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An Apple A Day: Science, Easy to Swallow

February 9, 2011

An Apple a Day: The Myths, Misconceptions And Truths About the Foods We Eat
Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D.
Other Press 2009 354

Ordinarily, I’m wary of books about food and the science of our food system. Because, once a book takes the stance that toxins are everywhere and every possible food or additive or habit causes cancer and big farm corporations are evil and we’re all gonna DIE… I’m about ready to hide in a kitchen cabinet and whimper.

So- I was a little skittish in the first few pages, wondering when the alarmist doom was going to start. What I found, instead, was delightfully reassuring science. It was like attending a series of lectures by a congenial, articulate college professor. In concise, but fact-packed chapters, Schwarcz reassures me about all sorts of otherwise scary food headlines.

Irradiated food? Won’t actually make you glow in the dark. Or cause cancer. Pesticides? A quick wash will get rid of all but the barely tiniest amount of pesticides, and what’s left won’t be enough to get you. Eat your vegetables. It really, really doesn’t matter if they’re conventional or organic. Eat oatmeal too. And maybe a little less salt.
It’s like having a congenial uncle (or my retired science teacher grandpa, who I miss terribly) explain the science and history of nutrition. Accessible, fun, even funny, while unpacking conventional wisdom about what makes a diet healthy. He looks at original studies, evaluates the science, and helps readers understand the ways that science got warped by news headlines into a big, scary sensation.

I liked this book. I’m sorry I’m going to have to take it back to the library. After reading it, I want to keep it close to hand, to flip through pages and reread some of the straightforward, well focused chapters. There are interesting things to learn on every page. Apples contain acetone and cyanide, in miniscule amounts, along with all the good, cancer-preventing antioxidants. The whole Popeye getting strong from spinach idea started because a few decimal points were misplaced in a report on spinach’s iron content. And most of the scientists credited with the discovery of artificial sweeteners did so by licking their fingers, accidentally. Gross! Of course, I want to show Lisa the studies about wine.

What makes this book work so well is that it’s packed with information, but stays conversational. And if Schwarcz is going to give any advice, he keeps it upbeat and practical, rather than alarmist. I appreciate that. Reading about health and science means, on some level, looking for some kind of impossible standard to live up to, to make everything safe and okay, and possibly joyless. Joe Schwarcz explains nutrition like a man who’s not afraid of a cheeseburger once in a while. Take that, sensationalist peril-happy journalism! I’ll be over here in Schwarcz’s camp, being happy, reasonably healthy, and eating tasty things.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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