Tag: Michael Moss

Michael Pollan: Food As Culture

We’re cooking less and buying more prepared meals.

Since the mid-sixties, the amount of time spent preparing meals has fallen by half. While the global trend is the same, Americans lead the way, spending less time cooking than any other country.

One thing we do more of, however, is talk about cooking.

Celebrity chefs are everywhere with books and television shows. The sad reality is that we spend more time watching food shows than we do thinking about and preparing our own meals.

Food is Cultural

Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, explores “how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.”

Pollan argues that taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the food system healthier and more sustainable.

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.

The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

What constitutes “cooking” takes place along a spectrum, as indeed it has for at least a century, when packaged foods first entered the kitchen and the definition of “scratch cooking” began to drift. (Thereby allowing me to regard my packaged ravioli with sage-butter sauce as a culinary achievement.) Most of us over the course of a week find ourselves all over that spectrum. What is new, however, is the great number of people now spending most nights at the far end of it, relying for the preponderance of their meals on an industry willing to do everything for them save the heating and the eating.

This is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Cooking changes your relationship to food. Instead of consuming something, now you’re making it. Meals become achievements, expressions, discovery, and relationships.

I discovered there was much to learn from attempting, even if only just once, … more ambitious and time-consuming forms of cookery, knowledge that might not at first seem terribly useful but in fact changes everything about one’s relationship to food and what is possible in the kitchen. … By itself, this added increment of eating and drinking pleasure would have been enough to justify all the so-called work.

Of course, we never have time to cook. We reason that cooking, let alone baking bread or fermenting something, is probably not the best use of our time. We are so easily convinced that we’re better off staying at the office late and picking something up on the way home. This, after all, lets us do what we do best and lets other people do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization. It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house. I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking. Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another—our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves—anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.

Dividing labour up in this economic way “obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.”

When connections are not visible they are easy to forget.

Where were your clothes made? Where did your coffee beans come from? What conditions did the chicken you’re about to eat for supper enjoy? Most of these are hidden from us.

To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.

Pollan warns that within another generation or so, it’s possible that “cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.”

***

In the video below, the NYT brought together Pollan and Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, to talk about home cooking, the food industry, and navigating a typical supermarket.

Michael Pollan and Michael Moss visit a typical supermarket and talk about cooking and the food industry.

Cooked reminds us that food is so much more than what we read on the label.

What Animals Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

“Obesity is a disease of the environment.”

— Richard Jackson

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at the University of California Los Angeles, believes that her fellow human physicians have much to learn from their veterinary counterparts. These are not separate fields, she argues in her book, coauthored with science writer Kathryn Bowers, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.

Did you know that animals get cancer? heart disease? They also faint. Even diseases we think of as uniquely human, like depression, sexual performance, and addiction are found in the animal world. A lot of animals even self-injure when faced with stress or boredom.

When asked, “why should doctors listen to veterinarians,” in a recent interview she responded:

I can speak from my own personal experience. I had spent almost a couple decades being a human doctor, a cardiologist, and I had very little awareness about veterinary medicine. I, like most physicians, only interacted with veterinarians when my own animals got sick….I had this wonderful opportunity to help out at the Los Angeles Zoo, and through that experience I began seeing, both through the patients I was helping with and listening to the veterinarians on their rounds, that they were dealing with heart failure, and cancer, and behavioral disturbances, and infectious diseases, and really essentially the same diseases that I was taking care of in human patients.

Only a century or two ago, many humans and animals were treated by the same practitioner.

However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split around the turn of the twentieth century. Increasing urbanization meant fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of our daily life. With them went a primary revenue stream for many veterinarians. And in the United States, federal legislation called the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the late 1800s relegated veterinary schools to rural communities while academic medical centers rapidly rose to prominence in wealthier cities.

Most physicians would never dream of consulting a veterinarian about human diseases.

Most physicians see animals and their illnesses as somehow “different.” We humans have our diseases. Animals have theirs.

Well that and the undeniable, and unspoken, medical establishments bias against veterinary medicine. Like all humans, doctors can be snobs. The unwritten hierarchy is based on a combination of factors but it’s pretty safe to bet that a veterinarian is below general practitioner.

