Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.
—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
What’s in your fridge right now? Your kitchen cupboards? Go ahead — open the door and take a peek. I’ll do the same. Some of it I’m happy to share publicly. The fridge is filled with a variety of vegetables and fruits — apples, lots of apples, as it’s fall and I went apple-picking last weekend — along with some eggs, a carton of milk, a bottle of salad dressing. But wait, is that a Diet Coke back there? And does that salad dressing say “sugar-free?” Now, to the cupboards. Along with dried rice and beans, canned peas, dried fruit, and oatmeal, is that a box of cereal with “thirteen vitamins and minerals,” some “whole wheat” crackers, a bag of “low-fat” cookies?
In What the Fork Are You Eating?: An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate, Stefanie Sacks encourages us to take a closer look at the food we use to fuel our bodies. After reading the book you may pause at what you’re putting in your grocery cart.
Sacks, a certified chef who also has a master’s of science in nutrition, offers a frank take on what we eat — what’s really inside, whether we realize it or not. To wit: The book begins by describing additives we would do better without. Did you know some of these additives are approved by the FDA not because they’ve been tested but because we’ve been eating them for some years? When an ingredient is categorized as “generally recognized as safe,” it just means we’ve already been chowing on it. That includes chemical preservatives with names like benzoate, sorbate, and sulfite. Even as newer research brings their safety in certain contexts into question, they remain lurking near the end of many products’ ingredient lists.
Sacks also shares disturbing insights about geographic differences. In Europe, for example, a McDonald’s strawberry sundae is colored with — drum roll please — strawberries! Here? Red number forty. Which would you prefer?
From sugar in its various forms to hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs, the book sheds light on various ingredients that can creep into our food without our even realizing. Remember those whole wheat crackers in my cupboard? Sacks walks through each of their twenty-six ingredients, pointing out the many ways sugar can appear on the list. For a simple cracker? Yipes! She also deconstructs what various lingo really mean, from “grass-fed” to “kosher” to “certified humane” — so you know what your money is really buying. Through this process, she helps us rehab our own kitchen, swapping out the processed for the natural and the heavily preserved for the fresh.
While overall I found the book informative, I wish there had been more emphasis on the positive. I appreciated that Sacks does make an effort to offer “better for you” alternatives to each group of foods she nixes. These include things like sticking to natural flavorings rather than artificial ones or keeping blood sugar within healthy limits by combining sugar with a little fat or protein rather than just reaching for something sugar-free. However, the first section of the book is largely a long, negative list of “no’s” combined with a heavy dose of the worst-case scenarios science has to offer.
Am I advocating we chug down red number forty? Absolutely not. So I appreciate Sacks’s message. Sometimes that message simply felt a little overly dramatized or selective. For example, yes, some studies have shown increased rates of cancer in animals fed large amounts of artificial sweeteners, but there are also studies showing increased rates of cancer in animals fed large amounts of peanuts. Okay, so it’s a type of mold that grows on the peanuts, not the peanuts themselves, but you get the idea. Just because it is natural doesn’t mean it is safe.
Still, the book provides an important message: We need to be more aware of what we put on our plates. This may not be the end-all, be-all of healthy eating guides, but it will help you move away from harmful foods.
What the Fork Are You Eating?: An Action Plan for Your Pantry and Plate
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, December 2014
Paperback, 400 pages