________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 8 . . . . October 23, 2015


Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat.

Paula Ayer.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2015.
206 pp., trade pbk., hc., pdf & html, $16.95 (pbk.), $26.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-718-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-719-0 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-55451-721-3 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-55451-720-6 (html).

Subject Heading:
Food-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Joanne Peters and Danylo Kruk.

*** /4



Let's take a trip back in time - 20,000 years back. There are no fast-food restaurants for you to eat in, no coffee shops on every corner, and no grocery stores. In fact, people haven't even figured out how to plant things in the ground to make them grow. Even so, food is one of the central preoccupations of your life, and trying to find it takes most of your waking hours. You spend your days tracking and hunting animals, fishing, or searching for roots, leaves, fruits, seeds and insects. Next comes cleaning, gutting, skinning, shelling, and pounding - transforming hairy, bony animal carcasses and hard or indigestible plants into things you can actually eat. Food is a constant effort, and you're never sure where it will come from next. The threat of starvation is always near.

Now imagine you're in a modern supermarket. Everywhere you turn there are piles of ripe fruits and vegetables, neatly wrapped cuts of meat, and colorful packages. There are foods that don't grow anywhere near where you live, and foods that were harvested many months earlier. Everything is cleaned, prepared, refined, packaged, and ready to eat. All you need to do is swish your groceries past the scanner and pullout your wallet.

To someone from the distant past, the way we get our food today would seem miraculous. It would even surprise a time traveler from merely a hundred years ago, when people still grew or raised much of what they ate, and prepackaged food was a luxury. Given the easy access we have today, it's hard not to think that we've made amazing progress.

So how exactly did we get here? (pp. 7-8)

Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat takes the reader on a 206-page journey through time, from the hunter-gatherer culture of millennia past, to the present century, when the variety and availability of food have never been greater (especially in the Western world), and concern about the "right" diet and proper nutrition have morphed into something approaching obsession. How did humans change from being mainly vegetarians into the omnivorous species that we are today? The first of the book's seven chapters, "From Grazing to Global", sets the stage, highlighting a number of key turning points: the discovery of fire and the process of cooking, the development of agriculture, and most significantly, the rise of urban centres. People have to settle in one location in order to grow or raise their food, and, if they have surplus crops or livestock, those items can be traded for other commodities. Technological advances made farming increasingly more labour-efficient, and rapid, long-distance transport made it possible to deliver food to locations far distant from the original source of production. During the 20th century, the selling of food also underwent major changes. For centuries, people had bought their food in some type of central marketplace or at a vendor who specialized in the preparation and selling of meats, fish, dairy, baked goods, or fresh produce. Reliable refrigeration led to the modern multi-department supermarket at which most of us purchase our food today.

      But the ease with which the 21st century consumer satisfies his or her food needs come with some serious compromises. Despite the proliferation of food brands, flavours and varieties found in the typical supermarket, "you could link almost every food or drink in the store to one of a handful of multinational companies that control a big slice of all the food produced, sold, and eaten worldwide." (p. 35) "Food Inc.", the book's second chapter, offers a comprehensive overview of food production as big business. Large multinational corporations control the diversity of food we consume (the "fresh" foods that we buy are limited to those breeds or produce varieties which yield reliably or which can be stored and/or shipped with minimal spoilage.) Farms are bigger than ever, but, because it is more efficient and financially profitable to cultivate fewer varieties of any agricultural product, biodiversity is lost. When a monoculture dominates, "disease, pests, fungus, or climate change can have devastating effects on our food supply if they wipe out a key variety of plant or animal." (p. 42) The economics of food production make high volumes of food available, but negatively affect small-scale farmers and producers, the food processing industry, and often result create inhumane or unhealthy conditions under which animals, poultry, and fish are farmed, raised, and brought to market.

      The connection between health and nutrition is the main focus of Chapter 3, "Good for You", that examines the ongoing and often contradictory discussion amongst nutrition experts as to what foods truly are good for you. We all need protein, carbohydrates, and fats, but the food sources from which we obtain those basic nutritional building blocks can have vastly different impacts on how our bodies metabolize and then utilize them. Sugar may be "the taste of happiness", but it is "also one of the worst things we can eat" (p. 80). Have some sugar, and you crave some more; continue to ingest too much sugar and type 2 diabetes can become a potential health risk. As for fats, which type of fat is the better, saturated or unsaturated, or are both bad for us? There's no ready agreement on that question, but trans fats are definitely bad news and have actually been banned in some countries. One thing is definite: individuals respond uniquely to their dietary intake; some experience allergic reactions, some live on junk food but stay thin and healthy, and others are incredibly discerning as to what and how much they eat, yet "get sick all the time." (p. 92) For those who can't seem to win the war against the excess pounds (or kilograms), diet books, specialized nutrition programs, and extreme diets, promising quick and easy weight loss, offer solutions, but the solutions are usually temporary, and, in the case of those individuals who maintain extremely low food intakes, or choose detoxes or cleanses, serious health outcomes can be the result.

