Entries in "Food"

August 15, 2008

Food fads

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."

August 14, 2008

The etiquette of food

After grappling with some heavy moral issues involving the treatment of animals and the eating of meat, I want to look at a related but lighter topic: the etiquette of food restrictions in the host-guest relationship.

Sometimes I wonder if we have gone too far in being accommodating of people's food restrictions, to the extent of creating a sense of entitlement. As someone who organizes meal-based meetings at work where I feel obliged to ask people in advance what restrictions they have, I am sometimes surprised by the specificity of some requests ("I would like wraps", "I would like fresh fruits and vegetables", etc.).

This raises an interesting question that I have been thinking about: How far we should go as both guests and hosts in specifying and meeting dietary restrictions or preferences?

Michael Pollan says in The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) that during the time he was a vegetarian, he felt that he had in a subtle way become alienated from other people.

Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable: My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don't eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she'll make something special for me, in which case I'll feel bad. (p. 314)

Whenever we invite people to our home for a meal or as house guests, we always ask them whether they have any dietary restrictions. We get the usual spectrum of requests: no pork, no beef, or vegetarian. But there are more severe restrictions that we have not had to deal with as yet: vegan, strict kosher, no wheat products, allergies to specific foods such as peanuts, salt or sugar free diets, etc.

These restrictions can be split onto four classes: Those that are based on medical reasons, those that are based on religious reasons, those that are based on political/ethical/moral/environmental reasons, and those that are based on personal preferences. The etiquette question is this: which, if any, of these categories of restrictions is it appropriate for a guest to request accommodations and which ones should a host be obliged to meet?

As a host, I feel obliged to ask people what restrictions they have and try to accommodate them, irrespective of the class of restrictions to which it belongs. But I realize that I am laying myself wide open to a potentially awkward situation. Suppose someone says that they have some restriction that would require very elaborate and unfamiliar food preparation on my part. What should I do? Go to extraordinary lengths to meet them, such as preparing a separate meal? At what point does a food request become so onerous that I can feel comfortable declining to meet it?

Similarly, from the point of view of a guest, what is a reasonable request to make of a host to accommodate your preferences? Should people who have very specific and restrictive needs simply decline invitations because they feel that they are imposing too heavy a burden on their host?

Pollan says that, "On this matter I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners."

Perhaps this is the way we should go. Hosts should stop asking guests what restrictions they have and prepare whatever the host wants. Guests who choose to attend should decline their host's offer to specify dietary limitations, and simply eat and drink what they can from whatever is offered, even if it ends up being just some vegetables and fruit and water. And neither party should feel offended or put out.

(Of course, this suggestion only applies to single-meal events. The situation with houseguests who are staying for some time is different and then some accommodations must be made.)

Some might feel that it is easy for me to advocate this policy since I am an omnivore and thus can eat anything, and that I might view this differently if I were someone who had strong food restrictions and might be faced with having a very restricted choice of food items to eat at a dinner party.

But I have had to deal with something roughly equivalent. In Sri Lanka, dinner parties would often start late, say around 9:00 pm, and they would sometimes serve dinner close to midnight. (Unlike in America where the meal forms either the beginning or the middle of an evening of conversation, in Sri Lanka the end of the meal often signifies the end of the party.) Although I get very hungry by that late hour, I did not tell the host that I would like my own dinner to be served early. Instead, if I suspected dinner would be served late, I got in the habit of eating at home before going for the party. That way, I did not care when the meal was served or even what was served. I simply ate what I felt like from whatever was offered whenever it was offered.

Those who have dietary restrictions or preferences that will likely result in them not being able to eat much from what is offered might consider doing the same thing.

These kinds of etiquette issues may have arisen because we have forgotten that the only reason to accept an invitation to someone else's home is to enjoy their company and the company of their other guests, not to treat their home as a restaurant to obtain food that is acceptable to you. The refreshments on offer should not be a consideration.

I wonder how Miss Manners might respond to this question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting graphic designs

How to tell if you are in the right place. (Thanks to Progressive Review.)