What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.
Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.
The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.
Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.
My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.