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Food Fight


Barry Glassner challenges the regime of culinary correctness. By Ragan Sutterfield



Last week the Diane Rehm Show on NPR featured two doctors who had just written a book on “waist” control. The doctors gave advice on how to trick your body into eating more fiber, fewer simple sugars, and less overall. So far so good.


But when the doctors advised that we “automate” our breakfast and lunch—eat the same thing every day—I was skeptical. I thought they put that sort of diet in Oliver! to make us feel sorry for the orphans. At least these doctors recommended a tasty whey smoothie and not gruel.

Listening to this show, I was reminded of Barry Glassner’s The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food is Wrong, a new book about the food obsession and paranoia in American culture. I’d been back and forth about The Gospel of Food, loving one chapter and hating the next. But hearing the good doctors on Diane Rehm convinced me of the book’s value. Our world is too full of diet advice, foods made more for vitamin content than taste, and scientific studies about our dinners. Glassner helps us sort through the mess of eating in America.

A sociologist at the University of Southern California, Glassner knows how tricky “studies” can be. Armed with a desire for flavor and skepticism about the “experts,” Glassner marches into the halls of the Center for Science and the Public Interest, the American Heart Association, and other bastions of the nutrition regime to find out how well their diet advice has withstood the tests of time and peer-reviewed studies. He also investigates how the food industry has used (and misused) those same studies to shape public opinion about which foods are “healthy.”

Eggs, whole milk, soy—Glassner looks at the major “eat” and “don’t eat” foods of the last several years and finds hypocrisy and a lot of mind-changing. One year New York Times health columnist Jane Brody puts eggs on the “don’t eat” list, and the next she says, “I’ve resurrected the egg.” We all know the routine. Don’t eat, then eat. Most of us just lose track.

Glassner prefers the advice of Marcia Angell, the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine. Angell believes people “should eat the way they want.” The key is to be moderate and eat a varied diet. Varied because, as Angell says, “you’re operating from a position of extraordinary ignorance.” Beyond the basics and common sense, we just don’t know that much about what’s good or bad for us—or why.

Take soy: While some say it’s a miracle food, others claim it’s a carcinogen. It’s best, in Angell’s opinion, to put soy in the midst of a diverse diet to reap some of the positive benefits without risking a heavy dose of the potential negatives.

Despite this ignorance the food industry has taken every health fad as an opportunity. When a new trend hits the news, the food industry begins producing what Glassner dubs “safe treyf,” food that is marketed to seem healthier than average—but actually isn’t. (Glassner has appropriated “treyf” from the Yiddish—it usually refers to non-kosher food that passes as okay with some moderately observant Jews.)

Walk any grocery store aisle and you’ll see “safe treyf.” My favorite is the certified organic Kelloggs Frosted Mini-Wheats. The organic label makes it look healthy, but there’s nothing in it that’s more nutritious than regular Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Where Glassner falls short is in his all too comfortable embrace of the industrial food system. From praising McDonalds for its populism to admiring the chemistry of prepackaged food, Glassner makes the mistake of many reactionaries. Like a man who reacts to gun control laws by buying an Uzi, Glassner finds too many friends in the industrial food world as he rages against the false prophets of nutrition.

Most troubling are his thoughts on organics and sustainable agriculture. Pooh-poohing Michael Pollan’s calls for a “countercuisine” of food grown on family farms that “return as much to the soil as they take from it,” Glassner asks, “How realistic is this vision?” His answers come from Gene Kahn, the founder of the organic foods company Cascadian Farms (which was bought by General Mills, where Kahn is now a VP). When asked about Pollan, Kahn answers with a straw-man: “Most of us have grown up a bit…we don’t think it’s an either-or proposition: either buy food that’s manufactured or go out and milk your own cow.”

Kahn is about giving customers what they want. “The world needs organic products, including Honey Nut Cheerios, because these are the products that people eat in this country,” he says.

“This,” says Glassner, “is Big Food’s trump card in contests over who best serves the public. The industry provides the choices the vast majority of consumers want, and the minority who have other preferences are free to shop elsewhere.” Glassner pretty much leaves it at that non-argument. He doesn’t address the question of which farming methods are more sustainable, only who gives the public what they want. Pollan believes that if the culture doesn’t want sustainability then the culture must change.

The Gospel of Food is a potluck of a book—it’s best to pick around. But at its heart, the book is about returning flavor to a world filled with foods that are more vitamin supplements and “safe treyf” than meals to share with family and friends. If we make flavor our priority, then I have no doubt that the food grown on small, sustainable farms will win that contest every time.

The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food is Wrong, by Barry Glassner, Ecco, 285 pages, $25.95