by Marion Nestle

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Dec 18 2020

Weekend reading (well, studying): Wine Economics

Stefano Castriota (Translated from the Italian by Judith Turnbull).  Wine Economics.  MIT Press, 2020.  

Wine isn’t something that I pay a lot of attention to academically, so I had no idea there was a field of economics devoted to these products until MIT Press sent me this book.  It reviews the literature on lots of issues I’ve never thought about:

  • Why you pay more for some wines than others even when the cost of producction is the same.
  • The role of expertise: can they really tell the difference between one wine and another, and how does expertise affect price.
  • What market forces affect wine consumption.
  • The external costs of wine production and consumption.

This is a serious but well written review of the academic literature and a convenient way to dig into these topics all at once.  The book is full of charts, impenetrable (to me) economic diagrams, and figures.  Here’s one I copied (badly).  It’s per capita consumption of alcohol by type in the U.S. from 1934 (post-Prohibition) to 2014.  Wine is the dotted line at the bottom.  This is why this industry is pushing you to drink more wine.

The pushing is one reason why I am interested in the economic externalities of wine production and consumption.

Castriota is convinced by his reading of the literature that moderate wine consumption is associated with improved health.  I’d say the jury is still out on this one, but in any case positive health externalities depend on what’s meant by “moderate.”

But there are definitely other positive externalities: gorgeous countryside, land preservation, wine tourism, conviviality, cultural value.

The negative externalities of excessive alcohol consumption are well known: poor physical and mental health, accidents, violence, fetal damage.  These add up to enormous costs to society.  How much of that is due to wine consumption?  Hard to say.

This industry wants to sell more wine.  To do so, Castriota suggests:

  • Make wines of better quality.
  • Change the tax system to promote quality.
  • Clarify the classification system.
  • Support small wineries.
  • Keep prices competitive.
  • Promote wine culture among consumers.
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Dec 15 2020

Holiday gift idea: Craig Gordon’s Pandemic: The Unmasking of America

Craig Gordon.  Pandemic: The Unmasking of America.  A Photo Documentary in Three Scenes.

The book is self-published but available on his website.

I heard about the book when Craig, whom I’ve never met, sent me the pdf and asked for a blurb.  The book isn’t about food politics directly, although he mentions it—and me—in the context of the section on Rebellion.

Thanks to food heroes like Joan Gussow, Marion Nestle and Karen Washington, may Americans are aware of the nutritional deficiencies inherent to industrialized foods, the plague of food deserts, amd inspired to join movements for locally-grown foods.

We now understand that profits for Big Food collide with health concerns of Americans, especially for poor, inner-city communities.  No irony that the explosion of chronic metabolic diseases from consuming processed foods—particularly impacting black and brown communities—have been the underlying drivers of most Covid deaths.

I was happy to do a blurb for this book:

That Craig Gordon finds so much beauty and strength in America during this devastating viral pandemic is reason nough to hope that some good will come out of it.

The photographs are stunning.  What he has to say is worth reading.  Check out his website.

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Dec 11 2020

Weekend reading : Food ethics

Alan Goldberg, editor (with Cara  Wychgram, associate editor). Feeding the World Well: A Framework for Ethical Food Systems.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

This book contains papers presented at a symposium sponsored by Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the Bloomberg School of Public Health in November 2018.  I was one of the presenters and my paper appears as Chapter 8.  Conflicts of Interest in Food and Nutrition Research, pages 89-97.

The book contains 31 chapters on ethical issues in food systems, specifically as they relate to the environment, producers and workers, public health, and animal welfare.  The book constitutes part of the Choose Food project, which seeks to identify the range of ethical concerns about food production and consumption.

I don’t ordinarily recommend multi-authored books, but this one is especially clear and well written thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Alan Goldbeg and the even more extraordinary editorial work of Cara  Wychgram.  The book reads as if it is written in one voice, which alone is a major achievement. 

I know this because my chapter is based on a transcript of my presentation, which Cara edited, and I think it reads clearly and well.   (Here is a draft of my chapter; you can decide for yourself).

If you are interested in what food ethics is all about, this is a great way to begin.  And a good time for it!

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Nov 27 2020

Weekend reading: Jennifer Clapp’s 3rd edition of Food

Jennifer Clapp.  Food.  3rd edition.  Polity Press, 2020.  

Food (Resources): Clapp, Jennifer: 9781509541775: Amazon.com: Books

I did a blurb for this one, as I did for the previous two editions:

In this newly updated edition of Food, Jennifer Clapp explains how our current global food system affects every aspect of what we eat and, therefore, our health and welfare. Food unpacks and clarifies what is happening now in the industrialized marketing of food and its international trade, control by corporations, and financialization.  As for what is to be done, Clapp provides a roadmap to a food system that promotes the health of people and the environment, in ways that ensure food justice, equity, and sovereignty.

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Nov 20 2020

Weekend reading: Deborah Madison!

Deborah Madison.  An Onion in My Pocket: A Life with Vegetables.  Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, 2020. 

