Excerpted from What to Eat by Marion Nestle. Copyright © 2006 by Marion Nestle. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
I am a nutrition professor, and as soon as people find out what I do, they ask: Why is nutrition so confusing? Why is it so hard to know which foods are good for me? Why don’t you nutritionists figure out what’s right and make it simple for the rest of us to understand? Why can’t you help me know what to eat?
Questions like these come up every time I give a talk, teach a class, or go out to dinner. For a long time, they puzzled me. I thought: Doesn’t everyone know what a healthy diet is? And why are people so worried about what they eat? I just didn’t get it. For me, food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I have been teaching, writing, and talking about the joys of eating as well as the more cultural and scientific aspects of food for nearly thirty years. My work at a university means that I do research as well as teach, and for the past decade or so I have been studying the marketing of food and its effects on health. Everyone eats. This turns the growing, shipping, preparing, and serving of food into a business of titanic proportions, worth close to a trillion dollars a year in the United States alone. I wrote about the health consequences of the business of food—unintended as those consequences may be—in two books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.
Since writing them, I have spent much of my professional and social life talking to students, health professionals, academics, government officials, journalists, community organizers, farmers, school officials, and business leaders—as well as friends and colleagues—about the social and political aspects of food and nutrition. It hardly matters who I am talking to. Everyone goes right to what affects them. Their questions are personal. Everyone wants to know what the politics of food mean for what they personally should eat. Should they be worried about hormones, pesticides, antibiotics, mercury, or bacteria in foods? Is it acceptable to eat sugars, artificial sweeteners, or trans fats, and, if so, how much? What about foods that are raw, canned, irradiated, or genetically engineered? Do I recommend calcium or any other supplement? Which is the best choice of vegetables, yogurt, meat, or bread?
Eventually I came to realize that, for many people, food feels nothing at all like a source of pleasure; it feels more like a minefield. For one thing, there are far too many choices; about 320,000 food and beverage products are available in the United States, and an average supermarket carries 30,000 to 40,000 of them. As the social theorist Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice, this volume of products turns supermarket and other kinds of shopping into “a complex decision in which [you] are forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.” Bombarded with too many choices and conflicting messages, as everyone is, many people long for reassurance that they can ignore the “noise” and just go back to enjoying the food they eat. I began paying closer attention to hints of such longings in what people were telling me. I started asking my friends how they felt about food. Their responses were similar. Eating, they told me, feels nothing less than hazardous. And, they said, you need to do something about this. One after another told me things like this:
-You seem to think we have the information we need, but a lot of us are clueless and have no idea of how to eat.
-When I go into a supermarket, I feel like a deer caught in headlights. Tell me what I need to know so I can make reasonable choices, and quickly.
-I do not feel confident that I know what to eat. It’s all so confusing.
-You tell me how to do this. I don’t believe all those other people. They all seem to have axes to grind.
-Tell us how you eat.
The more I thought about what audiences and friends were telling me, the more I realized that changes in society and in the competitiveness of food companies had made the question of what to eat incredibly complicated for most people, and that while I had noticed some of the effects of such changes, I had missed others that were quite important. Years ago, I regularly shopped in suburban supermarkets in California and Massachusetts while cooking for my growing family, but that era in my life is long past. Besides, the whole shopping experience is different now. Today, too, I live in Manhattan. For reasons of space and real estate costs, Manhattan does not have enormous supermarkets like the ones in suburbs or in most cities in the United States. I live within easy walking distance of ten or fifteen grocery stores, but these are small—sometimes tiny—by national standards. Only recently have larger stores like Whole Foods come into the city. And I do much less food shopping than many people. My children are now adults and live on the other side of the continent. More than that, my job requires me to eat out a lot. Because I do not own a car I either have to walk home carrying what I buy, or arrange to have food delivered. It became clear to me that if I really wanted to understand how food marketing affects health, I needed to find out a lot more about what you and everyone else are up against when you shop for food—and the sooner the better. So I did, and this book is the result.
I began my research (and that is just what it was) by visiting supermarkets of all kinds and taking notes on what they were selling, section by section, aisle by aisle. I looked at the products on those shelves just as any shopper might, and tried to figure out which ones made the most sense to buy for reasons of taste, health, economy, or any number of social issues that might be of concern. Doing this turned out to be more complicated than I could have imagined. For one thing, it required careful reading of food labels, which, I can assure you, is hard work even for nutritionists. Science and politics make food labels exceptionally complicated, and they often appear in very small print. I found it impossible to do any kind of comparative shopping without putting on reading glasses, I frequently had to use a calculator, and I often wished I had a scale handy so I could weigh things.
Supermarkets turn out to be deeply fascinating, not least because even the smallest ones sell thousands of products. Much about these stores made me intensely curious. Why, I wondered, do they sell this and not that? Why are entire aisles devoted to soft drinks and snack foods? What do the pricing signs mean, and how do they work? Why is it so hard to find some things, but not others? Are there any genetically modified or irradiated foods among the fruits and vegetables? What does “Certified Organic” mean, can it be trusted, and is it worth the higher price? Is soy milk healthier than cow’s milk? If an egg is “United Egg Producers Certified,” is it better? Is it safe to eat farmed fish or, for that matter, any fish at all? Is it safe to eat take-out foods? If a sugary cereal sports a label saying it is whole grain, is it better for you? Does it make any real nutritional difference whether you buy white or whole wheat bread?
The answers to these questions might seem obvious, but I did not find them so. To arrive at decisions, I measured, counted, weighed, and calculated, and read the tiniest print on product labels. When I s