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What to Eat [Paperback]

Marion Nestle
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

How do we choose what to eat? Buffeted by health claims--should we, for example, restrict our intake of carbs or fats or both? Is organic food better for us?--we become confused and tune out. In supermarkets we buy semi-consciously, unaware that our choices are carefully orchestrated by sophisticated marketing strategies concerned only with the bottom line. That we should confront such persuasion is the major point made by nutritionist-consumer advocate Marion Nestle in her extraordinary What to Eat, an aisle-by-aisle guide to supermarket buying and thus an anatomy of American food business. "The way food is situated in today's society discourages healthful food choices," Nestle tells us, a fact that finds literal representation in our supermarkets, where food placement--dependant on "slotting fees," guaranteed advertising and other incentives--determines every purchase we make.

Nestle walks readers through every supermarket section--produce, meat, fish, dairy, packaged foods, bottled waters, and more--decoding labels and clarifying nutritional and other claims (in supermarket-speak, for example, "fresh" means most likely to spoil first, not recently picked or prepared), and in so doing explores issues like the effects of food production on our environment, the way pricing works, and additives and their effect on nutrition.

What Nestle reveals is both discouraging and empowering. Through ubiquitous advertising, almost universal food availability, the growth of portion size, and unchecked marketing to kids, we’re encouraged to eat more than we need, with consequent negative impact on our health. Knowledge is indeed power, and Nestle's lively, witty, and thoroughly enlightening book--the work, readers quickly see, of a food lover intent on increasing sensual satisfaction at table as well as promoting health--will help its readers become completely cognizant about food shopping. It's a must for anyone who eats and buys food and wants to do both better. --Arthur Boehm --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

According to nutritionist Nestle (Food Politics), the increasing confusion among the general public about what to eat comes from two sources: experts who fail to create a holistic view by isolating food components and health issues, and a food industry that markets items on the basis of profits alone. She suggests that, often, research findings are deliberately obscure to placate special interests. Nestle says that simple, common-sense guidelines available decades ago still hold true: consume fewer calories, exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables and, for today's consumers, less junk food. The key to eating well, Nestle advises, is to learn to navigate through the aisles (and thousands of items) in large supermarkets. To that end, she gives readers a virtual tour, highlighting the main concerns of each food group, including baby, health and prepared foods, and supplements. Nestle's prose is informative and entertaining; she takes on the role of detective, searching for clues to the puzzle of healthy and satisfying nutrition. Her intelligent and reassuring approach will likely make readers venture more confidently through the jungle of today's super-sized stores. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Nutritionist Nestle's newest volume aims to help the American consumer determine what best to eat to improve or to maintain good health. Pursuing what she hopes is a unique and beneficial approach, she surveys a supermarket on a food-by-food basis, noting for each category what nutritional benefits are claimed and what really are the advantages and dangers in consuming any grocery offering. She documents how food industry concerns have perverted nutritional and origin labeling, dismayed that economics has once more trumped open information. She assesses the roles of trans-fats in processed food, methylmercury in fish, calcium in dairy products, salmonella in fresh eggs, sugar in cereals, and genetic modification. Nestle is particularly concerned that consumers understand all the implications, good and bad, of the perennially contentious "organic" label. Although the honest, prudent scientist in Nestle precludes her providing glib prescriptions or half-true advice on eating, she does present very helpful shopping guidelines for consumers determined to be vigilant about their food. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"According to nutritionist Nestle, the increasing confusion among the general public about what to eat comes from two sources: experts who fail to create a holistic view by isolating food components and health issues, and a food industry that markets items on the basis of profits alone. She suggests that, often, research findings are deliberately obscure to placate special interests. Nestle says that simple, common-sense guidelines available decades ago still hold true: consume fewer calories, exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables and, for today's consumers, less junk food. The key to eating well, Nestle advises, is to learn to navigate through the aisles (and thousands of items) in large supermarkets. To that end, she gives readers a virtual tour, highlighting the main concerns of each food group, including baby, health and prepared foods, and supplements. Nestle's prose is informative and entertaining; she takes on the role of detective, searching for clues to the puzzle of healthy and satisfying nutrition. Her intelligent and reassuring approach will likely make readers venture more confidently through the jungle of today's super-sized stores."--Publishers Weekly