“We do not like to consider [animals] our equals,” Charles Darwin once remarked. And yet we are animals. In fact, we share most of our genetic makeup with other creatures. Of course, we do learn from animals. Mice are commonly used to better understand human conditions.

Zoobiquity isn’t about animal testing. It’s about the fact that “animals in jungles, oceans, forests, and our homes sometimes get sick—just as we do. Veterinarians see and treat these illnesses among a wide variety of species. And yet physicians largely ignore this. That’s a major blind spot, because we could improve the health of all species by learning how animals live, die, get sick, and heal in their animal settings.”

One example of where we can learn from is why animals get fat and how they get thin.

Fattening in the animal world has enormous potential lessons for humans—including dieters looking to shed a few pounds and doctors grappling with obesity, one of the most serious and devastating health challenges of our time.

Millions cope with this life-threatening epidemic. Millions of domestic animals that is. These pets are “fatter than ever before, and steadily gaining more weight.” While hard to determine, studies put the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. In case you’re wondering, that’s still, at least for now, well below the proportion of U.S. human adults who are now either overweight or obese, which is closer to 70 percent.

What sets domestic animals apart from their wild cousins? We feed them.

They are mostly or completely dependent on humans for every meal, and we regulate both the quality and the quantity of everything that passes their lips and beaks. Consequently, we can’t really blame them for their weight problems. … And so we’re left with one conclusion: we, the species that both manipulates food to make it more unhealthful and has the intelligence to understand that we shouldn’t eat so much of it, are to blame. We’re responsible not only for our own expanding waistlines but for those of our animal charges as well.

It’s easy and pleasing to assume that animals in their native environments effortlessly stay lean and healthy. That’s not the case.

Abundance plus access—the twin downfalls of many a human dieter—can challenge wild animals, too.

Although we may think of food in the wild as hard to come by, at certain times of the year and under certain conditions, the supply may be unlimited.

So wild animals get fat the same way we humans do: access to abundant food.

Of course, animals also fatten normally—and healthily—in response to seasonal and life cycles. But what’s key is that an animal’s weight can fluctuate depending on the landscape around it.

Learning from animals, call it the zoobiquitous approach, we learn that “weight is not just a static number on a chart. Rather, it’s a dynamic, ever-changing reaction to a huge variety of external and internal processes ranging from the cosmic to the microscopic.”

Richard Jackson says “Obesity is a disease of the environment.” In 2010 he explained what he meant:

One of the problems with the obesity epidemic is we too often blame the victim. And yes, every one of us ought to have more self-control and ought to exert more willpower. But when everyone begins to develop the same set of symptoms, it’s not something in their mind, it’s something in our environment that is changing our health. And what’s changing in our environment is that we have made dangerous food, sugar-laden food, high-fat food, high-salt food … and we’ve made it absolutely the easiest thing to buy, the cheapest thing to buy, and yes, it tastes good, but it’s not what we should be eating.

In a 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler made a similar point: excess sugar, fat, and salt “hijack our brains and bodies and drive cycles of appetite and desire that make it nearly impossible to resist certain fattening foods.” In a new book I’ve just started reading, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss makes the same point. (In case you’re wondering, the calories in calories out argument is bunk.)

One of the lessons we can take away

If you want to lose weight the wild animal way, decrease the abundance of food around yourself and interrupt your access to it. And expend lots of energy in the daily hunt for food. In other words: change your environment.

Nassim Taleb makes a similar point in his book Anti-Fragile:

Perhaps what we mostly need to remove is a few meals at random, or at least avoid steadiness in food consumption. The error of missing nonlinearities is found in two places, in the mixture and the frequency of food intake.

The problem with the mixture is as follows. We humans are said to be omnivorous, compared to more specialized mammals, such as cows and elephants and lions. But such ability to be omnivorous had to come in response to more variegated environments with unplanned, haphazard, and, what is key, serial availability of sources—specialization is the response to a very stable habitat free of abrupt changes, redundancy of pathways the response to a more variegated one. Diversification of function had to come in response to variety. And a variety of certain structure.

