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Eat your heart out - Why the food business is bad for the planet and your health

Eat your heart out - why the food business is bad for the planet and your health

By Felicity Lawrence
Published by Penguin
Website: www.penguin.com
2008, 339pp, ISBN 978 0 141 02601 5(Pb), £8.99

The apparently indisputable virtue of choice is one of the founding principles of modern democracy - a belief in our ability to make informed decisions about the future. But in the developed world, food choices verge on the superfluous: low-fat, low-carb, wheat-free, sugar-free, free range…the list goes on and tediously on. But, as The Guardian newspaper's investigative reporter Felicity Lawrence makes abundantly clear, these "choices" are really just a façade. She believes that what most of us in the rich West eat is largely controlled and supplied by big business - in many cases supported by government subsidies. And if that's not enough, it's not even good for us.

Eat your heart out aims to shake both the reader and the food industry to their foundations. It is a comprehensive, in-depth exposé of food production, marketing and distribution systems, and how they are inextricably linked to decades of oil abundance. The first chapter, on the preponderance of the boxed, processed breakfast cereals in the British and American diets, is worth reading more than once. Lawrence is at once impressed and appalled by the way this predominance has been achieved: "Somehow they have wormed into our confused consciousness as intrinsically healthy," she writes, "when by and large they are degraded foods that have to have any goodness artificially restored." She positively revels in the head of Kellogg Europe's confession that without the added salt in the company's flagship Cornflakes cereal there would be more to taste if you ate the box they came in.

This is just one of a number of lids lifted by Lawrence. She lambastes supermarkets' centralised packing houses that take local food hundreds of miles away from their place of origin, only to package them in oil-derived plastics and drive them back to stores near the fields in which they grew. No respite either for the manufacturers of "bio"-yoghurts, whose gut flora-friendly pre-and probiotic drinks provide our ailing digestive systems with the nutrients excessive processing removed from our diets in the first place. And, nowhere to hide for those behind the environmental destruction and slave-like working conditions of the vast soya plantations in the Amazon. Needless to say, names like Cargill, Bunge and Unilever, to name but a few global food giants, pop up time and again.

In the closing chapter, "Food for tomorrow", Lawrence outlines her own vision of the future. She champions the 'whole food' approach, not just to maintain better health, but because processed food is unsustainable due to its dependency on an era of cheap oil, which is now, perhaps, in its endgame. Local, seasonal consumption together with organic production are central pillars in her ideal food system.

The amount of explosive information presented is compromised by the disappointing absence of an index, making it difficult to track down and re-examine some of the heart-stopping facts. But, for the best part, witty, wise and well-researched, Eat your heart out is timely, troubling and ultimately essential reading for the discerning western consumer, keen to make real changes while they still have a choice.

Date published: September 2008

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