Subtitled: ‘A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat’, this book might sound like a strange choice to be reviewed as Magonian food for thought. Yet it is curiously appropriate, being primarily concerned with major modern ‘flaps’ – panics about certain types of food – and the heresies involved in refusing to believe the hype of big corporations with vested interests. It is essentially the story of the unashamed imposition of official food quackery and very, very bad science. If this book is to be believed, we are not so much what we eat as what eats us.
Historian Levenstein takes us not so much on a gastronomic journey as a trip into the land of permanent indigestion brought on by terror of food. "The United States is a nation gripped by gustatory paranoia," he declares, explaining how an army of scientists has fuelled high anxiety about everything from (alleged) lack of vitamins to saturated fat. Over the decades of the twentieth century wave after wave of ‘experts’, usually in the employ of the relevant food industries, have crushed our enjoyment of food with dire warnings. "If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before?" he asks. Quite.
One of the most fascinating – but in its own way appalling – examples of ‘expert’ hype Levenstein cites is the ‘natural’ food movement, which really took off in the mid-twentieth century. This homed in on the Hunza people of Kashmir, who, it was fervently believed, embodied ‘fabulous health and youth wonders’, living mainly on apricots and powdered milk. Virtually self-sufficient, they lived outside a money economy, with everyone having enough for perfect health and happiness. The Hunza Valley was portrayed in a series of best-sellers – such as Hunza: Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Oldest Living People (1968). It was not, it was confidently asserted, uncommon for people to live to be 120 years old. There were neither hospitals nor jails. In 1959 President Eisenhower’s cardiologist, Dr Paul Dudley White, dispatched a US Air Force doctor to study the Hunzas. He positively raved about their radiant health, adding somewhat bizarrely, that "a man in really good shape can eat 3,000 apricots in a sitting". (Somehow that doesn’t sound a particularly attractive diet, and one wonders if their skin turned a Tango orange… )
Just as the Hunza Shangri-la was becoming accepted world-wide, thanks to the avalanche of wildly enthusiastic books, reality bit – hard and deep. In the 60s an American geologist who spent a year there reported that when he set up a medical dispensary he was flooded with over 5000 Hunzas from many miles away, desperate for cures for a huge variety of ailments such as malaria and worms. Even more damning was the high incidence of terrible sores – caused by severe malnutrition. He treated them with vitamin pills.
And as 99 per cent of the population was illiterate, there were no birth or death records. So there was no way of knowing how old they were, though one could hazard a guess they were nowhere near 120 when they died. A diet of apricots left, it must be said, a lot to be desired, though one suspects the producers of apricots took a while to drop the Hunzas from their advertising campaigns.
Perhaps the most relevant scare to our twenty-first-century society is lipophobia – fear of fat. Levenstein eviscerates the history of this crippling, all-pervasive fear of food, showing how once it became entrenched by deeply biased ‘experts’ it has spread throughout the west, ruining our relationship with food. All manner of vested interests jumped on the bandwagon – grapefruit juices were advertised as actively reducing cholesterol, for example. Yet the fact remains – and fact it undoubtedly is – that the human body can only ever absorb a tiny percentage of cholesterol from dietary sources. Diet is useless at reducing this substance that is produced by the body in greater or lesser degrees. And anyway, what’s so wrong with cholesterol in the first place? Levenstein cites studies that show those with highish levels are no more likely to die of heart disease than those on strict low-fat diets and/or statins. Good old Magonian heresy, see.
It might even be that it is all this dietary anxiety that might be causing us grave physical damage in the first place. After all, there’s the French paradox always staring us in the face. There they are across the Channel, stuffing themselves with pate and fatty meats and swilling their red wine – and they suffer far less heart disease than the Brits or Americans. Could it be, muses Levenstein, that their sheer open enjoyment of food – with not a twinge of uncertainty in sight – is what keeps them out of the cardiology wards?
There is though, perhaps, a slight touch of babies and bathwater here. In his headlong desire – mostly, admittedly, well-based – to denounce fads and scares, the author makes no mention of certain proven benefits. For example, it is now known that Vitamin D deficiency among countries in the northern hemisphere causes scourges such as MS – virtually unknown in warmer climes, due to the beneficial action of the sun. Taking Vitamin D3 can massively enhance the overall health of we northerners, but there is no mention of that in this book.
That said, this work is invaluable for those concerned about their health but feeling increasingly confused by the many strident but conflicting pronouncements of the ‘experts’. As Levenstein says, always ask ‘what’s in it for them?’ while sticking to the old advice of ‘moderation in all things’. And perhaps we should include moderation itself in that. – Lynn Picknett