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Tag Archives: Food Science
For several years American Consumers have been exposed to an onslaught of misleading and alarming information about the foods they eat and the plants they grow. The most common of the “pseudo-scientific” or, really, unscientific claims have ignited a passionate anti-GMO movement, whose adherents believe that crops altered by genetic engineering, either by the insertion of a gene slice from the same or another organism or the use of a protein in the organic bacterial pesticide Bacterium Thuringiensis to protect plants from predators are toxic, dangerous and will destroy the environment. The Anti-GMO faction believes that the American Government conspires with “Big Ag” and “Big Food” to poison its citizens, that genetically engineered organisms and the pesticides they are engineered to resist are carcinogens, that the pesticides used on engineered organisms are killing off bees and lepidoptera and will result in over half of US Children will be autistic by mid-century, that the policies of the companies holding patents for the seeds have caused famine in the third world and wide spread suicide among farmers ruined by corporate policy and that GMO crops will cause loss of all plant diversity.
In 2014 I chose the topic of GMO fears as the subject for a paper for the excellent McGill University course 181X, Food for Thought. It’s point was not to refute the anti GMO claims but to examine the means by which half of the “greatest country on earth” and much of Europe have come not only to accept and fear them as proven fact but to defend them tooth and nail against legitimate research. A list of sources of legitimate information, which is extremely hard to find due to the proliferation of pseudo-science on the Internet, is provided below. Here is the paper:
According to an ABC poll  earlier this year, 52% of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat and 13% are “unsure” Two thirds of the American public fear a technology that has been proven safe to the extent that proving anything safe is possible – Genetically engineered organisms have been shown to be safe not only by extensive FDA, independent, and international research. No legitimate studies have been able to show any correlation between modified crop consumption or agriculture and harm to humans, the environment or other organisms.
The European Commission invested over 450 million Euros between the years 2001 and 2010 on research exploring potential risks of modified organisms. None were found.  Not one of the many governmental and private research organizations around the world which have tested genetic engineering extensively for potential hazards has yet been successful in detecting risk.
The attitudes of 52% of American consumers and activists range from mild concern to outrage and extreme fear. Activists and voters have attempted and in Hawaii briefly succeeded in passing bans on GMO crops. Over half of the American population demand that any GMO foods be labeled. This demand includes foods containing sugars – fructose and sucrose – which are chemical compounds indistinguishable from/ identical to sugars from non-GMO crops. Consumer pressure has moved corporations like General Mills to remove GMO ingredients from their foods with the ironic result that those products cannot be vitamin fortified and are thus less healthy.
Consumer ecological and world political objections range from fears that modified organisms will wipe out genetic diversity to Vandana Shiva’s claim that practices of companies like Monsanto, the producer of Roundup and patent holder for many GMO seed varieties have driven Indian peasants to commit suicide. .
If GMO crops have been researched and found safe by the world’s most respected organizations and promise real solutions for current and coming ecological and world nutritional challenges, how can two thirds of American consumes reject them? How does myth, ignorance and decidedly cultish belief trump empirical data in the national consciousness?
Very few people even understand what GMO means, for one thing.
What is a “GMO”.
A GMO is a Genetically Modified Organism, which leaves the unfortunate impression that there are tiny life forms or chemical bits in GMO products. BT corn and Roundup Resistant soy are GMO’s. Cattle and Pork are not GMO’s, but cattle or chicken which has been fed genetically engineered corn or soy is termed GMO by those with GMO agendas and concerns. Sugar, as explained above, is not GMO, but soft drinks, tomato sauce or baked goods containing sugar produced from genetically modified sugar beets are inappropriately classified “GMO’s”, leading to the inaccurate claim that 90% of the food sold in America is GMO.
Crops are genetically engineered for various reasons and by various methods – generally the process involves isolating a gene from a related or unrelated organism with a desired characteristic, creating a ‘vector’ of that gene, injecting the vector into a bacterium in turn is used to “infect” plant cells .The desired altered characteristic of the organism can be water tolerance in rice, bacterial resistance in threatened species like papayas, grapes, mangos or creating grapes resistant to the devastating bacterium xylella fastidosa. A protein from a bacterium (Bacillus Thuringiensis) is inserted into the corn genome to prevent corn borer infection. The most despised and feared GMO products are glyphosate resistant plants, also known as “Roundup Ready”. Roundup is the brand of Glyphosate produced by Monsanto.
Thre are very few GMO crop varieties in production. The only commercially produced crops are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash, and papaya. A newly developed Potato strain has just been released for planting, as well, and a recently announced strain of browning resistant apples is expected to be available for sale in about two years. No distribution company at this stage. however, would be prepared to bring arugula or melons with altered genes to the market. None the less, customers demand that oatmeal be labeled for genetically altered strains and ask at farmers’ markets is the strawberries are GMO free.
Many countries in Europe have bowed to public pressure and have blocked planting of some of these crops. Note that these decisions were made to comply with public sentiment and not scientific data.
We are romantics and we tend to be luddites.
Or perhaps we are simply hopelessly nostalgic. When Alice Waters stood on the steps of San Francisco City Hall and smiled benevolently over the hundreds of volunteers who had fought tooth and nail to have a spot getting their hands dirty in the Garden For America, an entire nation went out and bought potting soil, throwback overalls and canning jars. America now pickles, cans and puts up wearing designer overalls. Chemistry, physics and big industry – big food, big ag, big resale, big chemistry – has no place in the romantic imagination of people who envision their carrots dug one at a time from a halcyon garden.
When Friederich Wohler first managed to synthesize urea from organic compounds (not from pee) in the 19th century, thus paving the way for synthetic adrenaline and many other chemicals the scientific community was outraged at the suggestion that living juices should not contain “vital essences”. Today the “vital force theory” still exists.  If God had intended us to fly, he would have given us wings. Our religious roots offer world views based on belief rather than knowledge – sects like Rosicrucians and Christian Scientists reject proven medical treatment in favor of faith. We have snake dancers.
We are lazy thinkers. We want simple answers to complex questions. We perceive, partially due to more and more alarming media coverage, that many frightening diseases have exploded into the population during the same period that GMO crops were being first developed then introduced, so we want to believe that doing away with the science will reduce the incidence of cancer, autism and many others. We would rather believe charismatic speakers or writers than deal with analytical reality, which requires curiosity and some effort. In matters GMO I have heard the arguments, “You may have some facts, but I have to go with my heart” (as in Jonestown or anti vaccination?) and, “It’s best not to fool with mother nature,”, that maternal giver of polio, athletes foot, hemorrhoids, tsunamis and locust swarms. By all means. Trust Mom.
Most of us understand little or no science and are not interested in finding out: We are not a stupid country, but neither are we as a whole well educated. According to New York Magazine writer Jim Holt less than 10% of Americans are scientifically literate.  Radical anti GMO activists make fruitful use of this. I once heard an anti-GMO speaker shout to a crowd: “ I want you to ask every waiter in every restaurant, to ask every butcher, every grocer, ‘Is this MUTANT food.” And the crowd roared agreement. The crowd did not know the meaning of “mutant”. As a people we Americans lack both the vocabulary and the critical skills to distinguish between truth and rhetoric.
