A Clean Plate

Purging our diets of unethical and excessively tasty food


Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, by James E. McWilliams, New York: Little, Brown, 272 pages, $25.99

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Diet, by David A. Kessler, Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Books, 320 pages, $25.95

James McWilliams and David Kessler both want to complicate your diet. But while McWilliams, in Just Food, is trying to save the planet, Kessler, in The End of Overeating, is trying to save you, which is considerably more annoying. And while McWilliams challenges his readers' preconceptions with a fair-minded review of the evidence concerning the environmental impact of our food choices, Mr. Kessler offers ­banalities, dressed up as scientific insights and evidence of corporate misdeeds, coupled with advice that overgeneralizes from his own troubled relationship with food.

The title of McWilliams' Just Food—meaning a diet guided by principles of justice—suggests yet another harangue against heedless slobs who trample Mother Earth in their stampede to the nearest McDonald's. But the author is more interested in challenging "locavores" and other "ethical eaters" to ­rethink some of their most treasured assumptions.

McWilliams, an agricultural historian at Texas State University, sees himself as part of the subculture he is ­addressing, people who seek to minimize the environmental ­effects of their diets. But he understands that humans have always adapted nature to their needs, even in the supposed golden age of our agrarian past, and he acknowledges that modern methods make it ­possible to produce more food while causing less damage to the earth.

He makes it clear, as diplomatically as possible, that the idea of using organic methods to feed the world's population—projected to peak at nine billion in the second half of this century—is a pipe dream. More like a nightmare, really, given how much pristine land would have to be plowed under to compensate for the lower yields of organic agriculture and how many megatons of manure would have to be trucked hither and yon. McWilliams boldly but ­correctly calls for "dispensing with the organic/conventional framework" altogether and ­instead focusing on the costs and benefits of specific ­methods and technologies.

In that spirit, McWilliams calls for "judicious use" of synthetic chemicals, which often turn out to be more environmentally benign than the allegedly greener "organic" ­alternatives. He likewise highlights the advantages of genetically modified crops, which can increase yields (thereby leaving more of ­nature undisturbed) while ­reducing tillage and chemical use. Properly designed fish farms, he notes, efficiently ­produce an abundance of cheap protein with minimal harm to the environment.

McWilliams also gently but conclusively shows why it is a mistake to use "food miles" as a measure of environmental impact: Transportation represents only a small share of the energy used—and pollution generated—by food production and consumption. That insight explains how it can be more­ environmentally responsible for, say, the British to import lamb from New Zealand and vegetables from Africa than to raise their own. As part of his attack on the locavore ethic, McWilliams makes a case for global trade as the best way to reduce Third World poverty and, in turn, benefit the environment, since affluent people can afford to worry about things like ­pollution and ­energy efficiency.

Just Food is not devoid of preaching. McWilliams seems to believe it's unethical to eat saltwater fish (since "major fish stocks are on a pace to collapse by 2048"), and he has sworn off meat—a move prompted, he says, by his ­research on meat production. But he admits that going vegetarian was "very hard" to do, and he shows a healthy sense of realism by stopping short of advocating it for all, settling instead for urging us at least to reduce our consumption of protein from land animals.

The calls for self-denial are more flagrant in The End of Overeating, which urges readers to give up pasta, French fries, bacon cheeseburgers, cookies, candy and other ­"hyperpalatable" foods—basically, it seems, because David Kessler has trouble controlling his own passion for such tasty treats. Using himself and a few similarly voracious acquaintances as models, Kessler argues that "conditioned hypereating" is largely responsible for the nation's "obesity epidemic." He exhorts its victims to resist the machinations of the food industry—"the manipulator of the ­consumers' minds and desires," as one "high-level" executive in the business describes it.

With this book Kessler, who took on Big Tobacco as head of the Food and Drug ­Administration in the 1990s, mounts an assault on Big Food, but the results are even feebler than his unsuccessful effort to regulate cigarettes without statutory authority. He relies on unnamed industry ­"insiders" to prove that ­comestible pushers such as Cinnabon and the Cheesecake Factory deliberately make their food delicious—or, as he breathlessly puts it, they ­"design food specifically to be highly hedonic."

Kessler also recruits ­scientific experts for dubious dramatic effect. "Palatable foods arouse our appetite," says one. "They act as an ­incentive to eat." The author's explanation of why this is so—that tasty food affects ­neurotransmitter levels and ­activates "the body's reward system"—is not especially ­enlightening, since the same could be said of pretty much everything that humans enjoy. "People get fat," he also reveals, "because they eat more than people who are lean."

According to The Washington Post, Kessler's research for The End of Overeating ­included late-night forays into Dumpsters behind Chili's ­restaurants, whence he retrieved boxes with ingredient information that revealed the secret of dishes such as Southwestern Eggrolls and Boneless Shanghai Wings. It turned out they "were bathed in salt, fat and sugars."

Kessler could have saved considerable trouble by visiting the Chili's Web site, which provides numbers for the calories, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber and sodium in the chain's dishes. Or he might have ­simply asserted, without fear of contradiction, that food ­promoted as a mouth-watering yet affordable indulgence ­probably has a lot of salt, fat and sugars in it. But as this book amply demonstrates, Kessler is the sort of crusader who spares no effort to ­uncover the obvious.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.