Assorted books for your reading pleasure

If you have not already guessed, I am a voracious reader. I generally have four books going at a time, and only one of those four is about food. During the past year or so I have had the opportunity to read some interesting books on food that I have not reviewed on this site. Here are a few minreviews that might be of interest to those who consider giving books during the holiday season. Scroll down to the bottom for a response to the study suggesting that meat is not the health hazard we have been led to believe it is and why meal prep is a whole lot more than cooking.

Acquired Tastes: On the Trail of the World’s Most Sought-After Delicacies is a delightful book by Massimo Marcone that provides a peek into the inner workings of the brain of a food scientist. Don’t be put off by the first chapter which is way too academic to hold our interest. You have my permission to skip it entirely to get to the good stuff! The rest of the book takes us on his fascinating travels to Italy to hunt for truffles and later for saffron; to France to study mite cheese; to China for insect tea; to Norway to investigate whale fishing; and to the Amazon rainforest in search of chichi. On each trip Marcone introduces us to an exotic food culture, the people  who make it possible, how he collects his samples, and what he does to analyze these delicacies. In the interest of transparency, Massimo is a virtual friend even though we have never met in person. When I ordered the book from Amazon, I had no idea what to expect and was delighted with my reading experience.

Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy by Jay Inslee is one of several books I read to get to know the 2020 candidates for President. Between the time that I read the book and now, Governor Inslee has left the race. This book, in my opinion, presents a much more workable plan than the Green New Deal. The book is over 10 years old. Thus, many of the ideas presented are outdated, but the plan is flexible enough to be modified. What particularly impressed me are the 10 Energy Enlightenments that he presents. In them he calls for boldness, rejects silver bullets, and advocates a free-market approach with government establishing the guideposts. It gives me hope that we can really address the threat of climate change, but we are rapidly running out of time.

Are You a Monster or a Rock Star? A Guide to Energy Drinks—How They Work, Why They Work, How to Use Them provides an excellent close-up view of caffeine from a chemical perspective. Although other ingredients of these drinks are covered, the focus is on caffeine. I consider this source to be the definitive guide on this magic molecule. I confess to not really getting much of the humor in the book, but that probably says more about me and our age difference than the author, Danielle Robertson Rath. If that name sounds familiar, she wrote a guest blog on this site earlier in the year. She also writes a blog, the Green-Eyed Guide, and is available for presentations on caffeine and energy drinks. Her science is solid, and her writing is easy to understand and entertaining.  

Immokalee’s Fields of Hope by Carlene A. Thissen is a tribute to immigrant labor, mostly about those workers who harvest our crops. This book is particularly interesting to me as Immokalee (rhymes with broccoli) is 50 miles from my home. I have had the opportunity to hear a presentation of a member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, famous for their push for a penny a pound initiative and highlighted in the movie Food Chains. Thissen describes the waves of Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants attracted to work in Immokalee. She documents the immigrant experience, difficult journeys to south Florida, conditions in the field, and lack of suitable housing. Although bleak at times, the fields of hope became as a stepping stone to the American dream for many. It gave me a new perspective on the politics of immigration and field workers. We are encouraged to add to our table grace 

“Thank you for this food, and for all those who brought it to our table.”

Liquid Rules: The Delightful & Dangerous Substances the Flow Through Our Lives tracks the fluids that Mark Miodownik encounters on a flight from London to San Francisco. Who would think that the story about the chemistry of liquids in our lives would become a best seller? In very clear language Miodownik helps us to understand the everyday miracles of modern life. Just the book to give a colleague or family member who believes that all chemicals should be avoided. We learn secrets about alcohol, caffeine, coffee, ketchup, mayonnaise, and tea to spark our interest. I only wish that he had taken on the beneficial attributes of a chemical ingredient in an ultra-processed food. Then again, if he had, the book might never have been a best seller. Please pardon my cynicism!

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer is a dark portrayal of the American wellness culture by the brilliant author, Barbara Ehrenreich. The author could be ignored as an embittered woman who wrote this book after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She mocks America’s quest for healthy diets and lifestyles and the inadequate efforts of our medical community to combat disease. Ehrenreich is particularly critical of the mindfulness movement, organic chemistry as a college requirement, and inflammation as an explanation for dietary woes. What makes her credible in this area is that she received her PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. While we disagree on the importance of organic chemistry, I think she has much to say about our obsession with healthiness and all the myths we want to believe about food, diet and wellness.

The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries and the Return of The American Family Farm by Tim Ryan, another failed presidential candidate who dropped out of the race just last week. The book is another simplistic approach to food and health. If only Americans would avoid fast food and processed food (written before the term ultra-processed became newsworthy), we could all be healthy and happy. Not only does Congressman Ryan laud the philosophy of Michael Pollan, he also taps into the wisdom of The Food Babe. As my readers might expect, I am not impressed with him as a food writer.

grocery display case of red meat, primarily beef
How dangerous are red meats in our diet?

Two additional stories for your consideration: A review article in the Annals of Internal Medicine has declared that eating meat is not the health hazard that we are being told that it is. This story highlights several questions about food and health such as

  • Should an organization funded by the food industry be allowed a voice in nutritional studies?
  • Do individuals and organizations who sell books and conduct healthy-eating paid events also have vested interests in this debate?
  • Should observational studies that suggest inferences be used as definitive guidelines in health promotion?
  • Should dietary guidelines take environmental sustainability into account?

My personal perspective here is that most Americans, myself included, eat too much meat, that the main danger in overconsuming meat is eating too much saturated fat, and much of the health advice we receive online is exaggerated certainty over one or a few rather uncertain studies. Food scientists including those who have previously or are currently working in the food industry have expertise that should be listened to. “Healthy eating” advocates who write books or make money off their advocacy should be viewed with just as much skepticism as food scientists. Finally, I believe that sustainability is one of the most important topics of our times, but when offering dietary advice for health, it should be based on nutritional principles, undiluted by political perspectives.

If you missed it, I highly recommend the article on it’s so much more than cooking. As the food preparer in my family I can vouch that the actual cooking time is only part of the overall experience. We also need to realize that those of us who have access to a nearby supermarket and have a nice workable kitchen are so much more fortunate than many in our population.

Next week: Gene Eating: The Science of Obesity and the Truth about Dieting

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