Americans are not critically trained: We like to believe: We are seduced by sensationalist media and the false prophets, snake oil salesmen, charlatans and quacks. If enough celebrities speak to an issue, we generally believe them. We lack the tools to determine the accuracy of studies and scientific predictions.
The GMO panic began with a 1999 publication in the Lancet by S.W. Ewen and Arpad of the Rowett Research Institute Pusztai stating that rats fed on GM potatoes suffered intestinal damage , followed by the publication of a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini stating that rats fed GMO corn suffered alarming rates of cancer. Although the first study was retracted and the research money returned by Rowett and the second ingloriously withdrawn (it has since been republished to provide the text), the anxiety they created remains in a bizarre Internet version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. – the more legitimate science tries to explain how facts worth, the more traction those dealing with angst and hyperbole attain. Anit GMO writers base many of their arguments on “Scientists have proven”, or “A published scientific article proves,” using these studies. They are convincing. Vani Hari actually persuaded the government of famine struck Zambia to reject shipments of life saving food on Hari’s advice. 
We are swamped by misinformation: Not only does passionate and irrational GMO opposition linger despite the efforts of concerned scientists to educate the public, but fanned by a celebrity created by the GMO debate it has all but overtaken the Internet and media. The anti-science community is now a profitable and well connected industry. One of the country’s impressive quacks, Dr. Joseph Mercola, has since taken up the anti GMO cause. Mercola  who is one of the forces behind the anti-vaccination campaign and who has been censured by the FDA  for other dangerous claims and practices is a frequent guest of Dr Oz, a highly vocal GMO opponent. (Oz has begun to distance himself from GMO opposition since the end of February 2014, but it is unclear where he stands at this time.)
Misinformation is an industry: Mercola is a relatively small fry compared to Vedana Shiva, a heroin of the Earth Justice movement, who has been honored for her work. It was Shiva who claimed that hundreds of Indians had committed suicide because they could no longer afford seed, among other things. She has recently been much in the news in a bust up with New Yorker science writer Michael Specter, who challenged the accuracy of her statements.  Shiva published a venomous ad homonym response, to which Specter’s editor, David Remnick, replied with violent logic.
Slow Food: The most illustrious name to ascend the soap box is probably Alice Waters: It’s a very big important thing. We are talking about the seeds that gives us life. To imagine a company that wants to buy those seeds, patent those seeds, alter those seeds and and sell them back to us, it’s criminal.”  Waters, the poster child for the Slow Food Movement, follows founder and leader Carlo Petrini’s doctrine, and foodies follow Alice.
The disciples: Their followers blog, and blogs become memes. Organic Consumers’ blog tells you ten ways (they say) GMO will kill you.  Taking things one step further “Food Babe” has set the Internet afire with claims that “wheat belly”, since the question of gluten sensitivity has been laid to rest, is caused by glyphosate sprayed on wheat – even though the wheat is not GMO. . There are so many of these blogs that finding reliable and fact based information has become extremely difficult.
Innumerable irresponsible sites like Realfarmacy.com, which hosts pieces by Mercola, offer a potpourri of faux science, alarmism and sensational misinformation, which is spread as memes via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Social networking has given false prophets a platform and leant quackery wings.
The established media repeats and thus affirms the claims: From lone prophets to the respected media: As the sheer volume of Anti-GMO sites and followers makes data harder and harder to find, legitimate organizations like NPR and Consumer Digest miss on fact checking and support the myth rather than the data. The UPI mistakenly picked up and broadcast vaccination opponent Stephanie Seneff’s claim that glyphosate (Roundup) would make half of all babies autistic stating that “MIT Scientist Claims..” , news outlets reprint the allegations, and it’s a wrap. The entire country believes false statements, since they come from trusted sources.
Universities legitimize the myths: The interaction of popular intellectual media and Universities have given Anti GMO authors and journalists like Michael Polan and Mark Bittman a legitimizing forum for thee philosophies in which they Believe. Marion Nestle of NYU, Bittman and Polan, who heads the Department of Journalism at Berkeley have all spoken against Genetically engineered crops.  University of California Berkely is currently offering a course in Food policy, Edible Education 101  .
Stephanie Senneff presents herself and is presented by the media and Anti-GMO activists as an “MIT scientist,” which makes here the defacto voice of MIT.
What’s in it for the writers, for the bloggers and the followers? Follow the money: Grants, speakers’ fees, web sites selling cures. Ads on blogs. Vedana Shiva demands $40,000 per speaking engagement. She appears to live well.  Mercola pushes miracle cures. Oz has his media empire. As for the new girl on the block, Stepehanie Seneff, whose prediction that glyphosate, the herbicide used in some GMO plantings would cause half the country to be autistic: speakers fees and possibly the gratification of being celebrated as the voice of MIT on issues biochemical. (Seneff is a computer science professor, not a microbiologist).
Further down the disinformation chain there is social cohesion. Belief and belonging foster identity. Once believers join the march they are members of a community which tolerates no contradiction.
What about the politics? A tricky part about the public consensus of democracy is that people believe that everything is democratic, including science. It is not. Science is evidence based, or to use a nice word, “empirical”. Daniel Moynihan’s :”You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” is poorly understood. Equipped with fear and a surplus of bad information a growing number of not only Americans but Europeans have begun to demand either that GMO foods be labeled or be forbidden altogether. The Council of Europe in a bow to public opinion granted member nations the right to ban import of GMO crops, and some have. The California County of Sonoma and Kauai in Hawaii voted on outright bans on GMO growing. The Sonoma proposition lost, but Hawaii’s passed. It has since been overturned. Politics overrules science, and by doing so negates science.
Readers’ Digest Version: A small number of blogging public activists used a discredited study to promote an anti-science / pseudo-science agenda. Their misinformation is picked up and promoted first by media figures and food celebrities then by legitimate media sources, leading an unquestioning and scientifically poorly educated public to fear food created by genetic engineering. Activists who profit from the GMO hysteria use this fear to demand cessation of genetically engineered farming and failing that to demand labelling of all products containing any substances derived from genetically engineered crops. A bad study leads to national hysteria.
There are, however, a few bright points. The media seems to be picking up on a nascent “Science is Cool” sentiment. Oz appears to have changed his opinion, Celebrity Scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has come out against pseudo scientists with his usual short tempered accuracy, and hysteria usually dies down at some point. And then there are a few very sane and very clear and unbiased voices.
Nathanael Johnson, a refreshingly unbiased agriculture writer for the ecology site, www.gryst.com, has written a series on the truth and myths of GMO’s. He has a few more ideas as to the cause of the roots of genetic hysteria. For one thing, says Johnson, the company associated with GMO crops and Roundup is Monsanto, the company responsible for and still closely associated with Agent Orange, which, in turn, is emotionally linked to Roundup. “For most people, I suspect, GMOs are a metaphor — a stand-in for of all that is vaguely frightening in our food system. People attach their mistrust of agribusiness and fear of the unknown to this metaphor.”