Here’s my back-of-the-book jacket blurb:

Onion in My Pocket is a riveting account of how Deborah Madison’s previous 20-year incarnation as a serious student of Zen Buddhism prepared her to become the consummate vegetarian cook and cookbook writer.  We are all fortunate that she loves vegetables—and healthier as a result.

Madison is the author of more than a dozen books about vegetarian cooking.  She opened Greens in San Francisco, a restaurant that moved vegetarian cooking from the fringe to the mainstream.  Going there—or to Tassajara–during the heyday of the San Francisco Zen Center was a sublime culinary experience, well worth the long wait to get in.

Of her time at Greens, Madison writes:

At that time I had a tendency to cook richly, using plenty of butter, eggs, and cream when it made sense.  I was unsure about bringing vegetarian food into a mainstream venue, and I knew that we could always make something good when we relied on cream or buttery crusts, and that customers would like them.  Fat was easy to fall back on in this way.  Also this was 1979 and the early 1980s, an era of cream, butter, and cheese–not just at Greens but in restaurants everywhere.  Our dinners were rich, celebratory splurges, not substitutes for home cooking.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me they were proposed to at Greens, or got married there.

No wonder the food was so good!

Her cooking now is lighter, but still wonderful.

In Onion, Madison is too polite to mention what was happening at the Zen Center at the time she left to cook at Chez Panisse and explore the wider world.  That story—a #MeToo forerunner–is covered in Michael Downing’s “Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center.”

This book is about discovering the deliciousness of vegetables.  We need it.

Nov 13 2020

Weekend reading (well, browsing): Harold McGee’s Nose Dive

Harold McGee.  Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells.  Penguin Press, 2020.Hardcover Nose Dive : A Field Guide to the World's Smells Book

Harold McGee, author of the astonishing On Food and Cooking, sent me a copy of his equally astonishing new book, this one an encyclopedia of the smells of everything—the “osmocosm.”

I am happy to have it.  He’s produced a life-changing book.  I will never think of smells in the same way again.

For starters, the book is brilliantly designed with elegant charts, key terms in bold, and chemical structures (yes!) right next to the terms in miniature on a light grey background, set off from the text but right there where they are needed.  Here’s an example from the pages that Amazon.com makes available.  This excerpt comes from a section on the smells of chemical compounds found in interstellar space (p. 19—and see my comment on the page number at the end of this post).

Interstellar space?  Well, yes.  Also animals, pets, and human armpits, along with flowers, spices, weeds, fungi, stones (they have bacteria and fungi on them), asphalt, perfumes, and everything else that smells or stinks—as well as foods, of course.

McGee must have had fun writing this.

It’s exactly becasue CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] are offensive and harmful that the volatiles of animal excrement have been so well studied.  Crazily but appropriately, chemists borrow the terminology of top, middle, and base notes from the perfume worls (see page 477) to describe the smells of CAFOs.  The top notes, very volatile and quickly dispersed, are ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  The more persistent middle notes include amines, thiols and sulfides, aldehydes and alcohols and ketones.  The constantly present base notes are the short-chain straight and branched acids, cfresol and other pehnolics, and skatole.  In a 2006 study of swine and beef cattle operations, barnyard cresol was identified as the primary offensive odor, and could be detected as far as ten miles (sixteen kilometers) downwind.  It’s probably the first long-distance hint I get of that I-5 Eau de Coalinga (p. 71).

But let me be clear: this is an encyclopedia, demanding close attention to the chemistry.  Sentences like this one come frequently: “The branched four-carbon chain (3-sulfanyl-2-methyl butanol) has its branch just one carbon atom over from the otherwise identical molecule in cat pee” (p.121).

But this blog is about food.  McGee’s discussion of food smells are riveting.  For example:

  • The standard basil varieties in the West today mainly produce varying proportions of a coupld of terpenoids, flowery linalook and fresh eucalyptol, and the clove- and anise-smelling benzenoids eugenol and estragole.  But when it comes to a dish in which basil stars—peto alla genovese, the Ligurian pasta sauce of pounded basil, garlic, nuts, and cheese—Italians are more particular (p. 255).
  • In 2014, I made a pilgrimage to a celebrated durian stall in the outskirts of Singapore and found that most of the half-dozen varieties I tried tasted of strawberries and a mix of fried onions and garlic.  I enjoyed them enough to smuggl one into my hotel room…After just an hour or two its royal presence filled the room and became unbearable.  I had no choice but regicide, and disposed of the body like coCanned sntraband drugs, flushing it in pieces down the toilet (p. 333).
  • The dominant note [in beef stews], described as “gravy-like,” came not from the meats, but from the onions and leeks!  The volatile responsible turned out to be a five-carbon, one-sulfur chain with a methyl decoration, a mercaptomethyl pentanol, MMP for short.  It is formed by a sequene of reactions, the first causaed by heat-sensitive onion enzymes, then ordinary chemical reactions that are accelerated by heat.  So its production is encouraged by chopping or pureeing these alliums (but not garlic) well before cooking them to let the enzymes do their work, the cooking slowly for several hours  (p. 513).
  • Canned sweet corn is dominated by seaside-vegetal dimethyl sulfide, acetyl pyrroline, and a corny thiazole (p. 519).
  • Swiss Appenzeller is notably strong in sweaty-foot branched acids (p. 567).

