There is a time-worn adage that we are what we eat. Food has always been a prime human concern. After all, we ingest it unfailingly three times every day.
Many and varied have been comments about food. George Orwell suggested that the secret of a successful restaurant is a sharp knife. Montaigne wrote that a man should not so much consider what he eats as with whom he eats. King James I ventured, “He was a bold man who first swallowed an oyster.”
Oscar Wilde once said to a dinner companion: “If the soup had been as warm as the wine, and the wine as cold as the fish, and the fish as young as the maid, and the maid as willing as the hostess it would’ve been a good meal.”
Harvey Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University, has written a number of informative and entertaining books about food, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and A Social History of Eating in Modern America.
In his latest work, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat (University of Chicago Press), he makes clear that what and how we eat has become increasingly entangled with false advertising, faulty research, government ineptitude and the greed of giant corporations.
In two vivid chapters, the author describes the widespread germ phobia of the 19th century that turned anxious, usually normal, citizens into fly-swatting fanatics.
The quest for nostrums is an old story. In the 1950s, Gaylord Hauser’s opus Look Younger, Live Longer was a national bestseller. The author, handsome and oozing charisma, invaded Hollywood. His enthusiastic followers included Greta Garbo and the Dutchess of Windsor. Hauser endorsed five “wonder drugs”: skim milk, brewer’s yeast, yogurt, wheat germ and blackstrap molasses.
Vitamins, once widely hailed, are now viewed in the medical community as largely unnecessary. “High-quality studies have failed to show that extra vitamins, at least in pill form, help prevent chronic disease or prolong your life”.
Does eating fatty foods lead to coronary disease? Twenty-one reports tracking 350,000 people found no association between them. As Edward Pinkney, a disgusted preventive medicine physician wrote, “The consumers understandable fear of heart disease and its impending death is being exploited by certain health groups as well as by an industry whose profits have more than doubled as a direct result of its implied promise that heart disease forestalled through use of its products.”
And so it goes with fears about white bread, whole milk, butter, salt – and now sugar.
Recently, there have been widespread fears expressed about gluten. Researchers believe that only five per cent or six percent of those who claim to have gluten sensitivity actually have it. Some parents are eliminating gluten from the diet of their children, hoping it will be a cure for autism
Levenstein suggests that we remain skeptical about food claims. Advice? Eat a wide variety of foods and follow the rule of moderation. But don’t deny yourself the foods you crave; such self-inflicted punishment is both foolish and needless. This is a necessary book, expertly researched and accessible, written with wit and verve.