Bibliography and Footnotes.
1) Gary Langer. Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods. ABC Poll. June 19/?. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods 2) A Decade of EU Funded GMO research 2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, decade of EU Funded Research, ISBN 978-92-79-16344-9 / doi 10.2777/97784 3) Ronald, Pamela C; R.W. Adamchak, Tomorrow’s Table. Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. 5) JIM HOLT, Madness About a Method. New York Times Magazine December 11, 2005 6) David H. Freedman Scientific American The Truth About Genetically Modified Food Aug 20,2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/?page=1 7) Worstall, Forbes. 11/30/2013 That Appalling Seralini GMO Cancer Paper Has Been Withdrawn 8) Joseph Mercola’s Blog: http://gmo.mercola.com/ 9) Quack Watch.Com – http://www.quackwatch.com/11Ind/mercola.html 10)Michael Specter, Seeds of Doubt. Annals of Science August 25, 2014 Issue http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt
11) Mischa Popoff & Patrick Moore & Robert Wager, Organics versus GMO: Why the debate? October 15, 2013, Genetic Literacy Project http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/15/organics-versus-gmo-why-the-debate/ 12) Alice Waters Discusses Food, Community, and GMOs November 14, 2012 Yoli’s Green Living. http://yolisgreenliving.com/2012/11/alice-waters-discusses-food-community-gmos/  Alexis Baden-Mayer & Ronnie Cummins, Ten ways GMO foods are killing you – And the Planet Organic Consumers Association, February 1, 2012 http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_24800.cfm 14) The Healthy Home Economist. http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/real-reason-for-toxic-wheat-its-not-gluten/
15) Carlo Petrini. Ten Reasons to Say No GMOS Italy – March 5, 2015 – Carlo Petrini http://www.slowfood.com/international/food-for-thought/focus/71683/ten-reasons-to-say-no-gmos/q=25F06E 16) Keith Kloor, The Rich Allure of a Peasant Champion. Discover Magazine. October 23, 2014 3:29 pm 17) David Remnick, New Yorker editor David Remnick responds to Vandana Shiva criticism of Michael Specter’s profile The Genetic Literacy Project. September 2, 2014 http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/09/02/new-yorker-editor-david-remnick-responds-to-vandana-shiva-criticism-of-michael-specters-profile/ 18) Nathaneal Johnson, Panic-Free-GMO’s. Grist.com July 8, 2013 continuing.
16) BBC: Zambia rejects GMO food aid. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2371675.stm
17) Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman and Michael Polan
Rebuttal to Mark Bittman on GMO’s
18) The UC Berkely course Edible Education 101. http://edibleschoolyard.org/ee101
Nathanael Johnson, Gryst. http://grist.org/food/rat-retraction-reaction-journal-pulls-its-gmos-cause-rat-tumors-study/ GMO mythbuster.
Nathanael Johnson’s Panic-Free-GMO series in Gryst.com beginning 8 Jul 2013 http://grist.org/series/panic-free-gmos/
(this post is about 07 Adverse Food Reactions / Food Production Stories)
Scienced Based Medicine: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
International Scientific Organizations and State and international health organizations stating that GMO’s cause no risk. http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/GLP-Science-and-GMOs.pdf
The New York Times on Vani Hari, the most prolific of the anti GMO food bloggers and vaccination deniers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/style/taking-on-the-food-industry-one-blog-post-at-a-time.html?_r=0
Getting Food Smart, II
The Harvard Course I took provided me with terrific and occasionally but not often useful insights on modernist cuisine. It made me poorer, as I ended up buying myself a graduation gift – a $200 Anova immersion circulator followed by the online digital copy of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist cuisine at a for students only reduced price of about sixty bucks.
While the Anova is enormously entertaining and really offers a new dimension to cooking – and I will eventually figure out how to get 64 degree eggs to come out without a mantle of snot and be able to shell them, I swear – the book is not better than the $2500 tome, except that it takes up less shelf space. Joy of cooking still does it for most things.
Having not only somehow passed the Harvard course, I continued on with a course on world nutrition and nutritional science offered by McGill University in Canada – specifically offered by three to my mind very handsome professors backed up by a bevy of delightful assistants, and I managed to pick up some interesting information which seriously contradicts common beliefs.
This has become an issue. I think I mentioned that. The problem is that knowing something – actually knowing just about anything about food, agriculture and nutrition these days sets you apart from the crowd, or at least my crowd.
People are distressingly misinformed about so many things they proclaim loudly. That would be, for instance, the value of organic food or local food (silly idea) or Genetic Engineering. Anecdotally (the courses have me hooked on empirically tested statements, which I can’t provide, since I don’t have grant money to do legitimate research) the vast majority of people I know believe passionately that GMO crops are dangerous, and a great number of them neither know what crops those would be (few) or really what GMO is. This is very handy for them, as it sets them in concord with all their friends.
Until the shoddy research revealing the damages of gluten to people who are not celiac, any gathering of women I participated in would contain a fair group of “gluten intolerant” individuals attempting to convert the rest of us to a gluten free lifestyle which would cure out wheat belly and brain fog. Actually they still do, even though the existence of non-celiac gluten intolerance has been roundly disproved and the original “study” shamed and withdrawn. I demurred at one and nobody talked to me the rest of the evening. (I had just undergone testing for Celiac and was delighted not to be a sufferer. They were delighted with their common affliction, it seemed.)
Facts, schmacts. Belief is what counts.
I have issues with belief which far transcend a firm grasp of evolution (the mechanism for creationist beliefs and GMO damage or anti vaccination beliefs is exactly the same). Easily swayed by alarmists, too many of my otherwise smart friends join the avalanche of misinformation and spread the alarm.
Let’s get to belief later. For the moment let’s talk about me, and if you haven’t removed yourself from the subscription list, you. What I/we have found out since being empowered with actual empirical data is that it sets one unpleasantly apart. Facts can outrage and insult. There is no way to say “No, not really,” to a friend who parrots the latest Luddite meme and still remain friends. The relation turns frosty, and you won’t be invited to their next grass fed Bar B Que.
I got kicked out of Slow Food for stating a truth, although nothing as upsetting as a rejection of locavorism.I kept to myself. (What? No bananas? Get real.) At least I think that’s why. In an early leader meeting I contradicted Marion Nestle’s assertion that the problem with Food in the United States (“our culture”) is that it is too cheap.
Excuse me, Ms Nestle – but have you tried to buy pot roast recently? Alice Waters was there, as was her old college roommate sitting next to me, who profited from the relation and slow food by eventually becoming Prince Charles’ PR person – I think he had an organic food line or cookies or something like that. As for wardrobe, Waters does not dumpster dive and the roommate was wearing what looked to me like Farogamo sandals with a pretty nifty pedicure, so deducting that nobody there had ever experienced the privilege of poverty and perspective it provides I decided unwisely to enlighten the Slow Food nobles. That was kind of like inviting the SS to a Seder. I had, and I told them that I had shopped in places where I was the only one not on food stamps and watched grandmothers with four kids in tow load up carts with cocktail wieners, which were on special for fifty cents a can, then not have enough food stamps to pay for them.
