Devoured: How deep is processed food embedded in our culture?


A compelling book about food recently hit the shelves of my local library. Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are by Sophie Egan jumped out to grab my attention. On these pages Egan blends humor, storytelling and personal experiences to bring us into the underworld of why we eat and how easily we can become manipulated by food evangelists who want us to eat the way they do and by food companies who suck money out of our pockets. She brilliantly captures the maze we all face when making a decision of whether or not to eat a certain food. Upon opening the book we meet Josh from Atlanta who over the course of a day is torn between a desire to eat healthy and foods that will fit into his hectic lifestyle. At the end of the day, we find that his cumulative choices are not so great.

The chapter I enjoyed the most was about food and work. Egan’s contention is that Americans value work over food and that much of our problem comes down to having our food lives fit into our work lives rather than fitting our work schedules around our enjoyment of food. She urges us to slow down and smell and savor our meals. One of her main messages is that the more things about our food seem to change the more we learn that today’s trends are merely extensions and exaggerations of our past food culture. Egan nicely weaves the history of food and work with how we have always wanted to reduce food preparation times and how new concepts for foods fold into the context of a broader cultural heritage. She urges us to throw off the slavery work has become to take time to enjoy our food, enjoy it with friends, and be more adventuresome in choosing new foods.

As deep and well-researched as Devoured is, the same old good guys and the same old bad guys emerge throughout the book. The best chain restaurant, of course, is Chipotle and the worst is McDonald’s. “Processed” is mentioned 26 times in the book, at times as an inseparable part of our food culture, but it is mostly associated with “low quality,” “crap,” and something in general to be avoided. Many foods that she praises, however, like coffee, spaghetti and wine are processed products coming from our industrialized food system. On the one hand she wants us to learn from the advances science brings. On the other hand, she, like many Americans today, is not content with “We just don’t know enough yet. Until then it’s safe to stick with the boring but timeless ‘everything in moderation.’ ” She seems to want healthy, unprocessed, miracle foods and she wants them right now.

If you are interested in why we eat what we do and how food fits into American culture, Devoured is required reading. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a foodie, this book is a good read. We could all benefit from her call to “Work less and savor more. Make it real and stir the pot.” Throughout most of the book she is less dogmatic and more inclusive than many authors on food in modern-day America. I do wish, however, that she would not use Michael Pollan as the supreme source on nutrition for our health and wellbeing. He is a great writer as well as a vocal critic of processed food and “nutritionism”, but he is not someone with a scientific background in either nutrition or dietetics.

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