Live Well, Do Good

Authors Offer Food for Thought

Brandon Sun, April 24, 2010 - David McConkey

“What’s for supper?” This question has echoed down through the generations.

Two recent books illuminate the historical backdrops, current issues, and future questions about food. There is plenty here for us to digest as consumers, cooks, and citizens.

The books are by bestselling authors: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

Tom Standage presents a readable summary of the relationship between food and people over the last 10,000 years – since the beginning of agriculture.

Those who have read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond will find a familiar outline, but Standage provides much else of interest.

Standage provides the historical context for our current challenge to feed billions of people – environmentally and ethically.  

One interesting point: today’s “fair trade” products had their first antecedent in 1790’s Britain, when consumers boycotted sugar produced by slaves.

A theme running through both books is that we humans often make poor choices about food.

An obvious example today is binging on junk food, but even the switch to farming from hunting and gathering was fraught with problems.  

Farmed foods were often not as nutritious as wild foods and even required more labour to procure. And when the first farmers started living in closer quarters with one another and with their animals, new diseases crossed from livestock to people.

We are still vulnerable today: the H1N1 flu, for example, originated with swine.

In Defense of Food looks at the big change in recent decades to eating more processed and artificial food.

Author Michael Pollan notes the importance of the trend that started in the 1970s of eating less saturated animal fat. The concern was health problems, especially heart disease.

Telling the public to eat less meat and instead eat more fruits and vegetables would have been sensible advice. But, because of industry lobbying, the message became “Eat more low-fat foods.”

The public certainly heeded the “eat more” part. The result has been skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health troubles.

People thought they were doing the right thing by eating more processed “low-fat” food. But then some of the new foods turned out to be not so good – like those with trans fats.   

To top it off, scientists have since found that there is little or no link between eating saturated fat and heart disease. Oops!

Pollan is withering in his criticism: “Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.”

The public has become overwhelmed and confused by often-conflicting advice from the food industry (with its multi-billion dollar marketing budget), nutritional scientists, government, and the media.

Scientists do not agree with each other about the healthfulness of different foods, Pollan says, and have become consumed in arguing with each other.  

He interviewed scientists in one camp who even warned him about falling under the “spell” of a competing “cult” of other scientists.   

“Cult?” the author says, “There is a lot more religion in science than you might expect.”  

The media is also part of the problem, says Pollan, who is a journalist. Stories about the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables are – well – often just plain boring.

Journalists would much rather write about the latest food fads, diets, and controversies.   

Pollan’s seven-word prescription for what ails us: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

He expands on those words with a list of a couple of dozen recommendations. (He has since published a summary in a handbook: Food Rules: An Eater's Manual.)

“How” we eat may have as much impact as “what” we eat. Pollan cites the example that American adults now do one-fifth of their eating in their cars. And that just can’t be good.

His suggestions revolve around cooking actual food and then eating real meals at the table, with others, in a leisurely way, with enjoyment.

He comes to the defence of food, the kind that doesn’t even have a label. One of his recommendations is to avoid food products that have labels that make health claims.
Another is to shop around the periphery of the supermarket to buy unprocessed foods.
Or, get out of the supermarket altogether to find fresh local foods at venues such as farmers’ markets or a CSA, which is community-supported (or shared) agriculture.  

Over the past few decades we have seen the most radical change in our eating since the discovery of agriculture.

But we can restore the role of real food. In Defense of Food is about re-discovering a time when the “preparing and enjoying of food were closer to the centre of a well-lived life.”

* * *  

See also:

A New Year's Resolution

Healthy Eating – 15 Tips

Community Shared Agriculture:  A Growing Notion

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