I was hushed up, and eventually drummed out of the corps. I assume the “food is only too cheap if you have a lot of money” snipe was the cause, but occasional comments about other SF dogma surely did not help, There were, of course, the usual dirty non-profit politics, and I once asked Waters at a screening of Deborah Koons Garcia’s anti big-ag film (the future of food, I think) for advice on setting up a garden for John O’Connell High School. She was neither pleased nor helpful. (“Do what I did. Raise a lot of money”) but I think speaking out about something I knew from reality which contradicted something they believed in the abstract was the main cause. People in general and ideologues in particular hate having their dogma kicked in the tires.
With the insights McGill and curiosity have provided me about so many of the nutritional sacred cows I now find myself in quandary – If the truth insults your friends but your friends’ fixed beliefs are distressing to you, do you a) hold your peace and decide it doesn’t matter (diplomacy – more or less what I have aspired to up till now) or b) simply state the fact and hope not to start an argument, knowing that it won’t have much impact.
The keep your peace solution would seem to have the least damage, but there is the “To thine own self be true, “ theory and the feeling that truth is indeed worth something.
My father had a saying: In the land of the blind the one eyed man had better damned well keep his stupid mouth shut. It’s served me well when I’ve had the self-discipline to apply it, but I think that has to stop now. Not at cocktail parties, where you really can change the subject to the weather or the Giants (well, you probably could. I know nothing about the Giants) but here.
It’s a little too self-important to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” as I doubt that anything I say will have any measurable effect on the prevalence of evil, but I have a friend with stage four colon cancer who is forgoing traditional therapy for an outrageous expensive juice treatment, because it is natural. The good news about this is that about 65% of stage 4 colon cancer sufferers survive with or without further treatment, so we hope he is not one of the remaining 35%, but he is following a “natural is good” philosophy preached by some of the same people who oppose vaccination and all progress including genetic engineering. And it’s too late to do or say anything, but I think if somewhere he had stumbled upon something that said, “warning..there are quacks about and they are maybe crazy and maybe greedy, and maybe both, and they will let you endanger your life for a little money,” or just, “high colonics don’t cure cancer,” he might have lost is hair by now and have a 17% higher chance of the cancer not recurring.
So, I think, the time to be a diplomat, or a wuss, has ended. Here, for instance.
I wrote a paper on the mass hysteria opposing genetic modification, which I was not going to publish. I changed my mind. Watch for it soon. If it insults you, then I suggest you take the time and effort to do a little independent research beyond the constant stream of Monsanto-hate that flows through your social media portals. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
I apologize to all of you who will be offended, but thank you Senator Moynahan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. “ Facts rule from now on.
And why I have been mostly silent.
There have been only rare additions to Culinary Promiscuity in the last year, and I have an excuse. I took a kind of sabbatical for the getting of knowledge.
It’s Harvard’s fault. Somehow news of Science and Cooking, an online Harvard course in food science held by food eminences like Harold McGee , David Arnold , Joan Rocca, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Nathan Myhrvold – the list is impressive – in collaboration with Harvard’s Department of Physics found my inbox.
Gee, I thought, How difficult can this be? After all I have a BA in Chemistry with plenty of physics and biology, and I work near if not quite in the food industry, so piece of cake, right? And I signed right up.
As it turned very difficult. I had forgotten nearly everything I had learned in college. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought about food science, and a lot of the things I thought I knew were wrong.
The course turned out to be extremely demanding and absolutely fascinating, covering both the theory of food in general and molecular practices in particular and the practice by some of the world’s most respected chefs. I had to relearn concepts at which I once excelled and grapple with facts I had never known. I got to watch Bill Yosses make an exquisite “glass” apple after Harvard explained how sugar bonds, Joan Roca build a little tower of super cooled ice and Myhrvold create his version of the perfect steak using frozen nitrogen. In sweats. Fabulous.
As a final assignment I designed and carried out an experiment on sous vide tuna which took me on a long and complicated web crawl seeking out facts on rigor mortis in fish and fish amino acids. The teaching assistants liked it. Exhilarating success.
As I nurtured my inner geek I learned that for me facts, the empirically provable truth is the antidote to the floods of quackery, nutritional misconceptions, food fads, the Food Network, $400 prix fixe dinners and the foolish adulation of the latest cuisine presented through spin rather than substance abounding in our matrix. I now “get” molecular cuisine. It’s not a game. It really is a science. I don’t really love it or want to subsidize the enormously high staffing cost needed to prepare it for dinner, but the premises are fascinating.
Of course Science & Cooking ate my life – sorry, I can’t go out, I have homework due – but it was worth it. I even passed it – pretty well, as a matter of fact.
While Science and Cooking is no longer available as a free MOOC, the course is still archived and can be accessed through the edx.org site. If not, the units – usually lasting a few minutes to half an hour, are available on YouTube . You don’t have to deal with the physics and chemistry if that’s not your strength. The culinary segments put anything the Food Network has to offer to shame.
Edx.org (and other MOOC sites) offer courses beyond food physics and celebrity Chefs, food, nutrition, eating being so much more than chemistry: . There are moral, agricultural, political, financial, nutritional aspects to food. Food nourishes and it kills. Every civilized country has a department or agency of food safety like the FDA. The entirety of life – human survival -comes down to a couple of inches of dirt, enough water and a little sunshine. Failing any one of those three elements armies slaughter each other, famine turns civilization into Barbary. Famished citizens die of hunger in the street, vomiting the grass they ate to stave off hunger pains. All these subjects are covered.
Mcgill University is currently holding a course on nutrition covering aspects from micro nutrients to food safety alarms to world hunger covering a great deal of what the Harvard course did not, although they share a few Venn intersections. I am taking it. It’s not nearly as sexy but a lot easier than the Harvard course. I find it comforting to have what I have long suspected about food alarms and claims to be true. The course tackles along with misconceptions about vitamin supplements (“America has the most expensive urine in the world”), agricultural practices and food poisoning. It tackles additives and pesticide use – more on that soon – old wive’s tales and modern myths.
Coursera, an alternative MOOC site has a wide array of courses on food. The site will hold a course in Science and Gastronomy through the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology, one in Sustainability of Food systems by the University of Minnesota, The Nordic Diet by the University of Copenhagen (biochemistry suggested), The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida.
I haven’t tried the Coursera courses yet, but the site is better than Edx, as it offers an option to sign up to be informed of courses in planning, so that you can sign up when they go live. These non profit organizations also offer a broad spectrum of non food related courses. Coursera hosts beginning Chinese, Edx beginning coding and Greek mythology. The selection is vast. “MOOC”, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.” All MOOC’s are free, unless they are being taken for credit. The hosts are some of the world’s finest Universities. You can in every course aim for a certificate or simply audit, cherry picking the parts that interest you. If you cannot finish one in time to get certified you can go back to the archived course and finish that at your leisure. The getting of wisdom was never so cheap or so easy.
What a deal!
