“Are we living in a food paradise or a food hell?”
That contradiction is at the heart of British food journalist Bee Wilson’s astute, wide-ranging “The Way We Eat Now: How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World.”
In our modern world, organic and locally sourced favorites are an app click away, as is a veritable United Nations of carefully prepared, delicious food from around the globe. But we’re also stuffing our faces with record quantities of processed, high-calorie, low-nutrient faux food, making ourselves fat and ill.
Popular authors and documentarians like Robert Kenner, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Morgan Spurlock have delivered such news before. What Wilson brings to the table is a big-picture global synthesis. She explains how a storm of factors have combined to turn humanity into a collective Augustus Gloop.
What’s to blame? Among the contributors she details are evolutionary biology, international investment in junk-food companies, restaurant marketing and portion inflation, family and work changes, a flood of cheap vegetable oil, relentless snack promotion in developing nations, the rise of restaurant home-delivery services, and the way our brains don’t register high calories in liquid form.
Faced with 40,000 items in a supermarket, she explains, most of us simply buy and eat too much. Some of us cope with the overload of choices by restricting our diets — gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, liquid — occasionally descending into eating disorders. We glom onto the latest fad food to the point of screwing up global nutrition patterns. (Our quinoa fetish has raised prices so high that many Bolivians who produce the protein-rich grain can no longer afford to eat it.) Or we give up on traditional food altogether, ingesting bleh-tasting, over-sugared protein bars and sports drinks the same way we’d fill our cars with gas.
Wilson brings bountiful sources to her economic, sociological and medical brain food. And she makes it surprisingly palatable through her self-deprecating humor, relatable recollections of her own binge-eating and colorful globe-trotting examples.
She writes like the busy mom that she is, caught up as we all are in the whirlwind schedules and demands of modern life. While she promotes civilized, set-aside mealtimes when possible, she eschews an overly nostalgic view of centuries past in which women spent hours a day preparing meals because they had no freakin’ choice. She also has an endearingly single-minded grudge against bland Cavendish bananas.
Despite a plenitude of dour statistics, she remains fundamentally optimistic. We got ourselves into this mess, is the tenor of her argument, and we can get ourselves out of it, though it will take decades.
Fifty thousand years ago, humans gathered plants and hunted animals. Life was nasty, brutish, short and low-carb. Twenty thousand years ago, we made clay cooking vessels and fancy grindstones, and produced staple cereals. Population and calorie consumption grew, but as variety and nutrients dwindled, we suffered vitamin deficiencies. A couple hundred years ago, advanced agriculture and crop rotation, along with improved drying, preserving and pickling, curbed famine and varied our diet. But then — boom — industrialization, mechanization and processing led to the reinvention of “food,” and not for the better.
That’s where Wilson’s optimism kicks in. She thinks we have at least a fighting chance of following those four nutritional stages with a fifth one in which we concentrate on the quality as well as the quantity of food, find time for the preparation of it and make it economically feasible for even the poorest among us to eat healthily and pleasurably.
It is at this point that readers of a libertarian frame of mind will part ways with her. She is an unapologetic proponent of government intervention through subsidies, economic incentives, taxes, regulation of advertising and other means.
She makes an excellent case for such measures because our food practices are nothing short of a public-health crisis. Blaming and shaming individuals is not only incredibly mean but hopelessly ineffective because our eating patterns, research shows, are largely set before we’re 2, some of them before we’re even born. The political winds don’t seem to be in Wilson’s favor — just ask Michael Bloomberg after his failed attempt to limit soda sizes in New York City — but that could change, as it has in places like Chile.
In 2016, it “had the highest average consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages on the planet,” its citizens “eating unusually large quantities of salty snacks and chips and packaged sweet desserts.” Among Latin American countries, it had the second highest rate of obesity after Mexico, 66 percent when 35 years before it was more common to be malnourished.
Chile passed an 18 percent tax on sugary sodas. It forced cereal manufacturers to remove cartoon characters from boxes. It banned school sales of ultra-processed foods like chocolate and potato chips. It started slapping big, blunt warning labels even on items like yogurts, salad dressings, juices and granola bars that aren’t generally perceived as junk foods.
Surveys show some preliminary effect on consumers and more on manufacturers. Some 20 percent of food items, more than 1,500, have been reformulated with less sugar and fat to “avoid the dreaded black labels,” Wilson reports.
If such laws are to stick, inducements to eat better, she says, will include more affordable vegetables, bred for taste over size and supermarket stackability.
“If we never give food the time that it is due, we are effectively saying it doesn’t matter,” she writes. What other pleasures would we surrender so readily? Assert your culinary joy, she urges. “Smell a stick of cinnamon before you add it to a pot of rice. Feel the ridges on a stick of celery. Come to your senses.”
Alexander C. Kafka has written about books for The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.
By Bee Wilson
Basic Books. 400 pp. $30