Earlier this week, thanks to heat wave-induced insomnia, I read "The Gospel of Food" by Barry Glassner, a book that I picked up at Green Apple Books during my recent San Francisco expedition. Each chapter questioned mainstream nutritional advice and led to haunting questions about food and nutrition.
- False Prophets: Culinary Correctness gone awry: What if one's enjoyment of a meal affects nutrient metabolism? The first study mentioned in the book shows how Thai women absorbed more iron from a meal with spicy food, while Swedish women absorbed more from a meal of hamburger, potatoes, and beans. Rather than a quest of self-denial against fat, carbs, eggs, milk, soy, or the trendy nutritional demon of the week, what if we find ways to enjoy food more?
- Safe Treyf: Pretending to Be a Saint: What if the nutrient-fortified food products sold by companies ranging from small "organic" workshops to vast multi-national corporations lower the efficacy of prescription drugs and the absorption of nutrients from whole foods?
- Promises to the Fathers: How the Food Industry Sells it Wares: I was thoroughly impressed by the descriptions of recipe creation at culinary R&D facilities. The author writes how he "was bowled over by how many of the rank-and-file were foodies and expert chefs. Many had, in addition to training in food technology, degrees from top-ranked culinary institutes, and the bookshelves in their cubicles and lab areas were filled with cookbooks, restaurant guides, and culinary magazines." (77)
- Restaurant Heaven: Defining Culinary Greatness: What if the food that "anonymous" diners eat in fancy restaurants is different than food served to restaurant critics and VIPs? This is a controversial claim, but critics can have a huge impact on future business and VIPs can spend far more money on profit-laden drinks than normal diners.
- The Food Adventurers: In Search of Authenticity: Food authenticity is a somewhat nonsense concept. Many of the people writing the reviews have never been to the host country. Moreover, chefs in the country or origin often incorporate new ingredients into their own cuisine. I think that these food adventurers, just like beer geeks, oenophiles, dieters, and others, are looking for a sense of community and shared culture (a tribe) rather than a specific food.
- Restaurant Hell: The Dissing of McDonald's: It's easy for people like me to demonize McDonald's. However, I wonder how many of the critics have to worry about the source of their next meal or the location of a safe playground to take their kids. For people worried about the environmental consequences, take a look at the jewelry industry. According to the environmental group Earthworks, twenty tons of waste are generated in producing a single gold ring. For the anti-capitalists out there, the author notes that McDonald's is no where to be found in the top hundred on the Fortune 500 list. No one would argue that more fruit and veggies would be better, but viewing fast food as the enemy and condemning the poor as ignorant or lazy is no way to solve the actual problems.
- What Made America Fat: It's Not Just the Food: Conventional wisdom touts the "fiscal view" of nutrition: calories in (diet) - calories out (exercise) = weight gain/loss. What if stress has the predominant impact on the absorption of nutrients and the metabolic rate of a person? What if lowering one's weight doesn't lead to improvements in health? What should one do if weight gain is correlated with being social (e.g. the more people present at a meal, the more a person tends to eat)?
Take home message: Nutritional studies, even large ones, often extrapolate percentages from a couple extra incidences of disease or death. More food for thought: two strong correlations with weight gain are low-income and being on a diet.
My personal theory: being "too busy" is the root cause (see Scott Berkun's manifesto). How are American's spending their time differently than people in other countries?