I encourage you to join me at the nerd table, where we can laugh at the cool kids table emoting over the current culinary myths and scares. We could hang out together with our slide rules sticking out of our pocket protectors. The kind of knowledge offered by these MOOC’s may not be power, but it’s certainly reassuring.
There are also plenty of brick and Mortar opportunities to learn about food, too. I just learned this – The University of the Pacific San Francisco plans to offer a Masters of Arts program in Food in San Francisco under culinary anthropologist Ken Alba .
UCLA offers Science and Food to it’s students with online segments. You can subscribe to their email list. There is, of course, the School in Bra, Italy, Being attached to and founded in cooperation with Slow Food, however, there will be some level of ideology served up with the math. For those really hard core good geeks out there, Universities like UC Davis have internationally recognized food science programs. I wish I had known all this earlier, but still, I’ve got McGill and Harvard. My date for tonight is Dr Ariel Fenster, Joe Schwarz or David Harpp. I think we’re going to talk discuss food cults.
So we’re fat. And now what?
Mayor Bloomberg has been proposing one of those simple save the world solutions to just about everything, also known as an administrative Brain Phart, in the form of a Big Gulp fiat. By limiting the size of sodas he suggests, New York can get a grip on its citizens’ girth and health.Zip Zap Zum.. Problem solved.
Now that Alice Waters’ sensationalized cerebral flatulence on (0 calorie) bottled water has petered out, the nation appears to be flocking to the soda is evil camp and willing to curtail its consumption with any possible means including taxation and prohibition. Public shaming and caning cannot be far behind.
The science behind the ardor attributes every nutritional and plenty of the physical ills of our culture to soda: Obesity, heart and circulatory disease, kidney and liver damage and diabetes to name a few. According to the USDA the average American ingests 360- “added” sugar calories a day, enough to add 36 pounds a year, half of them from soft drinks. If you calculate in Americans who drink no soda, someone is piling on unimaginable tons of blubber and endangering themselves and the health economy.. A UC Davis study predicts that a soda tax would save 2600 lives a year.
Advocacy groups like the nattering CSPI, who have finally found a cause to legitimatize themselves with a National Soda Summit, are riding the wave out front while agrandizing themselve by elevating a congress to a summit. Both the CDC and USDA support the concept of state soda taxes. Pop producers and interest groups like The American Beverage Association have taken up the challenge and deny their claiims, smacking of Gordon Gecko self interest and insincerity as they do. Salvo’s are flying like bullets over the Alamo.
You really have to enjoy a good fight. They bring out the jesters like Brokelyn.com and the worst and most entertaining in politicians straining to gain favor with the masses, but this one is unsettling on many counts.
For one thing the crusade against soft drinks is simplistic. Demonizing one thing, in this case soda, promotes the idea of a silver bullet as the solution to a tangled mess of complex issues, here obesity, disease and the financial burden of paying for little buddy scooters for Mountain Dew addicts. It is the lazy approach we Americans like to take to just about any problem. Remember when Obama ran on “Change”, and a country voted for him in the assumption that he would solve all our problems in a few months, but he didn’t? Now his approval ratings have plummeted and we blame him? It doesn’t occur to us as a Nation that things are complicated and solutions take time, so attacking one thing – token or substantial – appeals immensely to our lazy nature. This is the same. Sensational gestures rarely reap sensational results.
Soda isn’t the only contributor to the “obesity epidemic”. There are a slew of other factors in our national weight crisis. My favorite is convenience food, mostly because I don’t eat much, so I can feel smug about damning those who do. The Huffington post just published statistics showing that processed foods, which are generally less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods, have risen to the top of the American grocery list from near the bottom, while dairy products have dropped to last place
The most obvious and my least favorite culprit is lack of exercise – I rather prefer chairs and chaise lounges to Pilates and would rather drive than hike, even though I know I lose much more weight from physical exertion than deprivation. French women, who by the way DO get fat – just not as much as we do – walk a lot. The French and European Paradox is fairly easily explained by their greater exercise in the run of their normal days. Life in Europe is not harder but requires more motion than in the US, which burns pounds. They also don’t eat the junk so many of us like.
Fast food, famously caloric and cheap due to farm subsidies and the use of sweeteners where one does not expect them – namely in meat – coupled with America’s growing nutritional ignorance and the convenience for working families earns the obesity blue ribbon. The statistics mentioned above also show that Americans are buying fewer groceries. Since they obviously aren’t eating less, it’s a good guess that they are getting fed at Quick Serve Restaurants. A simple McD’s hamburger contains only 250 calories, but their most advertised items like Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger have nearly 800. That’s without the fries and the Coke or the Blizzard. A Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage delivers 330 – ten of those and you’ve gained a pound.
I personally also attribute nationally increasing girths to the disappearance of vanity. My shallow sense of worth by appearance is the main reason that I stay under the four hundred or so pounds my genes keep screaming for me to gain. The younger generation does not seem to mind large amounts of flesh drooping over their tank tops or low rise shorts. In the dark ages at college there was one fat girl in our dorm. We loved her, but it was clear she would never have the success we envisioned for ourselves (marrying well, above all – we weren’t as smart as we thought we were) . Groups of young girls roaming downtown today are more likely to be convex than concave and they are apparently just fine with it. Maybe Bloomberg out to ban chic clothes in plus sizes. Or dictate full length mirrors on school doors and strewn around restaurants and food stores.
Despite the nutritional left’s cries that food is too cheap and you can make do with fresh produce as economically as with convenience food, the cost of fresh produce versus convenience food is repeatedly cited as a major factor in the poor American diet. The supposed impact of posting calories and nutritional content not only on groceries but at chain eateries – another silver bullet – has not brought the expected success.
Too few people know how to cook and really understand nutrition. Cooking used to be taught at least to seventh grade girls.No more.
Add to the above that we eat too much. Before we settled on blaming soda for everything there was a hue and cry about candy, fats, salt and sweets. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA , maintains, possibly correctly, that sugar and fat are addictive and that America’s tendency to treat itself to more carbonara, King Size Snickers and multiple Whoppers is due to a kind of conspiracy by the food companies, who act like dope pushers, hooking us young and stringing us along until our common food caused illnesses shorten our national life span. Kessler has also stated that he supports government intervention in food choices and costs.
This is where it gets scary.
Kessler’s and others’ complete lack of hesitation to support government intervention into personal dietary choices is troubling. When we find that the soda tax doesn’t work, a new demon will be found and regulated (remember trans fats? yet another silver bullet). Whether it is a junk food tax, a fast food intervention or an age ban on selling ice cream or candy to minors is unimportant. What does matter is that some politicians will at least try to do public good by invading personal choice. .The New York Health Commission has already discussed control of other high energy foods. Britain is already debating a 20% “fat tax” on unhealthy items. Denmark has initiated a butter tax.
There is another problem with panacea, single demon of the day thinking of the obesity problem: We imagine immediate results (think Obama again). This is scientifically improbable as far as fatness is concerned. Changes in national average weight and health are more likely to take generations than years. Enough studies have revealed that excessive weight once gained sets the brain and body to continue to demand energy intake. Individuals with strong will power can lose weight and keep it off, but we cannot suppose that demographics will do so. Yanking on the anchor chain will hardly turn the Queen Mary.
