Monday, February 09, 2009

A World of Difference

One of the benefits of working with books all day is that I can often get my hands on a new book before it even gets to the shelves. The person who labels the books knows of my interest in food, and she generally passes things along to me before they move to the circulating collection.

Recently she came across the book What the World Eats and thought I would be interested. I had heard about it some time earlier so was happy to look through it.

The premise of the book is colorful and pointed: the author and photographer visited families around the world and photographed those families with one week's worth of their food consumption. The photograph faces a list and economic breakdown of all the food products consumed in a week, with the costs and U.S. equivalents. And where those items were homegrown, a market price is added to them.

It's fascinating to see how family diets compare from the developed world (countries such as Australia, France, Great Britain, the United States) to the varying levels of income found in the developing world (Chad, Ecuador, Mali) as well as a range of countries whose economic situations settle them somewhere in the middle (Guatemala, India, Mexico, Poland).

What struck me most profoundly is how much processed food can be found in the diets across the wealthier and middle-of-the-road nations. It may not surprise you that the three American families featured have weekly grocery hauls that rely heavily on convenience food, but I was struck by the quantity of packaged food products found in China, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, and even France, the ideal food-lover's haven.

In looking over these detailed pictures and grocery lists, I found myself wondering which family's diet came closest to my own. Nothing matched it exactly, of course, but the limited quantities of processed foods in my pantry or refrigerator and the abundance of produce actually put me closer to the food consumed by the Indian and the Guatemalan families in the book.

(I also considered the Renaissance Man's usual food stores and found his diet to come closer to that found in Mali: heavy on the grains, moderate amounts of the same vegetables over and over, limited dairy and processed food. The exceptions would be his love of honey, jam, maple syrup, and tea. But even he thought that the Mali family enjoyed more food than he did!)

The text, which includes a fuller description of the families' lifestyles and eating habits, is interspersed with colorful graphs and charts that illustrate related food and economic facts, from average income and literacy to the number of McDonald's franchises in the country and this stunning chart revealing the obesity rates in the countries. (Yes, the U.S. tops the obesity charts for men, though the percentage of obese women is higher only in Kuwait.)

I think it would be wonderful if everyone read this book and thought a little more about their own food habits. To me, the most enticing looking diets were those that had a rich array of colorful fruits and vegetables -- not the ones with the colorful boxes and bags -- but even those whole-foods family photographs caused me to stop and think about some of the details in my own diet. Are there areas where perhaps I don't eat as healthy as I should? Of course! But taking the time to consider the matter certainly helps me to be more mindful of my next food choices.

I'd also add that the grocery lists and costs that accompany each family's photo reinforce the point that good eating doesn't have to be expensive -- that the diets more heavily weighted toward processed foods end up being more expensive. That, too, is worth further consideration in these times.

The book doesn't preach, it just lays out the information and invites you to make your own comparisons.

But it certainly speaks volumes.

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At 2/10/2009 2:39 PM, Blogger Tara said...

We've used similar books that compare families material goods and so forth for school and I find them fascinating. This one looks equally as intriguing. Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.

We hosted a German exchange student years ago and one day I found her taking pictures of our cabinets and fridge to send home. Needless to say, that was a catalyst to begin examining our diet, consumption and food waste a bit closer. Ahem.

At 2/10/2009 2:55 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Wow, I can imagine that was a real eye-opener, Tara. :-) We're so used to what we have around us that we don't often stop and examine what it is that we actually have and use and do. I think that's why I like this book -- it's yet another "reality check" for me.


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