It should be clear from these excerpts that this is a reference work—a field guide—just as advertised.  If you read it, you will learn more than you ever dreamed possible about the volatile molecules that we can and do smell.

Nose Dive will go right next to On Food and Cooking on my reference shelf.

But uh oh.  How I wish it had a better index. 

For a book like this, the index needs to be meticulously complete—list every bold face term every time it appears—so readers can find what we are looking for.  This one is surprisingly unhelpful.

I found this out because I forgot to write down the page number for the fatty acid excerpt shown above.  I searched the index for most of the key words that appear in the clip: fatty acids, short and branched; butyric; methylbutyric; hexanoic; cheesy; intersteller space. No luck.  I had to check through all of the fatty acid listings and finally found it under “fatty acids, and molecules in asteroids, 19.”   Oh.  Asteroids.  Silly me.

I also forgot to note the page for the CAFO quote.  CAFO is not indexed at all, even though it appears in bold on the previous page, and neither does its definition, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

McGee refers frequently to “Hero Carbon,” the atom basic to odiferous molecules.  I couldn’t remember where he first used “Hero” and tried to look it up.  Not a chance.

This book deserves better, alas.

Penguin Press:  this needs a fix, big time.

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Nov 6 2020

Weekend reading: Potato Politics

Rebecca Earle.  Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato.  Cambridge University Press, 2020.


The historian Rebecca Earle uses the potato as an entry point into investigations of some of the most important political issues of our time: immigration, free-market capitalism, and globalization.  As she puts it, her book

offers a deep history of the concept of food security and fresh account of how eating became part of modern politics.  It also helps to explain our own fraught relationship with dietary guidelines by showing how healthy eating became embedded within a neoliberal framework valorising personal responsibility and choice rather than state-led intervention” (p. 3).

A couple more excerpts to give you an idea where she is headed with this.  Malthus, she says, had a “dismal vision of catastrophic population increase.”  With this vision

came pessimism about the potato’s capacity to contribute to national well-being.  Far from increasing trade and boosting economic exchange, the potato bcame an obstacle to modernity, because it helped sustain precisely the sectors of the population that capitalism aimed to eradicate” (p. 141).

Later, she describes the Peruvian International Potato Center (its Spanish acronym is CIP):

Peru is not alone in its gastronational celebration of local potato varieties.  A number of countries, from Denmark to Ecuador, have likewise established national potato days, or sought to protect specific varieties under international legislation…International regulatory structures thus help to nationalise potatoes by according them formal status as part of the national patrimony.  Its long history as an overlooked, localised food resource now enables the potato to toggle between the global food system and notions of culinary heritage, in a way that other major commodities such as sugar or maize have largely failed to do (pp. 197-198).

Oct 23 2020

Weekend Reading: Salt Wars!

Michael F.  Jacobson.  Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet.  MIT Press, 2020.

Salt Wars: The Battle Over the Biggest Killer in the American Diet - Kindle edition by Jacobson, Michael F., Frieden, Tom. Professional & Technical Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Michael Jacobson was one of the founders of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which he directed for more than 40 years.

His book comes with an introduction by Tom Frieden, former head of New York City’s Health Department and Director of the CDC.

I wrote a blurb for it:

Public health authorities advise eating less salt as a way to prevent high blood pressure, but a few scientists disagree. For anyone confused by these arguments, Salt Wars is a must read.  Michael Jacobson has been fighting these wars for decades, and his assessment of the research on both sides—and the policy implications–is exceptionally fair, balanced, and fascinating.

Here are a few excerpts:

  • One reason that the debate has been so vigorous is that most journalists treat new reports supporting the conventional view on salt with a yawn.  Dog bites man?  Big deal.  What does capture the attention of journalists and headline writers are the man-bites-dog reports—those suggesting that eating less salt would be harmful—especially when they are conducted by credentialed researchers at prominent universities and published in respected journals…The poor consumer, lacking an advanced degree in epidemiology or nutrition, can get dizzy trying to follow the arcane biomedical and statistical jousting (p. xvi).
  • I was sorely disappointed that the FDA was not setting mandatory maximum sodium levels.  Such limits for all foods in a category…have at least three advantages over a voluntary approach.  First, they would have teeth and ensure that all companies actually trimmed sodium in their saltiest products.  Second, the FDA could easily enforce them.  And third, they would provide a level playing field…I have since been persuaded that the voluntary approach was inevitable (p. 139).
  • The process to propose sodium reductions was frustratingly slow, but there was no villain or cabal that sought to undermine the FDA’s effort to lower sodium consumption.  Rather, it was a case of how the Washington policy-making apparatus works when it comes to anything that is complicated, controversial, and consequential…It took the administration so long to propose the guidelines that there was no time to finalize them and the matter has languished for four years  (p. 143).
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