And this: Polls show a large portion of the populatoin in favor of bans and interventions of one kind of another – that means many people telling many other people what to do, “If it solves the health problem” (it won’t). or “saves us money spent on health care” (it can’t). When we begin to tell our neighbors how to live their lives, no matter how good we believe it might be for them, we cross a very dangerous line. It’s not quite drowning Salem witches to save their souls, but their dinner is simply none of our business. If you want to intervene, you can tell your congress person to stop funding mobility assistants for people who eat too much, but one should be careful at handing the keys to someone else’s cupboard to politicians. It could backfire.
Tax and ban proponents liken themselves to anti tobacco campaigners and the taxes they support to cigarette taxes, an interesting comparisojn but false. There is no such thing as second hand Coke, and drinking a Pepsi in your home will not give your children earaches. While cigarettes are the proven cause of many miserable deaths, sugared drinks are contributors to some.
East Virginia promotes its proposed Soda tax with the promise that the money will be used to sponsor nutritional education, as are many cigarette taxes. Good idea? Certainly, but if it please the sovereign state, why the Hell weren’t you offering nutritional education without a tax, if it’s so damned important? (It is).
This is where I offer a solution, and if I were God, I’d be glad to. I don’t have one, but I have a couple of ideas: Start working for long term success by educating children and young adults, use media to get messages out to the country – our English channels could take a cue from Spanish speaking television’s impressive public service announcements “Salud es vida”- health is life. Stop subsidizing sugars.
Rather than banning large portions, require that any outlet selling super-sized portions also offer reasonably small servings of popcorn, soda and ice cream for reasonable prices, increasing rather than reducing consumer choice. You just try now to get a one man popcorn at the movies or an edible portion at Cold Stone Creamery, where every cone is family sized.
As long as you are at it, legalize fruit kiosks like those in New York in all cities and insist that inner city grocers selling liquor and snacks also stock fresh fruit. It’s invasive, true, but not as much as preventing them from selling empty calories.
If the government really wants to make an impact, might we suggest that instead of reducing the amount of time allotted in schools for physical ed they increase it. John F Kennedy’s school fitness programs, aimed at making us competitive with the dreaded Russians, were effective. So we’ve got drones doing our dirty work – so what. Fitness is still in our national interest. Let the kids climb rope, do jumping jacks and run races again. It supposedly helps their brains as well as their physical health. If you say it is too expensive, then please quit bellyaching about the cost of health care for the unfit.
There are a lot more suggestions out there. Let the Senate form one of their famous committees for something both useful and attainable. Obese children and food sick adults clogging the system should give them some common bilateral ground, for a change.
Bloomberg is hardly a stupid or simple man, although touting National Doughnut Day as he introduced his plan was not all that astute. I suspect the proposed Big Gulp Ban is conceived as much a statement as a fix. Unfortunately as we have all seen there are many less astute politicians urged on by public advocates, who will hustle to follow suit and outdo it with perverse creativity.
I realize the desire is illusionary, but it would be so uplifting to see measured common sense minus the sensationalism injected into the obesity, diabetes, health care debate. I don’t know about you, but I had a terrific mother once who told me to eat my broccoli and not the candy bar. I loved her, but that was really annoying, and I don’t want my mayor or state senate stepping into her unfortunately empty shoes. (For one thing they wouldn’t stand a 500 calorie snowcone’s chance in Hell of filling them.)
Don’t expect the same results from Bloomberg’s program and other states’ proposed soda taxes as the smoking bans achieved. You may see a change in your lifetime, but I am sure I will not. My family lives to 100.
The Party’s over, America. Get ready to be told to eat your spinach.
After suffering Jamie Oliver’s patronizing missionary swing through the American nutritional landscape (An Englishman is telling America how to eat? They eat canned spaghetti on toast, for the love of Gawd), we are about to be treated to a much less entertaining Paula Deen proselytizing healthy nutrition. In case you’ve just come out of hibernation, Deen has outed her type 2 diabetes and with the speed of a congressman caught in a threesome with a teenager and a high priced hooker come to Jesus with a full public mea culpa and a promise to do only good with a healthy food show in future. Her conversion outraged Tony Bourdain and saddened those of us whose pleasure was watching her stuff a week’s worth of fat, sugar and salt into a single appetizer serving without apologies.
Deen’s retreat from salt, sugar and trans fats is our loss – devil-may-care-and-don’t-spare-the- lard is at the very least highly entertaining, and whether or not her new focus on what’s good for us is well intended or just self serving, like Oliver’s warnings, Michelle Obama’s charming cajoling, the Center for Science for the Public Interest’s incessant and self-serving nagging and all of the nation’s food political media sensationalism combined, it is not going have any substantial impact on the country’s obesity statistics or diabetes crisis. You have to get to the root of the problem, which is us, to effect real improvement. And that is what? Are we simply culinary idiots?
Granted, American eaters are occasionally stupid, as evidenced by the increasing number of three hundred pounders zipping around on disability and Medicare paid My Little Buddy Scooters years after their doctors warned them, that their diet would take out their knees and hips. Our fellow eaters know that McDonald’s 1500 calorie burgers and Starbuck’s 500 calorie frozen coffees are going to make them fat, immobile and sooner dead – but neither Starbuck’s nor Domino’s is feeling the pinch of their logical conclusions. Apparently cause and effect thinking (Big gulps yield inability to support your own mass) is not our strong point, but you can’t hold stupidity alone responsible for the current national nutritional health crisis.
So blame it on the manufacturers, who are putting cheaper corn syrup sweetener in things you wouldn’t consider dessert and marketing a bucket of calorie packed fried chicken as a healthy family meal. So ban toys in Happy meals or pass a soda tax, Go to battle with the First Amendment and try to stop their advertising. Good luck.
The food industry is simply doing what businesses do and Paula Dean is about to do: Playing to their audiences. They sell what consumers demand. You can of course, like Paul Kenny accuse food manufacturers of creating an addiction and attempt to resolve the problem with a war on Lardo or sugar, which promises the same success as the government’s war on drugs. Or we can fix it, at least in the long term.
If we as a nation want to solve out diabetes and obesity crisis, which means addressing what it costs us in health care and welfare programs, we can’t just scoff at “stupid” and blame the providers of food, Nutritional outrage and good intentions are ineffective. We need to look beyond the buzz words and the facile finger pointing of the media and identify the underlying causes of the country’s poor eating habits. Junk food’s ubiquitous availability (evil producers are selling it) and advertising bombardment are results, not causes. If our nation’s eaters were dying to have spinach snacks, Kraft would be producing them and running million dollar ad campaigns at the Super Bowl.
Is junk food addictive? Perhaps, but “habit forming” is perhaps a better description (things you like produce serotonin, whether it’s running or eating salt water toffee) and as tidy as the accusation that big agriculture and McDonald’s are pushing addictive products, It’s more probable that we, once we reach our mid-twenties, have formed habits that we are not likely to break until we get our own diabetes diagnosis. The fact that we will change our habits then shows that we are not that stupid.
