Feb. 16th, 2008

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Unhappy Meals

A (quite long) NYT article on food & nutrition & American culture (and why it sucks when it comes to this stuff). My favorite part came about 2/3rds of the way down, when the author characterized eating as a relationship among species in the food chain. I'd never quite thought of it that way before, but it makes sense.

Excerpt:

“Health” is, among other things, the byproduct of being involved in these sorts of relationships in a food chain — involved in a great many of them, in the case of an omnivorous creature like us. Further, when the health of one link of the food chain is disturbed, it can affect all the creatures in it. When the soil is sick or in some way deficient, so will be the grasses that grow in that soil and the cattle that eat the grasses and the people who drink the milk. Or, as the English agronomist Sir Albert Howard put it in 1945 in “The Soil and Health” (a founding text of organic agriculture), we would do well to regard “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web.

In many cases, long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communications up and down the food chain, so that a creature’s senses come to recognize foods as suitable by taste and smell and color, and our bodies learn what to do with these foods after they pass the test of the senses, producing in anticipation the chemicals necessary to break them down. Health depends on knowing how to read these biological signals: this smells spoiled; this looks ripe; that’s one good-looking cow. This is easier to do when a creature has long experience of a food, and much harder when a food has been designed expressly to deceive its senses — with artificial flavors, say, or synthetic sweeteners.

Note that these ecological relationships are between eaters and whole foods, not nutrients. Even though the foods in question eventually get broken down in our bodies into simple nutrients, as corn is reduced to simple sugars, the qualities of the whole food are not unimportant — they govern such things as the speed at which the sugars will be released and absorbed, which we’re coming to see as critical to insulin metabolism. Put another way, our bodies have a longstanding and sustainable relationship to corn that we do not have to high-fructose corn syrup. Such a relationship with corn syrup might develop someday (as people evolve superhuman insulin systems to cope with regular floods of fructose and glucose), but for now the relationship leads to ill health because our bodies don’t know how to handle these biological novelties. In much the same way, human bodies that can cope with chewing coca leaves — a longstanding relationship between native people and the coca plant in South America — cannot cope with cocaine or crack, even though the same “active ingredients” are present in all three. Reductionism as a way of understanding food or drugs may be harmless, even necessary, but reductionism in practice can lead to problems.

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