Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein Chicago Press, 2012
by Glen Herbert
Whenever we talk about food, whether it’s just that or a broader discussion of nutrition, we’re actually talking about a lot more than we think we are. Food is culture and identity. It’s also science and understanding. I’d argue that there isn’t a richer more varied topic of discussion you could possibly have, and, yes, I’d include religion and the causes of the first World War in this as well. Food touches us all. We put it into our bodies, it’s intimate and personal, and while we can make choices about what we eat, abstinence is not one of those choices. Whether we’re eating a 20-ounce steak, poi, or quinoa salad, it’s an expression of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we intend to go. And, no, I don’t think I’m overstating anything here.
So, one of the things that it is impossible for us to truly have about food is perspective. Which is why I think Harvey Levenstein’s book, Fear of Food, (Chicago Press, 2012) is so valuable. He tackles a lot in the book, though begins with a mention of koala bears, which provides a nice counterpoint. Koalas are pretty much the exact opposite of us: they only eat eucalyptus. Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to decide what’s for dinner, and to always eat just the perfect food for you. (Levenstein doesn’t mention this, but for koalas eucalyptus is also mildly narcotic, so, there’s that, too.)
It’s not the perfect book perhaps—it’s a university publication, and perhaps not entirely intended for the lay reader—and in a sense, the title sets too small a stage. It’s not just fear that Levenstein talks about, but also preference, culture, industry, and mothers. That is, all of those things that influence how we decide what to have for dinner.
Where the book is the most telling is in its discussion of the industrial influences on our diet. A great example is the origins of white bread. Now a euphemism for lame, in the early to mid the 20thcentury it was the focal point of a number of very aggressive marketing campaigns. The wheat producers campaigned for people to eat more wheat (the 20s marked a downturn from which they hoped to recover, and ultimately did). White flour has a longer shelf life, and therefore is good for industry. Mothers of the 40s and 50s were told that less refined wheat was harder to digest. Hmmm. Further, vitamin producers loved white bread, because it gave them the leverage they needed to shill their products. Vegetable and fruit boards loved white bread because it gave them leverage to gain attention while taking it away from the vitamin people—“get vitamins from their source.” And, here we are, all these years later, with white bread, though the angle these days isn’t modernity, but nostalgia. One of the Wonder Bread slogans is “an essential part of childhood.”
What Levenstein reminds us, as in that example, there is nothing obvious or simple about so many of the things we eat. Indeed, so many of the stories he tells can make you feel like a dupe whenever they aren’t making you see how others were so easily duped. Acidosis, a vanishingly rare disease in the population—only diabetics need to worry—was the cornerstone for lots of money making schemes. The idea was that eating foods in the wrong combinations could kill, and lots of radio shows turned that idea into revenue. More recently, it’s the Beverly Hills Diet. Likewise, Upton Sinclair’s exposure (well, kind of) of the meat packing industry seems quaint and flawed to us today, though the modern equivalents, including Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation don’t. We are, in all, very easily lead. I’m certain that, if it hasn’t happened already, the wheat belly diet will have the lasting power of the Beverly Hills diet and have the same reputation. We’ll chuckle, and move on to the next thing.
The thing is, we don’t have a good guide for the decisions that we make. A friend who is both a scientist as well as a highly-respected physician is vocal proponent of the wheat belly diet, though reading even the first few pages of William Davis’ book it’s mind boggling how anyone with a basis in science could be drawn in. The fact is, he’s looking for an easy answer, and in that is very suggestible. And, Levenstein reminds us that, when it comes to food, we all are.