by Marion Nestle

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Apr 12 2024

Weekend reading: The Good Eater

Nina Guilbeault.  The Good Eater: A Vegan’s Search for the Future of Food.  Bloomsbury, 2024.

I did a back-cover blurb for this book:

The Good Eater is a vegan sociologist’s remarkably open-minded exploration of the historical, ethical, health, environmental, and social justice implications of not eating meat.  Guilbeault’s extensive research and interviews get right into the tough questions about this movement, leaving us free to choose for ourselves whether to eat this way.

Guilbeault has followed vegan dietary practices (no animal products) for a long time but was troubled by the self-righteousness and proselytizing of many vegans.  As a trained sociologist, she set out to investigate the origins, practices, and effects of vegan diets, through reading but also through interviews with what seems like everyone having anything to do with animal welfare and plant-forward diets.  The result is an exceptionally broad look at the who’s who of veganism, from historical figures to contemporary entrepreneurs and chefs.  The book is well written, rational, and not at all uncritical.

Here’s are a couple of excerpts:

Projections show that to avert environmental disaster by 2050 we need to reduce our meat consumption by at least a third, and by half in North America and Europe…But many people still eat eggs for breakfast and yogurt as a snack, put dairy milk in their coffee, add a slice of ham to their sandwich for lunch, and choose a piece of meat or fish for dinner, all in one day.  A reduction from that daily menu to a couple of eggs and a small piece of meat or fish once a week seems like a hefty drop, yet that is how humanity has eaten for most of our natural history.  (pp 284-285)

I can understand why, for many people, a vegan lifestyle seems unappealing, overwhelming, or even downright offensive.  As we know, meat has played a key part in our cultural and evolutionary history, and habits are notoriously difficult to break.  Veganism requires a shift in identity as well as the embrace of a social category still on the fringe….This is partly because being vegan in a non-vegan world is hard, but also because the vegan movement places an emphasis on moral perfection.  Yet…long-lasting, sustainable change doesn’t come from a place of shame, judgment, and guilt.  It comes from a place of joy and a sense of belonging.  (p 290)


Mar 29 2024

Weekend reading: Practicing Food Studies!

The exclamation point is because this is my department’s long-awaited book ,for which I wrote the Foreword and part of one of the last chapters.

Practicing Food Studies: Bentley, Amy, Parasecoli, Fabio, Ray, Krishnendu, Nestle, Marion: 9781479828098: Books

If you are in the New York area, come to its celebration on April 1 at 5:3 p.m. at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, 20 Cooper Square (South of 3rd Ave and North of The Bowery between 4th and 8th Streets), 5th Floor.  For information and registration for the event, click here.

There will also be an online presentation of the book on April 29 through the NYU Library’s Critical Topics series.  For details, watch for the announcement.

To buy the book from NYU Press, click here.

My department at NYU, now known as the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, invented the field of Food Studies in 1996.  Now, more than 25 years later, practically every college in America, and plenty outside the U.S., offers courses or programs about the role of food in society, commerce, and the environment.

Food studies is highly interdisciplinary (my doctoral degree is in molecular biology, for example).  As NYU Press puts it, scholars from an enormous range of fields

felt limited by the conventions of their traditional discipline. Many gravitated to food studies to be able to describe and critically examine their specific areas of interest beyond the borders of academic disciplines.

Faculty and doctoral graduates from our department wrote extraordinarily personal essays for this book to explain their connection to Food Studies and how this new filed made their work possible.

We do not necessarily agree with each other about what Food Studies is, exactly, and whether and how it fostered our work.  We argue throughout, respectfully, of course.

I think the book is enormous fun and I could not be more proud of what it accomplishes.

Here are two of the blurbs:

“NYU’s Food Studies department has a lot to teach: about pedagogy, art, library sciences, the limits of traditional disciplinary fields, and the world beyond the academy. With essays that blend biography with analysis, this anthology finds the universal in the particular. Anyone interested in how to address the urgent  and practical questions, while confronting the systemic ones, will find inspiration in this fine anthology.” ― Raj Patel, University of Texas at Austin

“Food studies provides a home for deeply interdisciplinary scholars; Practicing Food Studies packages that intellectual belonging into a single book that you’ll want to not just read but keep close. The editors, each a leading voice in the field, use NYU’s program as a case study that delivers a must-read history of food studies itself. Critical reflections, warmth, and candor leap from each page, fascinating and endearing at every turn.” ― Emily J.H. Contois, The University of Tulsa

Mar 22 2024

Weekend reading: family monopolies over food

Austin Frerick.  Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.  Island Press, 2024.  With an Introduction by Eric Schlosser.

Wow.  This is one important book.

Frerick’s thesis is that a small number of individuals or families have been allowed to accumulate unconscionable levels of wealth by exploiting or getting around laws (mostly legally but sometimes with bribes), pressuring government to collude, and doing everything possible to enrich themselves at the expense of community and worker welfare—all in the name of low food prices for consumers whether or not they are the reality.

