Tuesday, May 8, 2007

another turn on the food panic merry-go-round?

It looks like we are on the cusp of yet another wave of food phobia. Today, the NYTimes published an article that cites increasing public concern about a handful of proteins in wheat (Collectively known as wheat gluten; from hereon, WG.) as the culprits in a variety of ailments that include arthritis, depression, incontinence and anxiety.

To date, the only disease that is known to be caused by WG is celiac disease. (You have to be genetically predisposed for it to develop.) But I’m sure that lack of definitive evidence that WG consumption leads to anything other than this truly awful intestinal disorder (I’ve known a couple of people who have had this, and it is not good.), will not dissuade millions from believing that the loaf of bread sitting in the bread box is the root cause of all of their health problems. Neither will it stop the food industry from flooding the marketplace with disgusting WG-free foods. I’m sure of this because I’ve seen it happen many times before.

Counseled by their doctors about the role of salt in the development of hypertension, the 1970's saw an increasingly middle-aged WWII generation abandoning sodium chloride for salt-free diets or changing out their table salt for tasteless potassium chloride and awful herbal seasoning schemes.

In the 1980's large numbers of baby boomers, weaned on sugary breakfast cereals and soft drinks, became convinced that refined sugars such as sucrose and various formulations of corn syrup were responsible for everything from headaches and attention deficit disorder to mass murder. The market response to sugar-phobia was to laden supermarket shelves with ghastly products made with honey, turbinado sugar, apple sauce and synthetic sweeteners. Later in the decade, it seemed that at least half the population was convinced that they were allergic to monosodium glutamate (MSG), resulting in its removal from prepared foods and a precipitous decline in the patronage of Chinese restaurants.

When you examine the scientific rationale behind most of these "ingredient avoidance episodes," there is usually some good science to back up the claims that the ingredient in question really does cause problems for some portion the population. Salt certainly does promote hypertension in people who are already predisposed to the condition and anywhere from 10-15% of the general population is mildly allergic (We are not talking anaphylactic shock here; MSG has never been indicted as a cause of severe allergic reactions.) to MSG. However, I'm not personally aware that sugar has ever been proven to cause any of the psychiatric and behavioral problems of which it was accused, and continue to believe that it is perfectly safe to eat in modest amounts unless one suffers from diabetes.

In most instances the personal affect of widely held assumptions that some basic ingredient is dangerous, eclipses whatever concerns I might have about the threats they represent to my health. For example, in the wake of the panic caused by the recognition that MSG provokes allergic reactions, many Chinese restaurateurs began leaving it out of their food so that now I have to ask for MSG when I go to a Chinese restaurant. It's a modest inconvenience, and one I'm willing to accept if it means that genuine sufferers of MSG allergy can enjoy their dim sum without having to worry about breaking out in hives before the fortune cookie arrives, but still it kind of sucks. But try to punish me with sugar-free ice cream or cake, and you are likely to see a side of me that usually only shows itself when the moon is full and I've had raw meat and fur for dinner.

Same goes for the starch-free foods that began appearing on menus and supermarket shelves following the widespread anti-starch panic caused by the South Beach and Atkins diets at the beginning of the new millennium.

Part of the central tenet of both diets is the assertion that carbohydrates are responsible for weight gain -at least that the way the public interpreted it. In other words, the public reduced a complex relationship between multiple causes and one effect into a one cause: one effect pas de deux. Ridiculous? You bet. Did millions of people believe it? Yep.

Of course the food industry loves it whenever we do this sort of thing. When seemingly everyone with money is scared out of their wits about some ingredient, it always responds with products and meal plans containing deletions and substitutions of whatever it is we have come to fear. And they can charge a premium for the ineluctable crap, because of the value added by the fact that we are scared witless and will pay dearly to have the hated ingredient liposuctioned out of our diets.

So, I don’t know about you all, but I’m bracing myself for another round endless pop-cult nattering about the dangers of something that most of us need never worry about. Get ready for bookstores groaning from the pressure of gluten-free cookbooks and supermarkets stocked to the ceiling joists with gluten free garbage food. And steady your nerves against the moment when you find yourself invited to dine at the home of someone who has decided that they are allergic to bread. Sigh, here we go again. Let's hope that this one is shorter lived than the last one.


Lou said...

This is from Jeffrey Steingarten's wonderful book, It Must've Been Something I Ate.

"Typical is a 1994 British study in which the members of 15,000 households were asked whether they experienced any of a long list of symptoms when they ate milk, eggs, wheat, soy sauce, citrus, shellfish, nuts, or chocolate. A full 20 percent of the respondents said yes. When a portion of them were tested in a double-blind challenge, fewer than a fifth actually reacted to the feared food. The other 80 percent were seeing, or feeling, things that weren't there".

Steve said...

Beautiful post, Bob. It's unfortunate how Americans are always searching for the next evil ingredient to blame for our health problems, most of which are caused by our collective overeating disorder. Never mind that humans have been eating wheat gluten, carbohydrates, salt, saturated fats, and any number of other evil things for pretty much the whole of our evolution as a species.

The wheat gluten taboo is also certainly not being helped by the pet food recall, as wheat gluten is the ingredient which was tainted by melamine (which, incidentally, is not likely to be the sole causative agent of dogs and cats dying).

Sorcha said...

It sure does seem like more and more people are finding out that they have celiac, doesn't it? And well into adulthood, at that. I have to wonder if something we're doing that we didn't used to is screwing out bodies up.

As for sugar - even diabetics can have it in moderation. It's all in balancing your meals and following an overall healthy diet/exercise plan. Thank God for that.

The Foodist said...

I know it has NOTHING to do with this post but

Was wondering your thoughts on this

The Foodist said...

ok so I felt guilty for highjacking the post so Ill reply to the actual topic.

This just reminds me of the Anti-Carb and saccharin scares of the last few years.

Im just wondering when were going to realize anything in excess is bad for us, and that moderation is key.

Its really nerve wrecking that we cant spend the time, energy or money on researching better food education and health education rather then.. "OMG dont eat this you might D I E!"

Bob del Grosso said...

Lou, Sorcha, Steve
Thanks for the comments! I'd reply to you directly but can't access your email through here. It's pretty frustrating. Obviously I think that we are going to discover a lot of people who believe they are allergic to WG are not. I don't blame them, of course, the power of suggestion combined with an individual's fears of mortality are a powerful cocktail that can snooker the brightest and the best among us.

Don't fret about being off topic. I'm grateful for the link and will probably post on it later. It's something I think about a lot. I've had to counsel many students on this subject and have long wondered how things turned out for them.

BTW, I recently met one of my former students working in a hardware store.

Kevin said...

Great piece!

The Foodist said...

"I recently met one of my former students working in a hardware store"

... eek.