A Chemical Feast


204 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-87196-643-3




Reviewed by Robin V.H. Bellamy

Robin V.H. Bellamy was an editor and bibliographer in Vancouver.


W. Harding leRiche is Professor of Epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. However, he is probably better known for his work in the field of nutrition and his excellent book, The Complete Family Book of Nutrition and Meal Planning (Methuen, 1980).

Not to be confused with the dense Ralph Nader report, The Chemical Feast (edited by James S. Turner; Grossman, 1970), A Chemical Feast is a very readable account of many of the kinds of chemicals of concern to today’s consumers. Food additives and pesticides are discussed, as well as the place of drugs in pregnancy and the key roles of water in health and disease. Several aspects of diet are considered, too: the chemicals in a “normal” diet, the possibility of controlling hyperactivity through a careful selection of foods, the connection between food and cancer, and so forth. The author claims that the common theme underlying these widely varying topics is the need to “maintain a sense of proportion in all things” (p. 181). In this book the public is given the facts about what is really known and what is yet unproven with regard to common chemicals, thus enabling consumers to judge for themselves the validity of issues raised in the media.

As a text intended for lay readers, A Chemical Feast is commendable. Its language is, for the most part, not technical; essential terms are introduced and explained only as required. LeRiche has included many tables of data to illustrate and substantiate what he says; and although these tables are unusually “readable,” a reluctant reader could decline to read them and still not lose the thrust of the narrative portions.

In terms of the information he presents, leRiche is not entirely impartial. In his desire to dispel what he sees as often misplaced public concern, he seems to minimize some dangers too much. For example, on pages 85-86 he compares the toxicity of pesticides to that of various household compounds, and concludes that one herbicide is less lethal than salt. He does not mention that the body may be able to rid itself of salt but not of the herbicide, in which case the matter of accumulation would be vital. In the other extreme, he cites as “the effects of alcohol on the fetus” the classic symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (a condition seen in the newborns of alcoholic women), and then exclaims that, knowing the risks involved, “surely no woman would consume alcohol while she is pregnant” (p. 130). Coming from one who advocates a sense of proportion, the failure here to distinguish between alcoholism and an occasional drink seems odd.

By comparison to most books, A Chemical Feast is remarkably free of printing errors, but a few do turn up in “Selected References.” For instance, there is the title “How Safe is Our Good Supply?” (p. 185), and a book by R.H. Hall which was earlier cited (p. 2) as Food for Naught here appears variously as Food for Naught (p. 188), and Food for Thought (p. 185)! However, these are quite easily forgiven, merely adding an unexpected touch of humour to a work whose subject is serious and whose quality is undeniably high.


leRiche, W. Harding, “A Chemical Feast,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/39060.