Frerick takes on family enterprises in pigs, grain, coffee, dairy, berries, animal slaughter, and groceries.

This is one tough book.  Frerick structures the chapters to describe the rise of the families’ fortunes, how they exploited rules and customs, and how that got government to collude in giving these companies so much market share and power.

I learned a lot from every chapter, so much that I found myself checking references—-these are extensive—constantly to find our where he had gotten information I’d never seen before.

.About Walmart’s payment of low wages to employees, for example,  Frerick writes,

These low wages also obscure a generous hidden subsidy that the company receives from taxpayers. Many Walmart employees depend on government public assistance programs such as Medicaid (health care), Earned Income Tax Credit (a low-wage tax subsidy), Section 8 vouchers (housing assistance), LIOHEAP (energy assistance), and SNAP (food assistance), among others. In 2013, one estimate by congressional House Democrats found that taxpayers subsidized Walmart to the tune of more than $5000 per employee each year….In effect, instead of paying a living wage to these employees, the Walton family shifts the burden to taxpayers.

Not only that, but SNAP users spend a lot of their benefits at Walmart.

With some back-of-the-envelope math, I came up with a rough estimate that Walmart now receives somewhere around $26.8 billion each year from SNAP.

The chapter on JBS, the Brazilian company now one of four companies controlling 85 percent of meat slaughtering, is particularly worth reading for its documentation of the company’s use of bribery to achieve its ends.

If you want to know how corporations control the food supply, start here.

Mar 15 2024

Weekend reading: Compassionate Eating

Tracey Harris and Terry Gibbs. Food in a Just World: Compassionate Eating in a Time of Climate Change. Polity Books, 2024. 

I blurbed it:

Food in a Just World is an up-to-the-minute introduction to issues of class, race, and gender—and species—in what we eat, as well as to how larger issues of economics and capitalism affect workers in the meat industry.  Whether you eat meat or not, the book convincingly argues that these issues demand serious attention.

Here’s what the publisher says about it:

Food in a Just World examines the violence, social breakdown, and environmental consequences of our global system of food production, distribution, and consumption. From animals in industrialized farming – but also those reared in supposedly higher-welfare practices – to low-wage essential workers, and from populations being marketed unhealthy diets to the natural ecosystems suffering daily degradation, each step of the process is built on some form of exploitation. While highlighting the broken system’s continuities from European colonialism to contemporary globalization, the authors argue that the seeds of resilience, resistance, and inclusive manifestations of cultural resurgence are already being reflected in the day-to-day actions taking place in communities around the world. Emphasizing the need for urgent change, the book looks at how genuine democracy would give individuals and communities meaningful control over the decisions that impact their lives when seeking to secure this most basic human need humanely.


Mar 1 2024

Weekend reading: the ironies of drinking fluid milk

Anne Mendelson.  Spoiled: The Myth of Milk as Superfood.  Columbia University Press, 2023 (396 pages).


I am an admirer of Anne Mendelson’s books and did a blurb for her Chow Chop SueyBut this one is over the top—original, compelling, brilliantly written.

Driving this book is a question I’ve not heard asked before, at least not so directly: Why and how did the consumption of fresh liquid milk (“drinking-milk”)—as opposed to fermented dairy products—become framed as a nutritional necessity?

Her question derives from some basic facts about cow’s milk and its industrial production:

  • Once cow’s milk leaves the udder, it is easily contaminated with pathogenic bacteria.
  • Most adults have stopped making the enzyme that digests the sugar lactose in milk and can’t drink it without getting unpleasant digestive systems.
  • To produce milk safely requires complicated and expensive industrial processes.
  • The cost of milk production exceeds the price people are willing to pay for it; dairy farming is a losing proposition even with taxpayer subsidies.
  • Industrial milk production is hard on cows and pollutes the environment.

Why are we even doing this?  For this, she blames 19th and 20th century European and American doctors who thought the ability to digest lactose normal, nutritionists (calcium!), and the USDA (3 servings a day!).

She is not against eating dairy foods when they are fermented.  These, yogurt and the like, are much safer.  Friendly bacteria split the lactose along with producing acid that destroys pathogens.

You don’t have to agree with all her points to appreciate how well they are argued.

To wit:

[The book] argues that influential nutritional theories about fresh and fermented milk took a disastrously wrong turn in the eighteenth century.  The reason is that the founders of modern Western medicine had no way of understanding the genetic fluke that allowed them, unlike most of the world’s peoples, to digest lactose from babyhood to old age.  In other words, today’s mega-industry stemmed from a lack of scientific perspective.  That lack turned the one form of milk that is most fragile, perishable, difficult to produce on a commercial scale, and economically pitfall-strewn into a supposed daily necessity for children and, to a lesser extent, adults.  [pp x, xi].

No other food product is as staggeringly difficult and expensive to get from source (in this case, a cow) to destination (milk glass on table) in something loosely approximating its first condition.  If one existed, it would be treated as an astounding luxury. [p. 1].

