Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture. 2005 by E.N. Anderson


New York University Press , New York .

The goal of this book is to give an anthropological perspective on the global problems of malnutrition as well as obesity by looking at eating habits cross-culturally. The author has spent much of his career studying how, what, and why people eat the way they do, and the breadth of his experience shows in the wide range of examples he incorporates into the volume. The main points that come through in the analysis are the following: we must rely on human creativity and technology—including genetically modified crops—in order to address the global food crisis; resources are being misused by the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots” and this misuse must be addressed politically; and, finally, humans would be a lot better off nutritionally if they returned to unprocessed natural foods that correspond much more closely with the diet of their hunting and gathering biological roots (figuratively and literally!).

Although the author is certainly well intentioned, the impact of the book is greatly diminished by the means of presentation. With considerable experience and presumably long years of teaching on the subject, the author relies heavily on the weight of personal authority to make his points. Statements throughout the volume tend to express more the author's beliefs or hopes rather than scientifically demonstrated facts. Furthermore, while there may be science supporting some of his conclusions, Anderson's lack of citations greatly weakens his arguments. For example, he states unequivocally but without evidence or citation: “people who eat great amounts of monounsaturated oils tend to live long and stay healthy” (p. 55). “… extratropical areas with a fondness for spices and “hot” foods are characterized by rural poverty and dense populations, major risk factors for food-borne diseases” (p. 73). “Poor nations usually spend most of their wealth on weaponry (which is one main reason they remain poor)” (p. 91). “At current rates of urbanization, California and perhaps Mexico will have no irrigated or irrigable land in about fifty years” (p. 216). “The perfectly balanced and temperate food is cooked grain” (p. 143). “We have ruined as much bay and river habitat as would provide more than enough protein for everyone on earth” (p. 217). It is possible that all of these statements can be supported to some degree by scientific research and real data, but they are simply stated as facts with no support whatsoever. We are essentially being asked to trust the author and his expertise. Such statements—opinions of the author—unfortunately also lend themselves to being quoted as fact or dismissed as activist hyperbole by people trying to influence policy.

Anderson also tends to rely on miscellaneous personal communications and popular media, leaving one to wonder why he did not do the background research necessary to substantiate his points more systematically. As but one example, he argues that “Poor eating, lack of exercise, and above all smoking combine to produce a deadly combination, with heart-disease death rates two hundred per one hundred thousand people per year (data from an untitled note on pages A9-A9 of the May 11, 2001, edition of the Los Angeles Times)” (p. 128, emphasis added). Why would a scholar rely on notes from a newspaper article instead of going to original sources? In a similar vein, he relies on “personal communication” from 1991 to boldly state “Californians actually domesticated barley for at least some period, about 2000 years ago” (p. 85). Were this in fact based on any scientific research at all, it would have caused considerable stir in the archaeological literature and would certainly have been published in the interim between 1991 and the publication of this book in 2005. There is, however, no scientific support for this statement. The book is rife with such proclamations without the research needed to make the points convincing.

Aside from the lack of scientific evidence to support his arguments throughout the volume, one thorny problem is his cavalier reliance on—and at the same time dismissal of—genetic causes of human dietary behavior. This is particularly troublesome in his analysis of alcoholism. “The latest fad is to maintain that alcoholism is genetically determined, but having every genetic predisposition in the book will not make an alcoholic out of a devout Muslim raised in a devoutly Muslim community … Conversely, I have studied certain unfortunate communities where every adult abused alcohol, genes or no” (no citation) (p. 36). But then he reverses himself and goes on to talk about a “thrifty genotype” that enables people “to metabolize carbohydrates very efficiently” and also “makes its bearers more vulnerable to diabetes and to alcoholism” (p. 57). Although he asserts a central role for alcoholism in family violence and “massive impoverishment,” he fails to provide cogent reasons for why alcohol and alcoholism are problems in some areas and not others.

In the end one comes away from Everyone Eats with a clear sense of Anderson's personal worldviews and his take on why so much of the world is malnourished (poverty and poor choices) and what we need to do to fix this problem (address poverty and eat better). Although on the surface this might appear to be harmless and inoffensive, it ultimately does a disservice to the study of diet, agriculture, poverty, malnutrition, and the role of globalization in the 21st century. Anderson makes broad sweeping claims of fact, proclaims to resolve ongoing debates about things like genetic engineering, and urges rapid solutions to problems, but does so without rigorous research or scientific foundations. In doing so, particularly in a book clearly aimed at a public audience, he does not effectively represent the scientifically based knowledge and insights that anthropology can bring to a political, economic, and social dialogue about how to substantively address the challenges of creating a balanced diet for the world's diverse populations and arrive at both sustainable agriculture and consumption.