What we are, as a nation, however, is ignorant, and there’s an app for that.
The real underlying problem is lack on knowledge aboout and understanding of the simplest facts about food – culinary and nutritional illiteracy. Americans for the most part know pitifully little about what they eat. They don’t know how to buy it. They don’t know how to cook it, and according to the statistics on food poisonings, they haven’t got a clue on how to keep it. I suspect that most Americans don’t know what really good food tastes like. The continued existence of Velveta is proof of that. We build our life long pitiful eating habits as children because nobody tells us any better. This wasn’t always the case..
How’d that happen? Two generations ago your grandmother, who may have been rolly polly and not a great cook, was serving your mother a balanced meal and sending her to school with something more or less appropriate, including celery sticks with peanut butter, a tuna fish sandwich or an apple. If you are under 40, your own mother probably didn’t do that (if she did, you are probably not obese). Nobody’s mother did. Blame it on feminism.
Our common food culture is in great part collateral damage of the women’s liberation movement. James Beard as the spokesman for the Jolly Green Giant and Westinghouse with the first dishwashers led the way to the sea change in our eating conventions, creating conveniences which permitted Mad Men’s wives to toss away their aprons and enter the work force, but Gloria Steinem’s followers did in America’s healthy relationship with food by stripping Home Ec from our high schools.
Bless’em for that. Home Ec, frequently boring and generally run by bossy and intolerably opinionated teachers, was obligatory for girls, who usually gave up Geometry or beginning algebra in order to graduate from junior high school. Eliminating first the requirement and then the class entirely put girls on equal educational footing with boys and provided women the academic foundations to transcend the nurse, teacher, stewardess and teacher futures available to them.
Eliminating home economics also saved the schools a lot of money. Lab courses are enormously expensive to run, and insurance was just beginning its parabolic climb to astronomically expensive, when the courses disappeared, and the cost of insurance for classes using knives and hot liquids would have destroyed school budgets.
Education equality with men also means that women know as much as their male classmates about food: Squat, a knowledge void passed on to their children. The problem was compounded by the time limitations set by women’s initial liberty to participate in the work force, reducing the time spent providing cooking experiences and instruction to their children. Balanced sit down meals and brown bags began to disappear in the seventies, creating a population that not only did not know how to cook or understand nutritional basics, but doesn’t know what good food can and should taste like.
If you want to change America’s eating habits, you have to educate our children: Return Home Economics classes to the schools. Make them obligatory for all students in their food formative years – that would be about the seventh grade. Make them accessible and interesting and not preachy. Keep it simple and don’t insist on organic or sustainable product. Teach your children how to make basic foods – forget Alice Waters and the ideologues and stick with an American menu adolescents will like. Just do the basics. Explain vitamins and calories, flavors and technique.
Other courses won’t lose ground. Good food preparation involves math and science. It’s fascinating stuff. Show kids who have had nothing but Tortino Pizza Rolls and Pop tarts why bread has holes in it and how absolutely awesome a little orange and cheese can taste, how much fun watching a sauce firm up can be. Make jam. Fry eggs, mix salad dressing (colloidal suspensions), make lemonade from fruit. Cook up a BLT or a croque monsieur. Mash potatoes. Explain a food budget and make a banana smoothie. Explain why steel needs to be sharpened and milk is homogenized. Let them cook bugs and make a pie or cookies without a mix. .
Added bonus: The Trojan Horse effect. Children, being the insufferable know-it-alls they are, will carry their nutritional literacy beyond the classroom. Parents are going to get an earful when they put another batch of Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese on the table. That’s good. Some will want to cook at home, occasionally in self defense. (This was not the case with the traditional course, as the at least one person in the home could usually prepare a meal.)
Still Better: In only eight or so years the first batch of nutritionally literate adults will be opinion makers and trend setters, and their demands will be met. The fast and convenience food providers are using mass media to educate. So, Educate Back. The schools have them as a captive audience, face to face for at least an hour three times a week. Sarah Lee would die for that exposure. Why aren’t we using it.
What speaks against return Home Economy to the schools:
The Money Problem.
Food classes aren’t expensive. They are exorbitant. They require equipment, product, and insurance. But then good education does cost something, and it is our general mandate, all of ours, to educate our children for the important things in life. We are failing here. Just as important is what an educated eating public will save. Congress is belly aching about the cost of Medicare. What if the next generation of adults didn’t need Scooter Buddies to haul their four hundred pound carcasses around the sidewalks? What if they didn’t need insulin and knee replacements? Would that offset the cost of teaching the most basic component of our lives to people who need the education? You betcha. After all, we have sex education, don’t we?
Oxen being gored: Whose? Who knows, but any major change disadvantages someone who makes money from the status quo.
And there are the unions. An attempt I once participated in to set up a good culinary program at John O’Connell high school ran aground at the shoals of the hairnet lady’s union. The plan was to let the students cook lunch twice a week. The hairnet ladies said no, and the class was re-conceived as a special needs solution. We need to get our priorities straighter, if we want to resolve really large problems.
Big Food Industry: While Big Food can’t be held as the sole culprit in the American nutritional crisis, they enjoy great profits from it, which they won’t give up gladly. An early attempt by Slow food San Francisco to introduce apples as snacks twice monthly was foiled by the contracted suppliers of potato chips and Snickers bars. Big Food lobbies, and they are not going to lie back and allow the educational system to market carrots as snacks to their prime audience. They had, furthermore, effectively undermined Home Economics classes before they were dropped with donations of their products (Mac ‘n Cheese, mixes, Jello) to Home Ec programs,
You can do something. Take this immodest proposal to heart, then take it to your congress person, then take it to your school board. Michelle Obama – stop finger wagging and start lobbying for hands on food education. Just the basics. It will work.
Culinary Hysteria: Anatomy of a food fad
The inspiration for Culinary Promiscuity came through a book tour presentation by Richard Wrangham, primatologist and author of “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human“. Wrangham theorizes that fire was the pivotal event for human evolution, catapulting our species from tree dwelling, leaf chewing primates to doctors, lawyers and casino magnates.
With more calories available through cooking, says Wrangham, our treed ancestors no longer needed to spend the entire day chewing to fuel their oversized bellies, could climb down from their branches, develop a brain in place of their enormous chewing apparatus, walk upright and begin hunter gathering. All that in turn permitted the development of a voice box followed language, society, tools, the wheel, the written word, the printing press, hors d’oeuvres and eventually Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching us how to make puff pastry and employ a Cuisinart the right way. Cooking made us human.
Once published Wrangham’s initially contested theory gained instant popularity among the food crowd. Endorsed by sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, the idea took hold in at least some of the food fixated community. Others, however, didn’t get the memo.
During Wrangham’s book tour presentation a member of the audience mentioned the burgeoning Raw movement, whose adherents eat nothing cooked, maintaining that food in its “natural state”, i.e. raw, was healthier to the point of possessing nearly magical powers. Wrangham gave it short shrift, stating that he had “heard of them” and that they were “always very thin, and very hungry,” suggesting the question : If you’ve come a long way baby, why ever would you want to go back?
