In “Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies and Culture”, Kristin Lawless provides an eye-opening look at just how much trouble our health and our environment is in as a result of our current approach to food. This book is designed to educate readers based on current science and facts and inspire you to take action—and it meets both of those goals exceptionally well.
Lawless starts by detailing just how processed our food really is. Just about everything we buy in a package has been mechanically separated. The key components have been stripped of their nutritious bits (being less shelf-stable) and then a myriad of chemicals including artificial flavors, preservatives, fats, sugars, sodium, and synthetic vitamins are added in their place. These food-like substances are then wrapped in materials that leach chemicals which are known, independently, to interfere with our hormonal, metabolic, and neurodevelopment systems. No one knows yet what happens when these chemicals work together, but my guess is that it’s not good. Additionally, there are trace amounts of all the chemicals used to produce the “food” in the resulting products, including pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, growth hormones and antibiotics. One scientist quoted claimed that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the average American is consuming more than one hundred different additives a day.”
The moral of the story is that the majority of us are not eating real food. She even explains how slippery and unreliable words like “organic”, “cage free”, “grass-fed”, and “heart healthy” can be as product descriptors. The barriers to getting real food are legitimate, even for those with ample financial resources. Such barriers include proximity to stores and fresh food markets, the amount of processing (even in organic products) and the length of time it takes to get the food to the shelf. The agri-food industry powerfully influences what we eat. I don’t know about you, but as someone who considered herself reasonably well informed about nutrition and makes a number of conscious buying decisions while at the grocery store and farmers markets, I’m glad to know the truth because it will now influence how I select and spend my money on food.
Lawless shows how we get hooked on processed foods early, even before we are born; when our mothers eat processed foods while pregnant, we develop cravings for these foods. She also outlines the ways our diet is inextricably linked with issues of poverty, public health, nutrition, work, housework, gender roles, and ultimately the environment. She brings a rigorous investigation to recent research and studies about food to show how many of our current beliefs around food and nutrition were a result of either bad studies or information taken out of context to support marketing.
All of this would be rather depressing, except for the fact that she concludes with a New Food Movement Manifesto, including wholistic suggestions for real, sustainable change.
In this highly accessible book, Lawless effectively connects the dots for the reader. Even a chapter on fats, a subject in which I usually get bogged down in the lingo of “saturated”, “trans”, “polyunsaturated”, and “monounsaturated”, was easy to follow with a handy legend and clear connections to health impacts.
I was surprised to read Lawless’s strong opinions about gender roles. She explains that the invention of home appliances took away the traditional skills of running a house, and therefore the value of “women’s work” in the home. Lawless says the trend in society today is for women to work outside of the home, which has many spending long hours away from the family and leaves less time and energy for grocery shopping or planning healthy meals. Lawless states, “The deterioration of our national health is a reflection of what has happened in the home, and particularly our kitchens, over the past several generations.” Even though our survival literally depends on our nourishment, most of us consistently choose convenience over quality.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the various “nutrition facts” in mainstream media, believe that “calories in equal calories out”, are curious to know just how insidious food marketing is, or are concerned about the environmental impacts of our current food landscape, then this book is for you!
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.