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Book reviews

The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating, Anthony Winson, UBC Press, 2013, 340 pages

  • Allison Snelgrove

Corps de l’article

In the pursuit of ever-higher profit margins, corporations have commodified what we eat to a startling degree. Adulterated, highly processed, nutrient-poor “pseudo-foods” put our health at risk with excessive amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated and trans fats (25). This book traces the economic and social history of the “industrial mass diet” and calls for systemic reform (1). That chronic diseases and obesity are on the rise as a result of the broken food system is not news. With so many influential books about the degradation of the North American diet to peruse, including bestsellers such as Kelly Brownell and Katherine Battle Horgen’s Food Fight or Eric Schlosser’s now iconic Fast Food Nation, adding fire to the already inflamed discussion seems no easy task. Any book wishing to take the conversation further has a lot of recapitulation to do first.

What this book does so well, beyond re-highlighting notable events in the history of the food business or delineating how capitalist success stories have favoured the bottom line over our, and our livestock’s, well-being, is bring crucial Canadian content and experience into a conversation that is consistently global in scope. If America remains the origin, and the centre, of the fast-food debate, then here we see how Canadians in particular are being affected and how we feature globally. Using data from Canada-wide scientific studies and archives, the author discusses the degradation and simplification of whole foods. It was surprising to learn that the variety of fresh produce typically on hand is somewhat illusory: where 130 apple varieties were once grown in the Annapolis Valley of the early twentieth century, Nova Scotians now only find a handful of varieties in a typical grocery storeaisle (161). The author’s own research and mapping of the typical Canadian supermarket, where over 30 percent of floor space is now devoted to pathogenic “pseudo-foods,” exposes the extent to which the so-called healthy circle around the perimeter of the store is increasingly corrupted by sugary juices, ice creams, and produce lacking the vitamins and minerals it once contained (200).

Much of the data here hits the spot. We all know our food system is broken, but the author uses little known historical and anthropological anecdotes to quantify just how far we’ve strayed from a nutritious diet. But there is hope beyond fear: we learn about the positive impact of back-to-basics food movements in California schools and about similar community developments in Toronto. What a reader might rightly yearn for, even more so than a cornucopia of detail on the development of the cereal industry or on the spatial colonization of fast-food markets, is a clear prescriptive strategy telling us how to eat better. Although in the last forty pages or so the author plants seeds for change, insisting that schools ban sugary, fatty junk food and that people eat less factory-farmed meat, more whole foods, and fewer processed products, the book leaves the reader to ponder an interesting dilemma. In our current reality, how can the majority get access to leaner, ethically raised meat, unadulterated whole grains, and more nutrient-rich and varied produce without breaking the bank? Perhaps the reason that this book is frequently repetitive, re-iterating the influence of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or notion that dry cereal is hardly a wise food choice, is that it is easier to describe the dire situation we face as a malnourished nation than it is to solve it.

This nevertheless fascinating book re-invigorates the information available on the state of our diet and food economy in Canada, and around the world, and broadly posits first steps in inciting change. The notes are diligent and point the reader in new research directions. The index facilitates easy cross-referencing of pertinent terminology and data. Such tools aid in contemplating a broad discussion stretching from the roots of the flour-milling industry to the way that McDonald’s is changing, and changing to accommodate, the upwardly mobile middle-class in urban China. Anyone interested in learning about how the human diet has changed since Paleolithic times, anyone ready to open their eyes to the nefarious deficiencies of the contemporary food market, anyone ready to change their eating habits to live better, even foodies in the know have something new and vital to glean from reading this book.

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