Monday, May 2, 2011

Back To Food History...

I haven't been writing about food research for a while, mostly because I'm up to the 1960s and 1970s in the 2 part Harvey Levenstein food history work, and it's complicated and sometimes downright weird.  On the one hand, Ralph Nader is making some justified attacks of the food industry, and some that were probably completely over-the-top.  On another hand, linked to the hippie movement are THE most bizarre food fads since pre-World War 1.  On yet another hand, the successful but completely manipulative method of attacking the messenger in order to taint the message was exploding, which to me is almost the most interesting part.  I had read another book that had attributed this technique to the tobacco industry and their fight to discredit all the reports that linked (quite correctly) smoking and lung cancer, but in the food wars, it seems to go back into the 1960s, and I thought the tobacco industry didn't start defending itself until the 1970s, but I could easily be wrong.  

I'm not sure what I had exactly expected to find when I started studying food history, but what I have discovered is that the history of American food is really the history of America itself.  It has everything:  racism, greed, optimism, idealism, complete quacks and loonies, patriotism, pomposity, humor, sensuality--in fact, the only thing I'd say it seems to be lacking is moderation and common sense.  No matter what time period I've studied, the wackier the claim, the more popular the diet.  The more outrageous the claim--especially if it was a claim that assigned blame for health problems to anyone BUT the individual behavior--the more likely it was to hang on even into today's climate.

This strikes a resounding note for me, because I spent three years working as the Director of the American Diabetes Association's Idaho office.  During that time, I was regularly assaulted by adherence of the Adkins diet (horrible diet in general and harmful if one has diabetes) and the Nutra-Sweet-causes-cancer brigade.  There were lots of other too, but those two were the regulars that could be counted on to badger me at every turn.  Adkins was almost always being hawked by a chiropractor who had read Adkin's book and felt qualified to dole out nutritional advice in spite of having no actual training in the subject whatsoever.  The Nutra-Sweet Brigade were 99.9999999% of the time affiliated with a "natural" nutritional substitute, and without fail their "proof" was a badly photocopied article written by an Asian doctor extolling all the studies done to prove that artificial sweeteners were almost guaranteed to cause cancer.  Now for one thing, if I am being given "facts" by someone with a financial interest in you being led to believe those facts, I am automatically highly suspicious.  For another, while I don't think artificial anything is actually good for us, there are currently almost 26 million Americans with diabetes.  You know who has been the most targeted market for artificial sweeteners ever since they came out?  People with diabetes.  Know what their increased rate of cancer is?  None.  Increased heart disease, depression, risk of death because of flu or pneumonia, and increased rates of stroke and heart attack.  26 million test subjects--I think they would have noticed an increased rate of cancer.  You can verify all this at the American Diabetes Association's website here:  http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/

So, the more I read, the more I wonder how much we really know about food.  The easy answers are so tempting--like in a recent article in a health magazine I was reading rated products that would add fiber to your diet.  I think the selling point of the things was that they were tasteless and so you wouldn't notice them.  And, by sheer coincidence I'm sure, the top-rated products also had placed advertisements in the magazine.  Gee, I wonder if there was a connection.......and in all honesty, I'll bet not a single one of them would work nearly as well as adding a little winter squash to one's diet.  But then again, I haven't heard of a winter squash lobby that can place ads................

1 comment:

Abby said...

Very interesting stuff! I'm finding that the more natural my diet - real food as opposed to foodlike processed products - the less I can tolerate additives and artificial this and that. I *hope* I am also healthier, but there is no scientific evidence that I know of. Maybe we should start an advertising campaign for squash?

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