Nutrition, Feminism, Global Warming and the End of the World

Back in the mists of time "food" was all there was to eat.  WWII brought women out of the kitchen and into the work force.  At the same time, the American food industry was trying to find ways to preserve food on a huge scale.  Innovations were made in food preservation shortly followed by innovations in "convenience".  American housewives were told not to worry about the increasing dilemma of balancing home and work; that James Kraft, Charles Pillsbury, Clarence Birdseye and all their friends would bridge the gap with boxed cake mixes, frozen TV dinners and anything they could cram into a can.  "Food" quietly morphed from carrots, chicken, milk and apples into "edible, food-like substances".  What had been novelty treats in the 50's became common in the 60's, staples in the 70's, and standard bearers in the 80's.  Try serving homemade foods to many children today.  Since they've known nothing but Kraft macaroni and cheese since birth, a bowl of homemade pasta with homemade cheese sauce will be met with suspicion, distaste and ultimately rejection because their palate's norm is set by brands, not mom's home cooking.

American housewives were told not to worry about the increasing dilemma of balancing home and work; that James Kraft, Charles Pillsbury, Clarence Birdseye and all their friends would bridge the gap...

An initially separate phenomenon was taking place in the food industry on the supply side.  Crop subsidies created to keep farms afloat in the depression resulted in an oversupply of corn.  The government actively encouraged industries to find more ways to use corn.  Although Karo syrup was used by home cooks since 1902, it was perfected and mainstreamed in 1968 and high fructose corn syrup became ubiquitous as a cheaper sweetener.  The convenience / fast food industries were the natural beneficiaries of the flood of syrup and quickly found ways marry a cheap resource to the human instinct for sweetness.  The obesity charts alone can attest to their success.

1930's Karo Advertisement

1930's Karo Advertisement

The bar has been set.  The American palates' sweetness meter is now set on high.  No other ethnic foods on earth come close.  "Sweets" from a Mexican bakery strike us as bland and lacking. Dry wines no longer enjoy the popularity they had for decades.  If there isn't high fructose corn syrup in every bite we take, something seems "off".

Science to the rescue!  Between sugar shortages during the World Wars and unreliability of main sources of cane sugar in Cuba and the Caribbean, Americans were ready to look at options.  Saccharine was discovered by scientists working on coal tar derivatives.  Its sweetness was discovered accidentally but as soon as someone decided there might be some money in it, ways to use it quickly followed.  Every woman on earth will listen if you appeal to her vanity.  The promise of keeping that slender figure after having a houseful of kids was a powerful argument.  Saccharine was popular stuff even before it was heavily advertised.  Women shared the magical secret among themselves and if anyone voiced any qualms they were reminded that Scientists had invented it so it was obviously good!  

But saccharine is bitter. And there was that flap about heavy users having a higher incidence of bladder cancer.  The search was on for something that would do the same sweetening but wasn't bitter.  A chemist with Searle, working on an ulcer drug, found aspartame, mostly by mistake.  Jackpot.  Since 1980, five more FDA approvals have been granted; each after suspiciously heavy, expensive lobbying and much resistance.  But the patent holders are the big, deep-pocket chemical companies - Monsanto, etc.  As we know, their history of telling the truth about potentially dangerous products has been abysmal.  Reports of brain tumors, MS, blindness, Parkinson's, etc, after extended use of artificial sweeteners are as common as grass. 

So who do we believe?  A study released this morning says coffee is good for us - this week.  I can't remember whether eggs are good or bad this week.  As of last night, tree nuts are the new wonder food.  Prices will likely go up later today.  Besides popular media reports, who has time to do research and how reliable is any of it?  It seems to change daily.  In order to avoid making a wrong decision, maybe a sensible choice is to make no decision.  Let's drop all the way back to the beginning of this whole argument.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Michael Pollen has written several excellent books including "In Defense of Food".  In it, he coined a phrase that has become the mantra of the back-to-basics food movement, "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants".  He points out that people can no longer distinguish between food and "edible, food-like substances".  He explains that adults should consider this rule when shopping for food:  Look at the ingredient list on the label.  The longer the list, the farther it is from "food".  Popcorn kernels in a bag or jar are food; the only ingredient is popcorn.  But microwave popcorn is not "food".  Look at the list.  If you can't pronounce it you probably shouldn't put it into your mouth and hence into the rest of your body. Our bodies regard many of those non-pronounceable substances as toxins. Our bodies sometimes deal with toxins in ways that have long-term negative health effects.


An apple is food.  A McDonald's deep fried apple pie is not.  An apple pie made at home with flour, lard, sugar, cinnamon and apples, IS food.  So following that trail of logic crumbs, we look toward artificial sweeteners.  Lead Acetate was a popular artificial sweetener until lead poisoning was figured out.  Aspartame was really promising until questions arose over carcinogenic links and the nagging neurological and psychiatric affects.  

I vote not to gamble.  Sugar is available to me.  I read the label.  It says "sugar".  I know what it is and understand how it metabolizes.  It doesn't turn into formaldehyde inside my body.  It breaks down in my liver and pancreas into simpler sugars that cells throughout my body can use directly.  If someone really, really wants a treat and they're really, really dedicated to keeping to a calorie budget, they're simply going to have to make a compromise.  Buy those stubby little cans of soda that advertise themselves as being 100 calorie.  The trade-off might be losing a bite of dessert after dinner or tacking on an extra quarter of a mile once a week to their exercise regimen.  It simply can't be that big a deal unless the consumer secretly plans to pig out on 2 to 3 sodas a day.  

Until the tin god of Science comes out from behind his curtain and ceases to be flanked by an army of lobbyists motivated by corporate greed, I'm going to default to the credo  "what would Grandma do?".  I don't know about yours but mine would glare disapprovingly at the list of chemicals, declare that if God didn't make them she wasn't interested.

Link to Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food:

This post is contributed by my lovely, witty, fabulous Aunt Sandy, taken from an email she sent years ago, and shared with her permission.