Modern eating has changed radically, in ways that would have been unimaginable even fifty years ago. That is the thesis of food writer Bee Wilson, as set out in her book, The Way We Eat Now, published in March 2019. Food may seem mundane and ordinary, and so we rarely stop to think about modern ways of eating. We eat food from all over the world; we munch on snacks; we eat out regularly; we order food delivered to our homes; we go on diets; we worry about the different nutrients in our food; we photograph our food and post it on social media. All of these things represent radical changes in both what we eat, and how we eat it.
The Way We Eat Now is a thorough examination of food trends across the world, especially in the era since World War II. When considered from an historical perspective, the speed of change is staggering - and it is getting quicker. Take the Icelandic yoghurt skyr. Eaten in Iceland since Viking times, before June 2015 it had never been sold on a commercial scale in the UK. Now it is all in major supermarkets. 10 years ago, barely anyone had heard of skyr outside of Iceland. Now the global market is worth $8 billion, skyr has been mentioned more than a quarter of a million times on Instagram, and in 2016 it became part of the Starbucks menu in the US.
Skyr is just one small example of the rapid change in how we eat. But there are so many more, as Wilson explores: from the rise of meal replacement drinks, to trends in plant breeding, changes in rhythms around meal time, and shifts in the dietary patterns of whole countries. Wilson is an excellent writer, deftly weaving together personal reflections, interviews and academic papers. Well selected graphs and pictures provide helpful visual illustration. A huge variety of topics is covered with great clarity, although occasionally this can lead to the book feeling slightly disjointed, as one interesting idea breathlessly follows another.
Wilson also brings a considerable degree of nuance to her writing. Rather than looking at the past with nostalgia and lamenting these changes, she points out that in many ways this is a positive story, one in which food has become available in quantity and variety inconceivable to previous generations. Food production and cooking used to take up almost all our time, especially for women; in many ways it is to be celebrated that modern ways of eating have given us time to enjoy eating and cooking without drudgery. However, Wilson also recognises the serious problems inherent in modern food systems, as they cause diet-related ill health, environmental degradation, and relational distance. She is especially concerned about the impact on health: 'where humans used to live in fear of plague or tuberculosis, now the leading cause of mortality worldwide is diet.' (p. 4) To accompany this nuance, Wilson remains optimistic that we can collectively change our food systems for the better - and she gives many examples of individuals, organisations and countries that are working toward a better future. '...almost everything about the way we eat now is very new and would have seemed strange a few decades ago. There is therefore every reason to think that our food habits can and will undergo another transition.' (p. 331)
If there is a single argument throughout the book, it would be that the way we eat is deeply influenced by forces beyond the control of the individual. For example, we eat far more calories than we used to - but Wilson argues that this is primarily because far more food is available to us, and is advertised to us every day, and because our plates and glasses are larger than they used to be, and because we have become a culture of snackers, and so on. Individual choice is also important, but the huge changes in modern eating are more a product of historical, social and economic factors. 'We aspire to better food choices, yet the way we eat now is the product of vast impersonal forces that none of us asked for. The choices we make about food are largely predetermined by what's available and by the limitations of our busy lives.' (p. 12)
The Way We Eat Now is insightful and compelling, and will help readers think more deeply about the gift of food. Although Wilson acknowledges the environmental impacts of food systems, the book's main focus is on society and human health. It therefore is highly recommended as complementary reading alongside our Thoughtful Eating research project on food, relationships and the environment.
Andrew Phillips is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from the University of Oxford with a BA in Classics and Biblical Hebrew.