You know how you can go through life believing and trusting someone until you catch them, maybe not in an outright lie, but in a tiny fib, or an omission, and then everything after that is tainted with confusion as you try to determine just how honest they’re being?
Thus is my relationship with author Barry Glassner and his book The Gospel of Food.
Glassner attempts to debunk a variety of theories and commonly held opinions and beliefs about food and eating, and for the most part, he writes a well-thought-out argument in which he supports his claims. When it suits him. That is, he tends not to bring up any documentation that might refute his claims, which makes me question not just the issues in dispute, but everything he writes.
I can agree with his opening claim that people who enjoy what they eat have more joyful lives overall, as opposed to people who deny themselves real food on the pretense of health or dieting. In the chapter False Prophets he references writer Emily Green who has written against non-fat dairy products and similar items which she refers to as “nonundelows” for their prefixes of non-, un- de- or low-; foods that have been modified to have their nutritional value, fat, calories etc., removed.
Glassner also targets companies who have marketed food as medicine, touting their anti-oxidant properties, adding thing like pro-biotics or selling their products based on the supposed but unsubstantiated healing properties. He refers to this as the “oat-bran syndrome” based on the debunked studies from the 1980s that had food manufacturers adding oat bran to absolutely everything, including beer, in order to sell products to people who wanted to benefit from the fibre that would supposedly prevent cancer.
Attitudes toward food and eating are a big concern of Glassner’s and he happily skewers foodies at every opportunity. First he questions society’s current concern over processed foods:
Who is in a position to buy fresh foods and prepare meals from them? Those of us with time, money, and cooking and refrigeration equipment. People who lack some or all of these feed themselves and their families on processed foods.
He also takes task with foodies in search of “authentic” meals who have no real idea of what constitutes such, noting that most Thai restaurants that bill themselves as authentic use ingredients such as coconut milk, something not normally found in regional Thai cuisine. He also cites a study in which it was discovered that most restaurateurs selling ethnic foods from their homelands did not run restaurants in their own countries.
Glassner has particular scorn for what he refers to as “food adventurers”; folks who make a point of searching out little hole-in-the-wall places with great food but no mainstream appeal.
Devoting a whole chapter to McDonald’s, Glassner defends every conceivable complaint that has been levelled against the corporation in the past few years, from their marketing to children (it’s a safe place for parents to take their kids to play) to the unhealthiness of their food (hey, Mickey D’s has salads on their menu now, and an average meal contains all the food groups) to the cleanliness of the establishments; Glassner is correct in his claim that chain restaurants with written manuals for sanitation standards usually fare better than small Mom and Pop diners, but the recent documentation of rats at a number of NYC KFC locations proves otherwise.
While there are inklings of Glassner being selective in his references in the chapter on fast food, his method of only telling half the story becomes apparent in the chapter on obesity.
A sufficient number of Americans were just below the cutoff for what officially qualifies as obese. By gaining a modest amount of weight they crossed the threshold and got reclassified from “overweight” to “obese”.
Although the obesity rate increased by a whopping 30 percent between 1991 and 2001, for example, the typical American gained less than a pound a year. But that fairly modest weight gain was enough to push substantial numbers over the threshold from “overweight” to “obese.”
Or maybe, just maybe, it might have been the fact that, in 1995, under pressure from a lobby group comprised of drug companions, all of whom sold diet drugs, the World Health Organization and, in turn, the US government, lowered the BMI index definition of “overweight” from 27.5 to 25, creating millions of overweight people literally overnight. This is information that Glassner should have turned up in a more thorough investigation.
Glassner brings up some salient political issues in his conclusion, citing an example of America’s Second Harvest accepting food donations from Albertson’s, and naming the grocery chain “Retailer of the Year”. At the time of the donation, Albertson’s was locked in an ongoing argument with unionized workers over unpaid wages, affordable health care and pressure to not file worker’s compensation claims. Some believed that Second Harvest should not have accepted the donation based on Albertson’s treatment of its employees. The cynic in me feels the need to point out that corporations seldom give back to the community out of the goodness of their hearts – the food donations undoubtedly created goodwill in the community at a time when workers were striking and encouraging boycotts.
Glassner comes out in favour of genetically modified foods, quoting biologist Richard Lewontin of Harvard:
“Whatever fears I might have of possible allergic reactions to food produced from genetically modified organisms, they are not more unsettling than the allergies induced in me by the quality of the arguments about them.” Noting that conventional plant breeding, which has gone on for centuries, sometimes produces foods that make people ill, while as far as we know, genetically engineered foods have harmed no one, Lewontin suggests that those who oppose GM foods succumb to “a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced.”Emphasis mine.
Excuse me a moment while I pick up my eyes – they seem to have rolled right out of my head.
There is plenty of difference between grafting an apple to make a new variety and making a plant resistant to Agent Orange – and then spraying that plant with Agent Orange on a regular basis. Not to mention the fact that GM seeds are purposely designed to not reproduce, forcing farmers to buy new seed each year.
But maybe that’s more of Glassner’s selective editing, like when he references BSE in Europe but oops, seems to forget that it has also occurred in North America;
And Europeans shared a frightening experience in the mid-1990s that we Americans only heard about – an outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain that spread to other European countries.
The copyright date on The Gospel of Food is 2007, but maybe Glassner has been too busy for the past few years to watch all those news reports of BSE-diseased cattle in Canada and the US. The fact doesn’t support his statement though, so he chooses to ignore it.
The Gospel of Food is definitely worth a read – even Glassner’s most unsupported statements are provocative food for thought. But I’d advise anyone considering the book to remember that there are two side to every story, and because Glassner only gives us one, his version is not to be fully trusted.