Health and Cultural Effects of the Global “Food Revolution”

The Way We Eat Nowby Bee Wilson (Amazon / Book Depository)

Talking about what has gone wrong with modern eating is delicate, because food is a touchy subject. No one likes to  feel judged about their food choices, which is one of the reasons why so many healthy eating initiatives fail. The foods that are destroying our health are often the ones to which we feel the deepest emotional connection because they are the stuff of childhood memories.

British food writer Bee Wilson covers lots of ground in The Way We Eat Now. The basic premise is examining globally shifting food trends, and how they’ve brought us to a fairly unhealthy state of nutritional affairs worldwide. It’s quite a conundrum, since we live in a time with unprecedentedly good access to varied foods, ingredients, and a cornucopia of choices, yet we’re simultaneously consuming too much of less nutritionally-dense items and obesity is killing us. Among many other problems.

This is a book discussing a lot of problems and few solutions, but it does make some interesting points, collate plenty of data, and interview some folks with unique perspectives from their corners of the food and culinary industries.

All at once, billions of eaters in disparate places have started eating from the same repertoire of ingredients. Never before has such dietary change happened on such a scale, and simultaneously across most of the planet.

As many problems as Wilson finds with how we eat now, I found with this book. I agree with lots of her points, but the tone feels preachy and scoldy. There’s also some hypocrisy. She discusses the inaccurate categorization of food as “good” or “bad”, “healthy” vs. “unhealthy”, and I agree – that’s not the way to look at it. But then she repeatedly describes certain foods or diets as healthy. She also dispels the myth of superfoods, but labels foods that way anyway.

The structure mostly consists of describing how a way of eating or cooking or shopping was done in the past and contrasting with the present. She writes that we can’t romanticize the past, but the present way of doing things isn’t good, either. What should we do? Eat on smaller, vintage plates, according to the overly simplistic advice in an epilogue.

After thoroughly lamenting the Cavendish banana, the modern-day primary banana option (six or seven mentions within a few pages of how bland or bad-tasting it is), she writes that she always has them on hand. If you don’t like something, don’t eat or buy it. Especially if you’re economically privileged with myriad choices. She gives this lesson herself, saying that we speak with our wallets in the food economy. If you don’t like or approve of something, for ethical or other reasons, you shouldn’t buy it, sending a clear message. But she doesn’t adhere to that, or at least fails to see the discrepancy.

It’s starkly divided in its messages, preaching one thing, like that we should relax when eating, enjoy meals slowly and share them with others, then going on tangents about how of course all these things aren’t always possible. We should eat more like our forebears, using smaller wine glasses, but also they were malnourished and their diet limited by reliance on staple foods, now we can eat pho anywhere. Supermarkets offer too much food as two-for-one offers, creating waste; but food is too expensive and many people can’t afford it. Nearly any scenario she complained about, I could think of something to counter it, sometimes from what I’d read here already, and it made me constantly wonder what the message was.

She also inserts too much opinion that, as far as I can tell, is backed up by minimal fact or research, instead bent to the message she wants it to fit. “Have you noticed that often in a coffee shop now, someone will get to the front of the queue and ask for their latte in a takeaway cup, only to sit down and drink it in the café? It’s as if a ceramic cup and saucer feels like too much of a commitment.”

I’ve gotten a to-go cup and sat down because I’m going to leave before I’m finished, or I’m waiting for someone and leaving with them, or because like Ross Gay I loathe a saucer. I felt like Jerry Seinfeld reading this, always a “WHAT is the DEAL with THIS?!” in mind. (Don’t get me started on the war on snacks chapter.) Although I guess she was kind of doing the same thing. “WHAT is the DEAL with POTATO CHIPS that taste like something else? We don’t cook our grandparents’ food, we just eat CHIPS that TASTE like their food! Can’t a potato chip taste like a potato chip?!” You get the idea.

A discussion on the popularity of Buzzfeed’s Tasty recipe videos was also strangely opinion-centric. “In a world of celebrity and bad news, it seems that what many of us crave is the soothing sight of unknown hands doing things to food.” Really? Personally, I love those videos because, unlike many food blogs, I don’t have to scroll through someone’s life story, random philosophy, or personal diary entry to get to a recipe. This happened too much here, I kept wondering if I’m the one who’s misunderstanding everything. She used data, like about recipe videos’ popularity, but conclusions often seemed mere opinion.

These videos allow us to imagine that we, too, are floury-handed craftsmen in the kitchen rather than busy people whose thumbs are now used almost exclusively for swiping and tapping a small non-nutritious object.

That object is your phone, you can bet she’s got thoughts on that as well. Am I the only one who’s never watched a Tasty recipe video and fantasized I’m making it? Is that really what people are using them for?

I’m criticizing a lot, but she does make some easily agreeable points. I enjoyed her take on the bizarrity of Instagrammable food, and I had no idea that “It has only been with the endless brunch photos on Instagram that egg sales have finally started to rise again.”

She also has wise words about nonsense food trends, which she amusingly calls “extreme food reactions,” although not as in-depth as The Angry Chef or The Woman Who Fooled the WorldMy favorite elements were the completely fascinating facts peppered throughout, especially about historical cuisines and food choices. Did you know that in eighteenth-century Paris, you could complain to the police if you were sold sub-par bread, and bakers could be fined for it? Amazing.

