Reviews of books, TV, film, podcasts and any other media that tackles food issues.
The Way We Eat Now: Strategies for Eating in a World of Change by Bee Wilson
I really enjoyed reading Bee Wilson’s latest book, The Way We Eat Now. The book is about how food systems are not necessarily delivering the kind of foods and diets we need to stay healthy. She delves into why and how food systems and our eating patterns have changed. She talks about the types of foods being sold in our immediate food environments, our time scarcity, the cost of diets, the way we perceive food these days, our (in)ability to cook, and how malleable our dietary patterns, preferences, and desires are over the course of time. She also delineates that while the world should eat better and more sustainable, she knows the economics and equity don’t always work out. Eating healthy can be expensive and inaccessible for many. She hits us on the head with that message several times. Sometimes we scientists still forget that...It was nice to see friends and colleagues work highlighted, particularly Corinna Hawkes. Her writing is so approachable. She takes complex science, gets the majority of it right and presents it in such a digestible way. And to write about this topic with almost zero graphs! Not easy. My only two qualms about the book are that it is sometimes repetitive and her last chapter I found quite weak in its proposed ways forward. She tries to use examples around the world but it is very England centric. I don’t fault her on that one - She lives in the UK and her immediate surroundings inform and illustrate some of her major points in the book. While quite long at 345 pages, it is well worth the time.
I Think, Therefore I Eat: The World’s Greatest Minds Tackle the Food Question by Martin Cohen
A very readable, approachable book on all things food and what to eat, grounded in some philosophy, based on Renée Descartes’s, ‘I think, therefore I am. Cohen takes on modern issues of food (bread, chocolate!) and its ingredients (salt, sugar) and diet trends (paleo, fasting), and applies wisdom from philosophers. He argues that we need to approach what we eat in a moderate way, and to not be overly prescriptive about what to eat. He has three rules: The first is that details matter in that we need to understand from nutritional evidence and arguments and from that, make solid decisions based on sound information. The second rule is that everything connects with food. Food sits in systems and there are many pieces to that system that connect. We need to keep that in mind when we think about food. The third rule is “don’t mess with the crystal vase.” Meaning, if you don’t know the consequences, don’t act so quickly. If you don’t have all the information, proceed with caution. The book is a pretty easy read and I personally like the injection of historical philosophical nuances. It is not overly science-based, and focuses on eating healthy (ie in his mind, how to not get obese). While, I don’t agree with everything Short argues for scientifically, it is overall, informative.
Film and TV Reviews
I highly recommend Rotten - a food series on Netflix - that is now in season 2. It is a “docuseries that travels deep into the heart of the food supply chain to reveal unsavory truths and expose hidden forces that shape what we eat.” Indeed it does. And you may never feel the same about avocados, wine, chocolate, honey, and everything else you love. It really goes into the corruption of our global food system, who is shaping the politics of food, and who profits. It takes a real global focus too. Mexico cartels controlling avocados, EU enslaving West Africa for its cocoa, China’s adulteration of honey, the protectionist/terrorist approaches to keep red wine local. Fascinating and depressing. It makes you realize how everything we eat is political, and how important it is to understand where our food comes from, who grows it, who controls it, and who wins economically. You will never look at your favorite foods in the same way again. Consider yourself warned!
Follow the Food, BBC
The BBC World News series on Follow the Food looks into “where our food comes from and how will this change in the near future, thanks to new technologies and innovative ways of farming.” It presents a series of videos on different topics. I have viewed a few of them. The show on Food Waste is really good. It presents the role of science and technology on lengthening the life of food as it moves through the value chain. It also presents some serious innovation on the retail/consumer end of the chain with new food products utilizing discarded food - apple cider, chutneys, soups - and an app that gives consumers a heads up on businesses that have surpluses of foods that they plan to throw away. The app is in 10 countries with 9 million users. Cool stuff. Another show in the series focuses on hidden hunger. Biofortification of grains and other staple crops, and new hybrid varieties of vegetables with a special focus on Brazil.
Street Food, Netflix
The new show Street Food on Netflix is really interesting. The show focuses on a few foods and some “chefs” who shape the street food scene in their respective cities. It is worth it if you are into learning about what foods are embedded in different cultures that started out on the street for the everyday person to be able to access and afford. This first season focuses on Asia, rightfully so. Street food dominates much of the cuisine, particularly in Southeast Asia. The show emphasizes that street food is under increased scrutiny by local governments with significant regulation putting many out of business. This is not without justification. Safety and health are concerns are significant. But what I realized watching this show is how much street food shapes culture and is shaped by culture. Street cuisine really represents a city’s history, particularly those of the urban poor. Just check out Chef Jay Fai from Bangkok. Her fashion - a wool cap and safety goggles - rocks. But more importantly, the dishes she alone prepares look absolutely mouthwatering. Makes me want to hop on a plane to Bangkok just to partake in the street ceremony.
Chef’s Table, Netflix
If you haven’t watched Chef’s Table on Netflix, you are missing out. Even the first episode of season 1 with the great Massimo Bottura is inspirational. I highly recommend watching this show if you are into cooking, what drives innovation in the kitchen, and what inspires individuals who are reshaping the food landscape.
Kelly Brownell at Duke’s World Food Policy Center started a great podcast “The Leading Voices in Food.” He interviews thought leaders in the space, and covers a wide range of topics in nutrition and foods systems. Good stuff.
NPR’s Life Kit on Eat Your Way to a Healthy Life has great, sound advice on all things diets and nutrition. I hope they do more. They had a spurt at the beginning where they interviewed heavy weights like Dary Mozafarrian of Tufts and David Katz at Yale. Let’s see if they do more.