      Although we rarely think of it, chemistry has been used for eons either to preserve food or to improve its taste. In addition to heating and chilling, fermentation, drying, smoking, pickling or dry brining, are all chemical processes which affect food at the molecular level. However, in the last 100 years, food chemistry has been raised to a new level. Convenience foods - canned, ready-to-eat items, packaged mixes and frozen meals - had their origin in the military, but, by the 1950's, they were a commonplace, and, in fact, "a status symbol: it showed that you could afford to spend money." (p. 109) Those of us who enjoyed Jell-O desserts as kids would hardly think of it as "Franken-food", but Chapter 4 offers a brief history of processed food, and boxes of (artificially) flavoured gelatine are definitely a part of that story. Chemical processing of food isn't necessarily a bad thing: pasteurization keeps milk and juices safe for consumption. But artificial colours and flavourings, chemical preservatives to improve shelf stability and inhibit spoilage, added sweeteners, and genetic modifications to oil seeds, fruits, and vegetables can reduce or destroy the nutritional value of many foods.

      Even when we try to maintain a nutritionally-sound diet, avoid processed foods, and balance our food intake with exercise outputs, we may still find ourselves susceptible to the messages of food marketers. Chapter 5 explores and demystifies "The Secrets of Food Selling". "Massive amounts of money are spent persuading us to buy as much as possible while a great deal of time and effort goes into researching exactly the right way to appeal to consumers: what packaging to use, what flavors and colours, what kind of advertising, and how and where to target them." (p. 128) Kids and teenagers are the biggest target market, but adults are in the marketers' sights as well, and whether the medium is text or technology, food producers have plenty to gain from selling a particular brand, touting the nutritional virtues of various food products (such as kale or goji berries, the latest "superfoods"), or making it cost-effective to purchase larger amounts of food than can be used before spoiling or than is healthy to consume (who really needs a "super-sized" serving of fries?).

      Anyone who has ever been the victim of food poisoning or who has accidentally ingested contaminated food is grateful that the experience is usually a rare one. Despite the hard work of government agencies tasked with regulating, labelling, and supervising food safety (such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency), food-borne illness still occurs. "Food Rules!", the book's sixth chapter, details the potential sources of food contamination: "improper handling, storage, or cooking, and can come from bacteria and viruses, parasites, molds, toxins, and other contaminants." (p. 160) Stories of e.coli infested ground beef or listeria-infected luncheon meat get huge media play, but in North America, strong food safety systems make such incidents comparatively rare. Consumers also need to do their part to be vigilant. Chapter 6 offers tips on food-handling safety, as well as minimizing exposure to packaging substances, such as BPA (bisphenol A), commonly used to plasticize food containers and water bottles. Commitment to avoiding food or drinks known to cause long-term health problems, such as trans fats, sugar-laden beverages, and energy drinks, is an issue of personal responsibility, and labelling of the nutritional content of packaged foods and restaurant menu items makes it easier to choose one's food wisely.

      The book's final chapter, "What's on Your Plate?", offers the reader an opportunity to re-consider his or her own food choices: what to eat, where to obtain one's food, how to obtain it (exploring options such as growing or gathering, rather than buying), and getting out of the fast-food lane by learning to shop wisely and cook one's own meals. Change takes place, one small step at a time, and Foodprints provides plenty of food for thought as to how to go about making even small changes in what and how we eat.

      Foodprints is targeted at an audience aged 12 and up, and, as an adult reader (with an avid interest in food and cooking), I learned much that was new to me. But, I decided that I needed the opinion of someone from Ayer's target audience. I asked Danylo Kruk, Grade 6 student at John Henderson School in Winnipeg, MB, to read Foodprints and offer his comments and responses. Danylo has a reputation in his family as a young man with serious cooking chops; maybe not yet ready to audition for Iron Chef, but in a few years, who knows?

      Danylo agreed that the target audience of age 12+ was spot-on: "Smaller kids would lose interest in the book and there are too many complicated words for them." The length of this book review indicates that Foodprints is packed with information, and much of it deals with sophisticated concepts such as the science, marketing and economics of food. Danylo stated that "now that I have read the whole book, I feel that there were some times when there was too much information to digest" (no pun intended.) Still, we both found the content to be both highly readable and thoroughly engaging, with interesting sidebars, plenty of photos and illustrations, and one-page graphics featuring "Infobites". Danylo stated that the graphics were well-placed "to keep the reader somewhat interested", but he felt that they were more supplementary than explanatory of the rest of the content. Danylo's favourite chapter was "Food Inc." He stated: "I like meat, which makes me like to know where it comes from. I also noted a couple of facts which I found most interesting: In the U. S., 7 billion chickens are killed each year - about 22 chickens for each person in the country. That's a lot of nuggets!' And 'Around 80 percent of the antibiotics supply in the U. S. is administered to ANIMALS!" Clearly, those are statistics which offer plenty of food for thought about what you're eating. Another feature which Danylo enjoyed was the collection of "Weird Fun Facts" sprinkled throughout the book Comprehensive source lists and an Index conclude the book.

      Danylo's final comment is that Foodprints is "a good book for learning and doing research, . . . an informative book and very colourful." I think that it would provide interesting and useful supplementary content for middle and high school nutrition classes, as well as the agriculture and food production components of high school geography classes. Both Danylo and I would both rate the book as a 3 ½ star selection, well worth acquiring for middle and high school libraries.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a retired teacher-librarian who lives in Winnipeg, MB.

Danylo Kruk is a grade 6 student at John Henderson School, also in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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