You find recipes, lots of recipes, in what writer Mark Bittman is probably best known for, cookbooks like “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” and “How to Cook Everything Fast.” But a few of Bittman’s food-related books replace recipes with a dash of something else.
Author, filmmaker, and social activist Naomi Klein calls his historical perspective on farming and food, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), his “most radical and profound book to date” and for good reason.
On page 179, for instance, he chastises the United States Department of Agriculture for publishing in 1923 deceiving “(B.S.)” thereby “set[ting] the stage for overeating.” Two decades later, he argues, the USDA made overeating “a government standard” by how it created what is now called the Dietary Reference Intakes for nutrients.
To do so, the USDA took “what it believed was the average nutrient requirements for ‘normal adult maintenance,’” and for no seemingly health-related reason increased them by 50 percent. Worse, the agency set only minimums for these nutrients, “ignoring upper limits on intake, lest they inhibit sales.”
Bittman believes edicts like this one have opened the floodgates and led to the creation of thousands of processed foods “contain[ing] either empty or harmful calories” that our government has decided not to regulate. While laissez-faire governing is one thing, turning a blind eye is another.
Since the USDA’s “(B.S.)” pronouncement in 1923 – that all of the foods now available can “contribute” to a diet’s “wholesomeness” – there’s been an across-the-board increase in diet-related diseases as well as a doubling of the incidence of heart disease.
That makes good old Uncle Sam, in Bittman’s eyes, guilty of “criminal negligence.”
Although it leans toward the left, don’t dismiss ”Animal, Vegetable, Junk” as a tree-hugger’s rant. Most sections read like an educational documentary.
In chapter 10, for example, Bittman explains the benefit to planting soy as part of a crop rotation. Not only does it replace the nitrogen leeched from the soil by many other crops, but it’s also an “almost incomparably nutritious” food, containing up to three times the amount of protein in other beans and grains, a fair amount of fiber, and plenty of micronutrients. “Grown sustainably, it could contribute mightily to the health of perhaps a quarter of the world’s eaters.”
But soy helps livestock mightily, too, so guess what the mega-farms in America do with most of their yield? The same as they do with much of the corn and oats harvested: Create animal feed.
There’s far more money to be made selling meat to the already well-fed than soy products to the poor.
When Bittman chronicles other changes that have led to Americans now getting 60 percent of their calories from ultra-processed foods and consuming 33 percent more total calories than they did in the 1950s, his style remains straightforward and unadorned.
Such as: “Fast food skyrocketed from a six-billion-dollar industry in 1970 to well over two hundred billion dollars in 2015. The per capita number of restaurants more than doubled, and calorie consumption from fast food quadrupled.”
As well as: “‘Available calories’ – all production minus all exports – increased by thirty percent in the second half of the twentieth century … The result being that the average American male weighed 25 pounds more in 2002 than he did in 1960, while the average weight of women is now what it was for men fifty years ago.”
So when Bittman calls all these purely-for-profit improvements “an organized attack on our collective health,” it comes across as unquestionable rather than controversial. By the time you finish the book, even its subtitle, “A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal,” seems accurate rather than exaggerated.
With that said, I’ll stand atop my soapbox a bit longer to urge you to do what American adults are doing less and less.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the winter of 2016, 27 percent of American adults did not read even a part of a book – whether in print, electronic or audio form – in 2015. In 2017, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences reported that the number of American adults who read at least one book for pleasure in the previous year fell to the lowest level on record, a bit below 53 percent.
It makes sense for you, however, to buck those trends and read this book.
What “Animal, Vegetable, Junk,” does best is show you how “everything is connected.”
Read it critically – no, not the way you skim stuff on your smartphone – and you’ll understand the undesirable domino effect of chowing down at some place like McDonald’s. Or adding to your shopping cart those ultra-processed foods loaded with the fat, sugar, and salt, tastes you’ve been “hardwired to crave” yet harm you if you overeat them.