By Lisa Elaine Held, Editorial Director
The truth is that the meats, veggies, and grains that are available to us and which we choose to eat are part of a massive, complex food system. That system is influenced by—and hugely impacts—politics, economics, climate change and environmental resilience, obesity and hunger…and about a million other facets of life on planet earth.
Protein and calcium, then, are not the only standards available when it comes to ranking Greek yogurt. How were the cows treated? How about the people who milked them? Or think about the idea of buying non-organic sweet corn because it’s on the EWG’s “Clean 15” list. You can rest assured that eating that corn will mean ingesting very little pesticide residue, but what about supporting chemical-intensive commodity farming that depletes soil and pollutes water? (Heavy, I know. This stuff goes deep.)
The point is not to freak you out and make you stress even more about what you’re putting on your plate. The point IS to encourage you to shake up your perspective so that instead of focusing on macronutrients, you’ll gain a more macro understanding of the food you eat and what it means for your body, other people’s bodies, and the world we live in.
Ready to dig deep? These seven food books all seriously shook up my personal outlook and are totally worth reading (maybe with a breezy novel in between each to rest your brain).
7 Food Books That Will Broaden Your Perspective
For me, this Michael Pollan original was like a gateway drug that introduced me to how disconnected we are from are food sources and why that’s a problem. It hooked me, instilling a burning, life-long desire to know more. “‘What should we have for dinner?’ This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question,” he writes, before setting up the many questions Americans have been diving deeper into in the decade since (2006)—from how industrial corn has shaped our diets to the ethics of eating animals.
And long before Michael Pollan there was Wendell Berry, a poet, novelist, and farmer whose critical essays on agriculture sounded alarms about a food system in trouble decades ago. Berry’s ideas go even deeper into philosophy and the practical applications of farming (okay, you can skip the pages on “farm sanitation”) as he tackles ideas like the problems with factory farmed cattle and how corporate agriculture has made small, sustainable farms—and therefore many rural communities—disappear. The book’s also got some awesome excerpts from his fiction that illuminate how eating is an integral part of family, culture, and community.
If you’ve ever read an article about how corporations influence what and how we eat, you’ve probably read a quote from Marion Nestle. Nestle is an NYU professor and prolific writer and commentator and this old-school book just gets more and more relevant. It’s dense, but it’s got to be, since she’s explaining topics like how companies convince Americans to eat more and more unhealthy food and how the industry influences government dietary advice and food policies.
Journalist Mark Schatzker picks up on that thread and takes it a step further, showing not only how the industry manipulates consumers via marketing and policy, but how companies actually engineer flavors to influence taste and behavior. (Yup, there’s a chemical reason you have to eat the whole bag of Doritos!)
In this super compelling narrative, culinary historian Michael Twitty goes on a personal journey to investigate his ancestors and the food that shaped their lives. Along the way, that exploration is woven with historical facts, recipes, and cultural observations to tell a story of how the history of Southern food—and American food, overall—is completely intertwined with the country’s history of slavery and racism.
6. Big Hunger
Food banks and food pantries are an incredibly important resource in terms of helping hungry Americans get the food they need. But Andy Fisher argues that while they were set up to help families in crisis, there is now a vast segment that depend on them, long-term, for food. And while attention is constantly on supporting these organizations, not enough is paid to addressing the root causes of food insecurity, like low wages, structural inequalities, and health-care costs.
This one is less about food policy and more about how friggin’ crazy cool our bodies are. Emeran Mayer, MD, walks you through all of the latest research on the connection between the microbes in your gut and what’s going on in your brain. What you eat, he shows, is closely tied to your mental health…and vice versa. Gut feelings? Yeah, those are totally legit, too.