Mendelson takes deep dives into the history of dairy use, dietary recommendations, industrial production, and government dairy policy.  In attempting to teach about the Farm Bill, I was defeated by Milk Marketing Orders, the formulas used by the government to set price support levels required to be paid by “handlers” (milk processors) to dairy producers in different areas of the country.  I could not find anything about this in the index, alas, but I loved what she says about them on page 205.

These formulas gradually became as abstruse, and as unintelligible to anyone outside a small charmed circle, as anything in the bad old days before the federal government stepped in.  Far from abolishing the buyer’s market, they trapped farmers selling fluid milk within the marketing order system in endless struggles to wring enough out of handlers to recoup production costs….What I do understand is that as the postwar era advanced, the sheer incomprehensibility of producer-handler milk price schemes again became an endless frustration to dairy farmers, above all those trying to make a living within the marketing order system for drinking-milk.

One final irony:

Nothing is going to dislodge supermarket drinking-milk from its towering economic importance.  It is certain to continue along the track of expansion, consolidation, and increasingly complex technological infrastructure that it has pursued for almost three quarters of a century.  Big Milk is going to become Bigger Milk.  Its absurdities are also sure to become more entrenched.  The greatest of these is the plain fact that Americans are drinking less milk while dairy farms are producing more of it.

A personal comment: The book triggered a memory.  I once visited a school lunch program in Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), Alaska.  Inuit children were served the standard USDA lunch, which requires half-pint cartons of milk.  I did not see any of them drinking it.  The untouched cartons were discarded.  The milk was not only culturally inappropriate, but wasteful.  All food in that part of North Alaska has to be flown in on airplanes.

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Feb 9 2024

Weekend (Forever) Reading: How to Write Recipes

Raeanne Sarazen.  The Complete Recipe Writing Guide: Mastering Recipe Development, Writing, Testing, Nutrition Analysis, and Food Styling.  Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2023.


You might think that writing a recipe is a simple matter of a handful of this and a pinch of that, but you would be oh so wrong.

This doorstop of a book—an absolute treasure—takes more than 400 pages to tell you how to do it right.

If only everyone who writes recipes would follow Sarazen’s advice, their recipes might actually work!

I can’t even begin to say how impressive this book is.  Sarazen brings in an astonishing amount of information about food, nutrition, and diets into her discussions of how to think about recipes in general, but especially those for dishes aimed at improving health or dealing with health problems.

Sarazen is a critical thinker who deals with tough issues about recipes—cultural appropriation, intellectual property, nutritional unknowns—and  works through them, one at a time.

If you have problems with gluten, fish, or FODMOPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols), here’s what you need to know to deal with them.

This book is an encyclopedia of information about food, nutrition, and health, full of useful charts, explanations, and references.  It’s a how-to manual for anyone who wants food to be delicious as well as healthy.

It’s really impressive and, as I said, a treasure.

Want it?  Information about it and how to get it is here.

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Feb 2 2024

Weekend reading: Ethical Eating

Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A Goldthwaite, eds.  Good Eats: 32 Writers on Eating Ethically.  New York University Press, 2024.

I did a blurb for the back cover:

In Ethical Eating, authors from all walks of life relate their daily struggles—moral as well as economic—to eat diets that promote human and environmental health and meet deeply held principles of food equity and social justice.  Their accounts of these struggles are sometimes funny, always moving, and entirely recognizable by anyone trying to eat ethically.

This book contains several dozen short-to-medium length essays describing authors’ struggles—I use the word advisedly—to figure out how to eat in today’s impossibly complicated food system.

The book is designed to be used in food literature courses, and I can see why.

Each essay raises subject-to-debate issues about the costs and consequences of making principled dietary choices on a day-to-day basis while living with the usual complexities of life.

The writers are almost all unknown to me, so the book is an introduction to the concerns of people who care about the same issues I do, although often in very different ways.

Amazon has examples from the text and the Table of Contents .  Here’s a sample of the TOC—there’s much more in the book:


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Dec 15 2023

Weekend reading: Food for the Future

John Brueggemann.  Food for the Future: Beautiful Stories from the Alternative Agro-Food Movement.  Lexington Books, 2023.

I did a blurb for this book:

Sociologist John Brueggemann examines the stories of people actively engaged in today’s small-scale food and farming movement toward healthier and more sustainable food systems.  Their commitment, passion, and pragmatism is so inspiring that we will all want to join or support this movement in every way we can.

This brief excerpt explains at a glance why these stories matter.

A central claim of this book, however, is that there is also a Beautiful Story.  Against this vast, execrable current, there is a dramatic countertrend, a trickle of clean, life-giving freshness that is rapidly gaining strength…This includes, most importantly, farms.  From the people I spoke to directly, others they mention, and secondary research, it seems clear to me that many farmers care deeply about the land, what they produce how they produce it, and its consequences for consumers.

I love food and through this research have come to revere those who make it available.  I find this movement to be stirring, both in terms of what it is doing for our food system, but more importantly for all the lessons it offers for how neighbors can live together.  I think this story is both credible and wondrous….We’ve got to have faith in each other.