August 15, 2008
I find it a little odd the fascination that many people have with food.
I know people who watch the cooking shows on TV with almost a religious fervor. Diet books abound. People eagerly seize on the latest ideas about what may be good for your health and what may be bad and make wholesale changes in their diets based on news reports.
Ben Goldacre, writing in London's The Guardian jokes that there seems to be a drive to divide everything in the world into two classes: those that cause cancer and those that cure cancer.
In pursuit of this goal, the 'science' reporters in newspapers and magazines seize on the most tenuous and dubious links coming out of research laboratories and draw sweeping conclusions that may actually harm people. We have become prey to all manner of pseudo-experts on food.
Goldacre reports on the red wine-breast cancer link that recently made news:
The story follows a standard template which they clearly now teach as valid in all journalism schools: a food contains a chemical, the chemical does something in a dish on a lab bench, therefore the food kills cancer in people. Or rather, red wine contains resveratrol: this chemical has been found to increase the activity of an enzyme called quinone reductase, which converts a derivative of oestrogen back to oestrogen, and that derivative can damage DNA, and damaging DNA causes mutations, and mutations cause cancer, so therefore, in the world of journalists, red wine prevents breast cancer in people.
This is a phenomena we might call "data mist": where someone gets one piece of research information lodged in their imagination and suddenly, for them, it explains the entirety of medicine.
In reality, though, meta-analyses show that "overall, half a glass of red wine a day increases your risk of breast cancer by 10%. If their figures are correct, alcohol causes about 6% of all breast cancer in the UK, meaning 2,500 cases a year." (emphasis added)
There is no question that people who try to keep up with food news are perplexed. Quick: which of the following foods are good/bad for you: butter, eggs, sugar, salt, chocolate, wine? In truth, all of them have had their ups and downs and I personally have no idea what their present status is. And I don't care.
I share Michael Pollan's wonderment, expressed in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), about the way food has become a major source of anxiety in the US.
As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities – figuring out what to eat – has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How did we ever get to the point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? (p. 1)
America seems to lurch from one food fad to another, one day avoiding all beef, and the next day all carbohydrates. The swings are so violent that they can result in huge changes in the marketplace of foods, causing some businesses to even go bankrupt. Words like 'antioxidants' and 'transfats', which were unknown except to scientists just a couple of years ago, are now household words even though most people don't know anything about them except for the simple equations 'antioxidants=good' and 'tranfats=bad'. Watch for the word polyphenols to achieve similar stardom very soon.
Pollan thinks that such wild swings are a sign of a national eating disorder.
Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals" – or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. . . . It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines.
. . .
Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of "unhealthy" foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. (p. 2,3)
Pollan speaks of the 'American paradox': a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthily.
I myself long ago decided to pay only a passing interest to reports about what kind of food is good for you or bad for you. All I ask is that my food not be messed with by the addition of hormones, antibiotics and high levels of processing. I figure that as long as I eat moderate amounts of a balanced diet of minimally-processed foods that have been around and eaten for a long time, I should be ok. What did not kill off my evolutionary ancestors should be fine for me. Oh, and the food should be tasty too.
Could I increase my life expectancy by a scientific monitoring of my food intake? Possibly. But it would not be worth it for me. I eat whatever I like and enjoy my food.
POST SCRIPT: The unbearable lightness of Cokie Roberts
I find it amazing that NPR continues to have Cokie Roberts as an analyst. I cringe whenever she comes on and spouts her poll-based drivel and conventional wisdom. When did she last say anything that was even remotely insightful? She is one of those annoying people who constantly speaks, without any evidence, about what "the American people" want or think, which somehow always seems to be exactly what she and her coterie of Washington insiders think they should want or think.
Eric Alterman, writing back in 2002, described her best: "With no discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and frequently no clue . . . a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by any collision with messy reality."