Saturday, 22 November 2014

Food, Fads and Fear

Most of my Facebook friends are reasonably sensible people. Of course they are, because I defriend the ones who show signs of being right-wing nutters, gun freaks and fundamentalist Bible-bashers. But now and again, one or two of them will share something from one of the increasing number of 'healthy-eating/living' websites. They usually have irresistibly clickable titles like '10 Foods You Should Never Eat' and 'Top 10 most unhealthy, cancer-causing foods - never eat these again!'

The problem with articles like this is they come from what I call the 'everybody knows' school of writing (I certainly wouldn't call it 'journalism', unless the word 'gutter' was somewhere close by). The stories are packed with assumptions that things like GMOs are automatically bad, that MSG is a toxin, that 'processed' is a synonym for 'nasty stuff'. And that, worst of all, chemicals in your food will kill you.

All of this is presented with little or no evidence to support it, and written in the kind of confrontational language that George W. Bush was so fond of - 'if you're not with us, you're against us'. Not exactly original, but not helpful either.

Processed Food

Unless you only eat raw food, everything you consume has been processed in some way. Any kind of cooking is a process. If you want to talk about this more sensibly, you should perhaps talk about 'industrial processing'. And indeed, some of the processes some foods go through are quite baffling to the layman, but I'm sure that no business would spend time and money on processes that they didn't feel were necessary to produce the kind of product people want to buy. Whether that's a good thing is, of course, a different matter entirely.

Chemicals in Food

Chemicals in food are kind of unavoidable, given that me, you and everything in the universe are made of nothing more or less than chemicals. Natural News fans might imagine there's something healthy called maybe 'plantstuff' that we can eat, but sadly there isn't. It's all chemicals.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

There seems to be an unfortunate and possibly unbreakable link in many people's minds between 'GMO' and 'Monsanto Corp'. While I'm no fan of Monsanto and their unsavoury business practices, I don't think GMOs are necessarily bad. Genetic Engineering is not much different from the selective breeding of animals and hybridization of plants that has been going on for centuries. The technology is different, obviously - direct manipulation of genes produces a quicker and more accurate result than working through multiple generations of apples, say, to get the one that is exactly what you want. My only quibble is that this process narrows the gene pool and tends to ignore flavour at the expense of things like hardiness, size, disease resistance and yield.
Ban GMOs? First Show us the Victims

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

This one really annoys me. Its bad reputation came from one magazine article back in 1982 which coined the term 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'. I have met one person in my life who claims that MSG gives him headaches - but he also has a few other food allergies and sensitivities. MSG is derived from seaweed, and I think of it as powdered umami. Umami is the 5th taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter - it's a Japanese word that is generally translated as 'deliciousness' or 'savouriness'. It occurs naturally as glutamic acid in many foods - tomatoes, mature cheeses (the white crystals in ancient Parmesan are pure glutamic acid), anchovies, kombu (a seaweed), mushrooms and many other common foodstuffs. By the way, none of the recipes on my website use MSG, and I very rarely use it in cooking. If it's umami you want, you can achieve that using foods that contain glutamic acid.
If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?

Natural Food is Best

Finally, the most misunderstood and misleading term of all: 'natural'. Stop and think what this means. 'In a state of nature', perhaps. Take it further. You can only live a purely 'natural' life if you wander around naked, take shelter where you can - in a cave, maybe, or up a tree, and eat only the raw food you find around you - a rotten apple here, a dead bird there. But this is to forget the true nature of Nature. It is red in tooth and claw, it is a system of predators and prey. And some of us humans, who think ourselves the most highly evolved and developed creatures on the planet, want to think we can live a decent life without harming any other living creatures.

Of course we do. It's only natural.

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