"Nutritionist Nestle's newest volume aims to help the American consumer determine what best to eat to improve or to maintain good health. Pursuing what she hopes is a unique and beneficial approach, she surveys a supermarket on a food-by-food basis, noting for each category what nutritional benefits are claimed and what really are the advantages and dangers in consuming any grocery offering. She documents how food industry concerns have perverted nutritional and origin labeling, dismayed that economics has once more trumped open information. She assesses the roles of trans-fats in processed food, methylmercury in fish, calcium in dairy products, salmonella in fresh eggs, sugar in cereals, and genetic modification. Nestle is particularly concerned that consumers understand all the implications, good and bad, of the perennially contentious "organic" label."--Booklist
 
"[This] book is for anyone who has read a food label; been annoyed at how often their children nag them for certain cereals; wondered about the difference between natural and organic; or questioned who is minding the store when it comes to nutrition and food safety."--Marian Burros, The New York Times

About the Author

Marion Nestle is the most respected nutritionist in America today. Her book Food Politics was given the James Beard Award, the top award for food writing; that book and its follow-up, Safe Food, are backlist classics for the University of California Press. A longtime nutritionist and former head of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, Nestle lectures worldwide and was featured in the movie Super Size Me. A native New Yorker, she raised her family in California and now lives in Greenwich Village.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

