalized conventional farms of agro-industry, and the other made up of small farms that are less mechanized, less highly capitalized more likely to sell directly to the consumer, and (at least in some cases) less likely to consider profit ahead of other concerns…we hope to extend and complicate the concept of bifurcation by paying attention to the relational, emotional, and moral underpinnings of organic farmers’ market relationships.

In trying to make a living in organic farming and to maintain personal values about how organic farming should be done, farmers encounter “moral, economic, and relational ambiguities.”  The authors refer to ways in which farmers manage those ambiguities as “good matches.”  Much of the book deals with what organic farmers have to do to achieve such matches.

This is real-world analysis.  Anyone interested in becoming a small farmer, or in what is entailed in doing this work, will find this book a reality check.

Page 2 of 2512345...Last »