As many gripes as I have, it was still worth it for some fascinating factoids. I didn’t like the tone, the structure of giving two bad or impossible options as comparisons to each other, and the data, although thorough, isn’t very well incorporated into the flow of the text. Maybe worthwhile for those unfamiliar with the kind of arguments she’s making in the first place. 2.5/5

The Way We Eat Now:
How the Food Revolution Has Transformed Our Lives, Our Bodies, and Our World

by Bee Wilson
published May 7, 2019 by Basic Books
Amazon / Book Depository

15 thoughts on “Health and Cultural Effects of the Global “Food Revolution”

  1. Very interesting review, I am left with the impression that this would drive me mad! I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about the food industry, just a million articles, but it’s a really fascinating and complex and infuriating subject and it sounds like this author just didn’t know what angle she wants to approach it from. Also I hate when authors make huge generalizations based on their own personality and nothing else – I echo your sentiment of ‘who watches food videos and fantasizes that they’re the one cooking?!’ Then again I only cook out of necessity so…

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    1. It drove me a bit mad too! I just couldn’t bring myself to give up because there were some fascinating little side stories, plus I do agree with so much of what she’s saying, but not much was new to me or I’d suspect many others interested in the same (like having read a lot of articles, you’ll already know all this) and it mostly felt so preachy. It’s definitely such a complex and multifaceted topic, and I think that’s where this failed – she made a valiant effort to include all angles of an issue, but there’s just too much to distill it like this, it always ends with the reader mentally going “Ok sure, but what about…” The focus was kind of a mess.

      The generalizations really bugged me! Seriously, who is watching those things like they’re first-person virtual reality food porn?! I watch them because they show procedures simply and there’s not a lot of nonsense like on people’s written recipe blogs. I just want a recipe, not a novel. I’ve heard Salt, Sugar, Fat is a good book that deals with similar topics as this one, I might try that one eventually, maybe you’d be interested in it too.

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  2. Not going to read this but must get my hands on The Woman Who Fooled the World – it’s been on my radar for a while as I am fascinated/appalled by this sort of fraud. I devoured Bad Blood (yikes, makes me sound like a vampire….)

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    1. I loved Bad Blood too (there’s just no way to use that title in a sentence without it sounding funny!) and The Woman Who Fooled the World was so good (and totally underrated, in my opinion!) I thought it would really only focus on her con, but the authors did a deep dive into the history of the wellness movement and why it’s so dangerous. It was so well done, if infuriating!

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      1. I have another fraudster book waiting for me at the library – The Woman Who Wasn’t There (think that’s the title) about woman who pretended to be 9/11 survivor, have you read that one too?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve read that one too – it’s very good! Such a crazy story there, too. There’s a short documentary that accompanies it, I think it’s still on YouTube, check it out after you read the book.

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  3. Your review made me laugh so hard! I’m with you on those Tasty videos. Nope, never imagined me making the recipes, it’s simply just more convenient and straight to the point than food blogs. Not to mention that since I’m a visual person and don’t use the Imperial measurement system, it’s easier for me to understand how much flour, salt, etc is going into a recipe.
    I’ve yet to read a good book on modern world diets. All the ones I tried to pick up were full of “scientific facts” that were probably twisted to fit the writer’s points. That and lots and lots of ridiculous generalizations. Sounds like this one won’t be the first book I read in this niche either… Lovely review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could make you laugh! It’s the only good outcome from so much frustration 😂 glad you also shared my experience with the recipe videos, seriously wtf? I’m also a visual person and my techniques aren’t actually all that good, so it helps me to see the nitty gritty of how things are done, what tools they’re using, etc. I thought that was pretty much the point with those, apparently not!

      I agree, I’ve yet to find a book on global modern diets that I really like either. This did have some interesting bits in that area, about how this current large-scale shift has changed long-standing food traditions in certain places, South Korea was an interesting one, for example, but overall I just didn’t find it well done and the tone and too-broad scope turned me off. If you find a good book covering that topic, let me know!

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  4. Incisive review! With books/docs like this, depending on how they “talk” to the audience, I find myself either inspired and motivated to eat healthier or repelled by how sanctimonious they are. The facts and interviews in this seem like they’d add an interesting twist, but the author’s attitude toward her readers sounds patronizing. It almost seems like she’s aware that books like this can come across as narrow minded and tries to compensate for that criticism by addressing “both sides” of a topic – but in so doing doesn’t make it clear what her point is.

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    1. You hit the nail on the head. The awareness that it could be taken the wrong way definitely seems a factor in trying to cover all the bases and compensate, but it was frustrating to read. I didn’t talk about the anti-snacks chapter, but it was a perfect example. Basically: “eating snacks all day is terrible, that’s not how they did it in old Ukraine, a child wouldn’t dare ask for a between-meal snack then! It’s making us fat and not appreciative of mealtimes, etc. But of course, some people prefer eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of a couple big ones.” Always a setup like that – what message is that conveying? Why make some readers potentially feel bad about something since the chapter is clearly about how she thinks we shouldn’t do this and yet she still acknowledges that this works for some people? It’s odd.

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  5. Seems counter productive to try and educate people about good/bad foods/eating habits, but then not really give them very good ideas about how to change it. It’s almost like saying, “Do better! But you’re screwed anyway!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That was EXACTLY what this one did and it drove me crazy! Do better but you’re screwed anyway could’ve been the subtitle. I like the idea of examining different perspectives but the way it was done felt so counterproductive.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m always skeptical of books that tell you how to eat, including this one, so I have to admit that I feel a certain satisfaction at seeing that skepticism justified here. I’m also sorry you spent time on a book you didn’t enjoy though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really thought it wouldn’t be telling how to eat but focusing on trends, changes, etc. And it did cover those things, but pretty drily and not well incorporated in the text, just paragraphs of facts and figures. And always this underlying message of how everything’s wrong no matter what we do! So frustrating. I considered abandoning it but it had enough interesting factoids here and there that seeing it through seemed worthwhile. Like someone else commented, it’s been hard to find a good book on modern world diets, so the search continues!

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