What To Eat
THE PRODUCE SECTION
1
The Supermarket: Prime Real Estate
A visit to a large supermarket can be a daunting experience: so many aisles, so many brands and varieties, so many prices to keep track of and labels to read, so many choices to make. No wonder. To repeat: An astonishing 320,000 edible products are for sale in the United States, and any large supermarket might display as many as 40,000 of them. You are supposed to feel daunted--bewildered by all the choices and forced to wander through the aisles in search of the items you came to buy. The big companies that own most supermarkets want you to do as much searching as you can tolerate. It is no coincidence that one supermarket is laid out much like another: breathtaking amounts of research have gone into designing these places. There are precise reasons why milk is at the back of the store and the center aisles are so long. You are forced to go past thousands of other products on your way to get what you need.
Supermarkets say they are in the business of offering "choice." Perhaps, but they do everything possible to make the choice theirs, not yours. Supermarkets are not social service agencies providing food for the hungry. Their job is to sell food, and more of it. From their perspective, it is your problem if what you buy makes you eat more food than you need, and more of the wrong kinds of foods in particular.
And supermarket retailers know more than you could possibly imagine about how to push your "buy" buttons. Half a century ago, Vance Packard revealed their secrets in his book The Hidden Persuaders. His most shocking revelation? Corporations were hiring social scientists to study unconscious human emotions, not for the good of humanity but to help companies manipulate people into buying products. Packard's chapter on supermarket shopping, "Babes in Consumerland," is as good a guide as anything that has been written since to methods for getting you--and your children--to "reach out, hypnotically ... and grab boxes of cookies, candies, dog food, and everything else that delights or interests [you]."
At the supermarket, you exercise freedom of choice and personal responsibility every time you put an item in your shopping cart, but massive efforts have gone into making it more convenient and desirable for you to choose some products rather than others.
More recent research on consumer behavior not only confirms his observations but continues to be awe-inspiring in its meticulous attention to detail. Your local library has entire textbooks and academic journals devoted to investigations of consumer behavior and ways to use the results of that research to sell products. Researchers are constantly interviewing shoppers and listening carefully to what they are told. Because of scanners, supermarkets can now track your purchases and compare what you tell researchers to what you actually buy. If you belong to a supermarket discount "shoppers club," the store gains your loyalty but gets to track your personal buying habits in exchange. This research tells food retailers how to lay out the stores, where to put specific products, how to position products on shelves, and how to set prices and advertise products. At the supermarket, you exercise freedom of choice and personal responsibility every time you put an item in your shopping cart, but massive efforts have gone into making it more convenient and desirable for you to choose some products rather than others.
As basic marketing textbooks explain, the object of the game is to "maximize sales and profit consistent with customer convenience." Translated, this means that supermarkets want to expose you to the largest possible number of items that you can stand to see, without annoying you somuch that you run screaming from the store. This strategy is based on research proving that "the rate of exposure is directly related to the rate of sale of merchandise." In other words, the more you see, the more you buy. Supermarkets dearly wish they could expose you to every single item they carry, every time you shop. Terrific as that might be for your walking regimen, you are unlikely to endure having to trek through interminable aisles to find the few items you came in for--and retailers know it. This conflict creates a serious dilemma for the stores. They have to figure out how to get you to walk up and down those aisles for as long as possible, but not so long that you get frustrated. To resolve the dilemma, the stores make some compromises--but as few as possible. Overall, supermarket design follows fundamental rules, all of them based firmly on extensive research.
• Place the highest-selling food departments in the parts of the store that get the greatest flow of traffic--the periphery. Perishables--meat, produce, dairy, and frozen foods--generate the most sales, so put them against the back and side walls.
• Use the aisle nearest the entrance for items that sell especially well on impulse or look or smell enticing--produce, flowers, or freshly baked bread, for example. These must be the first things customers see in front or immediately to the left or right (the direction, according to researchers, doesn't matter).
• Use displays at the ends of aisles for high-profit, heavily advertised items likely to be bought on impulse.
• Place high-profit, center-aisle food items sixty inches above the floor where they are easily seen by adults, with or without eyeglasses.
• Devote as much shelf space as possible to brands that generate frequent sales; the more shelf space they occupy, the better they sell.
• Place store brands immediately to the right of those high-traffic items (people read from left to right), so that the name brands attract shoppers to the store brands too.
• Avoid using "islands." These make people bump into each other and want to move on. Keep the traffic moving, but slowly.
• Do not create gaps in the aisles that allow customers to cross over to the next one unless the aisles are so long that shoppers complain. If shoppers can escape mid-aisle, they will miss seeing half the products along that route.
Additional principles, equally well researched, guide every other aspect of supermarket design: product selection, placement on shelves, and display. The guiding principle of supermarket layout is the same: products seen most sell best. Think of the supermarket as a particularly intense real estate market in which every product competes fiercely against every other for precious space. Because you can see products most easily at eye level, at the ends of aisles, and at the checkout counters, these areas are prime real estate. Which products get the prime space? The obvious answer: the ones most profitable for the store.
The guiding principle of supermarket layout is the same: products seen most sell best.
But store profitability is not simply a matter of the price charged for a product compared to its costs. Stores also collect revenue by "renting" real estate to the companies whose products they sell. Product placement depends on a system of "incentives" that sometimes sound suspiciously like bribes. Food companies pay supermarkets "slotting fees" for the shelf space they occupy. The rates are highest for premium, high-traffic space, such as the shelves near cash registers. Supermarkets demand and get additional sources of revenue from food companies in "trade allowances," guarantees that companies will buy local advertising for the products for which they pay slotting fees. The local advertising, of course, helps to make sure that products in prime real estate sell quickly.
This unsavory system puts retail food stores in firm control of the marketplace. They make the decisions about which products to sell and, therefore, which products you buy. This system goes beyond a simple matter of supply and demand. The stores create demand by putting some products where you cannot miss them. These are often "junk" foods full of cheap, shelf-stable ingredients like hydrogenated oils and corn sweeteners, made and promoted by giant food companies that can afford slotting fees, trade allowances, and advertising. This is why entire aisles of prime supermarket real estate are devoted to soft drinks, salty snacks, and sweetened breakfast cereals, and why you can always find candy next to cash registers. Any new product that comes into a store must come with guaranteed advertising, coupons, discounts, slotting fees, and other such incentives.
Slotting fees emerged in the 1980s as a way for stores to cover the added costs of dealing with new products: shelving, tracking inventory, and removing products that do not sell. But the system is so corrupt and so secret that Congress held hearings about it in 1999. The industry people who testified at those hearings were so afraid of retribution that they wore hoods and used gadgets to prevent voice recognition. The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency (now called the Government Accountability Office), was asked to do its own investigation but got nowhere because the retail food industry refused to cooperate.
The defense of the current system by both the retailers who demand the fees and the companies that agree to pay them comes at a high cost--out of your pocket. You pay for this system in at least three ways: higher prices at the supermarket; taxes that in part compensate for business tax deductions that food companies are allowed to take for slotting fees and advertising; and the costs of treating illnesses that might result from consuming more profitable but less healthful food products.
In 2005, supermarkets sold more than $350 billion worth of food in the United States, but this level of sales does not stop them from complaining about low after-tax profit margins--just 1 to 3 percent of sales. One percent of $350 ...
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