Note a subtly in the way we are built: the cow and the other herbivores are subjected to much less randomness than the lion in their food intake; they eat steadily but need to work extremely hard in order to metabolize all these nutrients, spending several hours a day just eating. … The lion, on the other hand, needs to rely on more luck; it succeeds in a small percentage of the kills, less than 20 percent, but when it eats, it gets in a quick and easy way all these nutrients produced thanks to very hard and boring work by the prey. So take the following principles derived from the random structure of the environment: when we are herbivores, we eat steadily; but when we are predators we eat more randomly. Hence our proteins need to be consumed randomly for statistical reasons.

So if you agree that we need “balanced” nutrition of a certain combination, it is wrong to immediately assume that we need such balance at every meal rather than serially so. … There is a big difference between getting them together at every meal … or having them separately, serially.

Why? Because deprivation is a stressor—and we know what stressors do when allowed adequate recovery. Convexity effects at work here again: getting three times the daily dose of protein in one day and nothing the next two is certainly not biologically equivalent to “steady” moderate consumption if our metabolic reactions are nonlinear.

… I am convinced that we are antifragile to randomness in food delivery and composition—at least over a certain range or number of days.

We’ve all known that antibiotics are used to stop the spread of certain diseases. But, Zoobiquity, offers another explanation:

Antibiotics don’t kill just the bugs that make animals sick. They also decimate beneficial gut flora. And these drugs are routinely administrated even when infection is not a concern. The reason may surprise you. Simply by giving antibiotics, farmers can fatten their animals using less feed. The scientific jury is still out on exactly why these antibiotics promote fattening, but a plausible hypothesis is that by changing the animals’ gut microflora, antibiotics create an intestine dominated by colonies of microbes that are calorie-extraction experts. This may be why antibiotics act to fatten not just cattle, with their multistomached digestive systems, but also pigs and chicken, whose GI tracts are more similar to ours.

This is really a key point: antibiotic use can change the weight of farm animals. It’s possible that something similar occurs in other animals—namely, us. Anything that alters gut flora, including but not limited to antibiotics, has implications not only for body weight but for other elements of our metabolism, such as glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol.

The diet and exercise dogma:

Even without an assist from 32-ounce sodas, the yellow-bellied marmots in the Rockies, blue whales off the coast of California and country rats in Maryland have gotten steadily chubbier in recent years. The explanation might lie in the disruption of circadian rhythms. Of the global dynamics controlling our biological clocks — including temperature, eating, sleeping and even socializing — no “zeitgeber” is more influential than light.

The cycle

Modern, affluent humans have created a continuous eating cycle, a kind of “uniseason.” … Sugar is abundant, whether in our processed foods or in beautiful whole fruits that have had their inconvenient seeds bread out of them and that “unzip” from easy-to-peel skins and pop open into ready to eat segments. Protein and fat are everywhere available—in eternal harvest the prey never grows up and learns to run away or fight us off. Our food is stripped of microbes, and we remove more while scrubbing off dirt and pesticides. Because we control it, the temperature is always a perfect 74 degrees. Because we’re in charge, we can safely dine at tables aglow in light long after the sun goes down. All year round, our days are lovely and long; our nights are short.

As animals, we find this single season an extremely comfortable place to be. But unless we want to remain in a state of continual fattening, with accompanying metabolic diseases, we will have to pry ourselves out of this delicious ease.

Check out the book

The Science of Addictive Junk Food

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times, just wrote a book called Salt Sugar Fat.

Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.

This weekend’s NY Times Magazine has a lengthy excerpt from the book.

In 2011, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that shed new light on America’s weight gain. The subjects — 120,877 women and men — were all professionals in the health field, and were likely to be more conscious about nutrition, so the findings might well understate the overall trend. Using data back to 1986, the researchers monitored everything the participants ate, as well as their physical activity and smoking. They found that every four years, the participants exercised less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds. The researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including mashed and French fries. But the largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip. The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food. “The starch is readily absorbed,” Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me. “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike” — which can result in a craving for more.

If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

Still curious? Learn about why we get fat and what you can do about it.