The raw food movement, with little regard for Wrangham’s insights or for that matter, any empirical scientific data was gaining momentum and soon topped the foodie topic chart, it’s disciples eschewing their Wolf ranges and promoting the value of all things not only raw but vegan with a truly missionary ignorance.
The first time I heard about the Raw Movement was perhaps ten years earlier, when a restaurant asked me to find him a “special chef. As it happened, Nick Petti , a pretty special guy, dropped by that afternoon. “Have I got a job for you,” I probably said to Nick who undoubtedly raised one eyebrow under his signature jester cap, mumbled the likes of “We’ll see about that,” and took off to have a look. In a couple of hours he was back. I’m pretty sure he slammed his fist on my desk. “Don’t you ever…” he sputtered, then gave me a review of his interview. “He puts pizzas out to dry on the roof in the sun. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There are flies!”
I backed off the deal and dismissed the idea as one more visionary loony’s fantasy, but the idea was out of the barn and about to explode. It’s odd how easy it is for outrageous ideas to find followers. Sometime later the raw restaurateur’s book appeared, spawning an initial rush of highly vocal disciples, then suddenly “raw food” was the trend, gathering foodies as it rolled on like a cartoon snowball. Charlie Trotter adopted the philosophy, offering all raw prix fixe menues at this Chicago restaurant, and published a blockbuster book with beautiful pictures in collaboration with Roxanne Klein, who opened a raw cuisine, or “living food” as she put it, restaurant in Marin, claiming credentials from Stars, Square One and Chez Panisse – enough heavy ammunition to awaken the herding instincts of the food mad restaurant followers of the Bay Area. She apparently actually did work at Chez Panisse.
Chefs, on the other hand, scoffed: “The whole thing about being a chef, said one,” is cooking. “That’s what I have been working to learn for ten years, that’s what I went to culinary school for. You gotta have fire.” Wrangham’s point, entirely. The cooking community concurred: the reason you cook things was that a) it made food safer and b) food tastes better. Klein had asked me to find a “chef” for the restaurant, although she, herself, was generally accredited with the food. My searches led nowhere. “You don’t need a chef. That’s a pantry cook,” said potential candidate. The others noted things like, “Hey, man. I gotta do meat.”
The trio of arguments against raw food – safety, flavor and nutritional value – are convincing. The whole raw food philosophy rejects temperatures above 118F, keeping the procuts in the sweet spot for microbe growth for extended periods of time. (The Microbial danger zone is between 40F and 140F). The PH of the vegetable proteins used, for instance to make “dough” of sprouts, is perfect for dangerous critters. As for flavor, the combination of vegan dictates rejecting eggs, milk products and honey plus the processing limitations exclude hot baked biscuits. Eggs Benedict, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, oven baked asparagus, chevre and Waygu sliders. Why would otherwise seemingly intelligent people turn their back on Toast in favor of a Neolithic diet of nuts, soy and berries, skillfully combined in an expensive, high visibility restaurant? Why the lemming rush to the past?
Titillation certainly counts for some of the fad’s and the restaurant’s popularity. The food was reportedly tasty. The usual promotional tricks surely worked; Roxanne’s claimed connections to prestigious kitchens in her press releases, and that kind of provenance – fact based or not – brings in the public. The Klein’s social connections – they included some of the most glamorous figures in San Francisco and Marin, surely did no damage to the project.
One restaurant, however, does not a movement make, and a movement raw became. The press went wild. The SF Chronicle Food section all but pronounced Roxanne’s the second coming and writers around the country followed suit in the usual food press elephant walk, passing the new and outrageously edgy story about in the usual self-fulfilling prophecy mode. Other restaurants, gurus and books were created. Bloggers went bloggy. Raw web sites and “living food” communities were established.
The language was an extra plus. For the same reason “prunes” were re names “dried plums”, using the term “living food” suggests mythical powers, at least if your food is vegan. It would not work as well for omnivorous menus.
Once the herd was in motion, logic was doomed. At the height of the “living food” revolution, any protest against it became advertisement for it. In the food world, printers ink and pixels turn isolated incidents into widespread phenomena. Wealthy women began looking for private chefs who could juice.
Some of us scratched our heads.
The raw public’s unquestioning acceptance of the trend is further puzzling in light of the amount of raw food from orange juice and salad to sushi and carpaccio we were already consuming in our more or less balanced conventional diets. Nobody, at least in California, was deprived of raw food. Reason (and science) would suggest that they were getting enough fiber or vitamins already, but the diehard believers rejected all cooked foods. Why?
Like other food fads, the raw philosophy promotes the “natural” character of the foods, uncompromised by fire. We were intended, they reason, to eat raw and did so exclusively until about 10,000 years ago. (they’re off by only a little more than three million, but precision was never a prerequisite of nutritional fashion.) Raw Foods, proclaim the advocates, are healthy, insinuating that cooked foods are not. It addressed our obsession with unadulterated and real foods as opposed to the poisons we somehow feel we are subjected to. By some twist of logic, “raw” came to equal “pure”, while cooked foods took on the suggestion of toxicity. We Americans are all fools for healthy; our health grounded gullibility enjoys a fine history in this country beginning with travelling snake oil salesmen. It’s good for what ails ya’.
A claim was that cooked foods fostered allergies and food sensitivities, which various raw advocates stated were due to the destruction of natural elements in food. One chef I asked recently noted he had heard that eating foods raw kept the enzymes intact. It’s quite surprising, in fact, how many food professionals don’t discount the vital enzyme theory and it’s dual fallacy: they are not human enzymes but effective for chlorophyll producing organisms – not us – and second your own digestive enzymes destroy them.
As for the fuzzy concept that raw food is more nutritional, Wrangham and a number of nutritional scientists in the fact based side of the debate avow that cooking foods actually makes many vitamins and enzymes available.
The trend has settled as the foodists rush on to the next thing, be it cupcakes or food trucks. There are plenty to choose from. As trends will, raw food occasionally still stubbornly bubbles up in some food section article now and then, but they are fortunately no longer ubiquitous. It turned out that at least in San Francisco and Marin there were not enough raw devotees to support a large, expensive “live food” raw and vegan restaurant. Their money ran out. The principal investor, Michael Klein, withdrew his support. Perhaps those who tried the regime were disappointed when the wellness they expected from natural and uncompromised product did not materialize. My guess is that, as Wrangham said, they all just got “really, really hungry”, chucked it all in and went out for a pork chop with mashed potatoes.
The Kleins divorced it was rumored that Michael Klein was planning to invest in an Argentine steakhouse with George Morrone. For every action……..
So, how did something as silly as “live food” get so much press and how does misinformation linger on so long? A professor of mine once said that “People attach great importance to what ever comes into and exits their body.” He didn’t add that reason did not apply. When it comes to nutrition, health and food, we are frequently irrational. Give us enough semi scientific evidence and tell us that something is natural and healthy and not contaminated, regardless of the facts, and we’ll all our logical garments and follow the nearest buck naked emperor down any road he decides to lead us.