Books About Food Politics

I’ve written two theses on industrial agriculture, food politics, obesity, and American eating habits yet I still do not feel like I can truly call myself an expert. There are still so many books to read on the topic, so many books still to be written. But if there is a topic I constantly find myself suggesting nonfiction books for, it would be food politics (or, the more sinister sounding “Industrial Agriculture”).

Most people have heard of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan so I left it off my list of suggested reading below, and I tried to provide a mix of styles of nonfiction — narrative, academic, etc — so there is hopefully something for everyone. Of course, limiting myself to eight books means I’m only showing you the tip of the iceburg so I encourage anyone interesting in food to peruse my “food” category for additional titles. Or maybe you have one to recommend me?

foodbooks

  • Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss) — Moss utilizes examples from some of the most recognizable and profitable food companies and brands of the last half century — Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun — to explain how the average American ended up here. His book inspired many conversations with friends and acquaintances and is one of the few I have been able to apply to my eating habits.
  • Fast Food Nation (Eric Scholsser) — If I had to select one book that revolutionized how I “vote” for food, it would be Scholsser’s exposes on the fast food industry. Until Moss’ book, this was the book I would put forth as the best one to begin with.
  • America’s Food (Harvey Blatt) — This book is exactly what I was looking for when I launched the Honors Project back in 2012 and is probably the most academic title on this list. It is, however, one of the few books to compare the problems of the US food system with those around the (developed) world or assess consumption on a nation-wide scale.
  • Animal Factory (David Kirby) — I appreciate how Kirby does not demonize the farmer or the consumer. Instead, he concentrates on how the system as a whole is broken shying away from animal rights and focusing on the environmental and health problems derived from factory farming of meat.
  • The Big Fat Surprise (Nina Telcholz) — I’m cheating a bit because I have not actually read this title. It is on my to-read list and was heavily referenced in Moss’ book. From my understanding, the book looks at the, according to Telcholz, sketchy science behind the declaration that people avoid fatty foods such as butter. And who doesn’t want an excuse to use real butter in their recipes?
  • Bottled and Sold (Peter H. Gleick) — What I liked best about Gleick’s book, which examines bottled water, was how accessible it is. There’s no complicated jargon that makes it difficult to understand the situation.
  • Food Politics (Marion Nestle) — The amount of information contained in this book can be slightly overwhelming, but Nestle is the one author who succinctly dismantles the idea that the responsibility for obesity begins and ends with an individual. I also love her chapter on the food pyramid (now a plate) and how the food industry manipulated it to confuse the consumer.
  • Tomatoland (Barry Estabrook) — By focusing on a single item, Estabrook is able to cover all the hidden aspects of industrial agriculture — its dependence upon illegal immigration, the deplorable working conditions, the bland taste of America’s produce. One of the most shocking facts I gleamed from this book is that consumers cannot achieve variety by purchasing grape or cheery tomatoes instead of slicing tomatoes because each so-called variation in the American grocery story is from the same type of tomato and only differ in appearance.
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25 thoughts on “Books About Food Politics

  1. I’ve not read any of these, but I think this is an area of non fiction I need to get more involved in. I recently read Michael Pollan’s latest book ‘Cook’ and loved it. I haven’t read The Omnivore’s Delight, but it is now right at the top of my wishlist. Thanks for highlighting other books I should be getting to.

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    1. I can’t remember exactly how I heard about it, but it is one of the best books I’ve read on the topic of food politics. I love how it explores major issues — exploitation of illegal immigrants, degradation of taste, cross-country (or international) shipping — through a single item.

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  2. Thanks for this excellent list. BiblioBoyfriend read Salt, Sugar, Fat and really enjoyed it, but became quite annoying to grocery shop with afterwards. We had to analyze the ingredients and contents of every single item before we could buy anything!

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    1. Oh, gosh, I did the same thing. I think my parents were happy when I moved out because it meant I stopped reminding them that what they’re eating is well over the 25 teaspoons of sugar they are allotted for the day.

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  3. Interesting list, I’ve not read any except Fast Food Nation. I’ve seen a few documentaries on the subject though. As for books, I have read Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer’s books on meat and food.

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    1. Fast Food Nation completely revolutionized how I eat so I highly recommend it. I would like to read In Defense of Food. I’ve heard even better things about it than The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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  4. What an interesting and timely topic. What a difference it would make if every American consumer would just read two of the books you curated here. “Bottled & Sold” is one that I had not seen, but has to be interesting. I am always surprised what folks can charge for bottled water these days. Thanks for putting this list together.

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    1. I would be thrilled if people stopped buying bottled water. There’s a rather humorous point in Bottled and Sold where a bottled water company was running an advert saying their water isn’t called “Cleveland Water”. The City of Cleveland became so offended that they had independent tests run showing the city’s water was cleaner than that of the bottled water company’s.

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  5. Wow! So many great books to discover here. I have read Omnivore’s Dilemma and it was fairly eye-opening (I mean I knew that high fructose corn syrup was prevalent but not EVERYWHERE). You definitely have me intrigued about Food Politics and I’ve also had Salt Sugar Fat on my to read list.

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    1. If you thought Omnivore’s Dilemma was eye-opening, I think you’ll be rather shocked by Salt Sugar Fat and Food Politics. Really puts the new calorie counts on the front of packaging into perspective.

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    1. I have In Praise of Slow on my to-read list. The focus of my thesis was on food products sold in convenience stores and low-income neighborhoods hence the slant towards books exploring processed food.

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    1. Yes, I went through a bit of a binge researching for my thesis that now I’m taking a break from the topic. But I’ve noticed my eating and purchasing habits have also started to take a break as a result.

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  6. What a great list! I’ve read Salt, Sugar, Fat and I’ve read Tomatoland and both were excellent. I’ll definitely have to read the other books on your list. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. There’s been a surge of books about food over the last decade or so, and it’s been interesting to watch the trends change from food as it relates to human health to food production as an environmental issue. I like that your list encompasses books from both ends of the spectrum! 🙂 I own Salt Sugar Fat and Fast Food Nation, but haven’t had time to read them yet. Both Bottled & Sold and Tomatoland look fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Christina!

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    1. My pleasure, Sophie! I’m glad you think the list encompasses the whole spectrum as that’s what I was going for. Hopefully, you’ll learn something from all four of these books.

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