Americans are awfully messed up about food - so says Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong. His premise: We imbue certain ingredients with an almost magical power to heal - when, that is, we're not fearing them as poisons we must strip from our diet.
Glassner is a scholar of worry. His 1999 book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, examined a medley of items that panic Americans out of proportion to their risk. Among them, he says are poisoned Halloween candy, airplane crashes and exotic infections such as SARS.
On a recent lunch break, Glassner slowly relished beef tacos and fried plantains and talked about his latest book.
What made you want to write this book?
When I finished The Culture of Fear, I realized I hadn't covered one huge area - the fear Americans have of more or less everything that's for sale to eat. I'm also really interested in food.
You do seem to revel in descriptions of fine meals.
Yes, and one concern I've had is that so many Americans will just horribly restrict what they eat for one reason or another. Some will only eat in places that are recommended by the food elite. Others will only eat foods on a very particular, restricted diet. Many Americans are almost religious about what they eat.
You meant the title of your book - The Gospel of Food - quite seriously, then.
I think there are many gospels of food. There are people who worship at the altar of the late Dr. Atkins. And then there are people who are pure vegans. My view is basically eat and let eat. I think it's fine if people want to be vegans or follow Atkins. What concerns me is folks who are restricting themselves unnecessarily and missing out on pleasures of the table.
Such as worrying about saturated fat, refined carbohydrates or processed food?
There are people who select any, or several, of those. And I think there are a lot of people, especially in this country, who subscribe to what I came to call the gospel of naught - this curious notion that the worth of a food lies in what it lacks rather than what it contains - be it less fat, fewer carbs or fewer preservatives. I think that's a formula for eliminating a lot of pleasure.
Why do you think people in the United States have such attitudes toward food?
I think part of it is our Puritan roots. And a lot of it is that there's so much money to be made here by selling us one particular demonization or another, or one particular celebration or another, of a food. Every time we get hung up about something in our diet, sectors of the food industry jump in and benefit massively. If we're concerned about a particular fat, they'll sell us an alternative. If we're into oat bran, they'll sell us oat bran.
Are you arguing that people should just eat what they want?
I certainly think people should have a healthy diet. In no way am I arguing that people with particular health problems don't need to maintain the diet that their doctors recommend. I'm talking about the general population. A lot of people restrict what they eat because they get obsessed with whatever the hot diet book is, or whatever foodstuff is demonized or worshiped this month.
Let's have some examples.
So we had this period where you found oat bran in everything - there was even beer with oat bran. Now, you can find omega-3 fatty acids in all kinds of things. I just saw it in pet food. We go from one to another of these things.
But shouldn't we pay attention to nutrition studies?
I think there are excellent studies, and I think we'd be crazy to not take good research about our diet seriously. At the same time, many studies get a lot more attention than they deserve. The general public often takes a study as something very decisive that goes way beyond what is actually found.
What are the problems with many studies as you see them?
The number of people in the sample is limited in some cases. And the self-reported food surveys used in studies have their limitations: It's difficult to remember with any precision exactly what you really ate. These problems wouldn't matter if differences were really great. The effect of smoking on lung cancer is something like 3,000 percent. If it's really only 2,000 percent, it's still a big deal. But if you look at nutrition studies, the effects are more typically 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent. All you need is a small number of errors for the finding to come close to evaporating.
What's your own philosophy of eating?
My motto is: Enjoy what you eat, eat in moderation, eat a diverse diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and everything will be fine. Following a healthy diet for most people who don't have special medical conditions is not really much more complicated than that. What we leave out in this culture is the enjoyment part. Enjoyment of a meal is important psychologically and emotionally - and also important physiologically. There's research showing that.
Do you have an example?
One of my favorite studies gave Thai and Swedish women foods that they liked and foods that they disliked or weren't familiar with. When women ate foods that they liked, their absorption of iron was greater.
What do you think of putting nutrition labels in restaurants?
I think it's great. I am a scholar, so I think the more information the better. People can choose to read it and use it as they please.
You don't seem to believe that fast-food eateries are bad.
I neither praise nor demonize fast food. I find it curious that so many people seem to see it as the devil incarnate and the cause of every problem in the world.
What about the link between fast food and obesity?
Fast food is often blamed for that. I looked at the timeline, and it doesn't work. The fast-food industry took off in the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, the signs outside McDonalds already read, "2 billion hamburgers sold." The obesity rates didn't start shooting up until the 1980s and 1990s. Fast-food operations may have something to do with weight gain, but they can't be the principal explanation.
You also talk about the proposed link between obesity and fewer home-cooked meals.
We have a convenient amnesia about this. Food historians have documented the typical home-cooked meals in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in the United States. They were high-fat and high-calorie: meatloaf, fried chicken, butter-whipped potatoes, apple pie.
Does the obesity epidemic concern you?
Yes. I'm not among those who argue that obesity is not a health danger. But there's a big difference between obesity and being slightly over what is designated "normal weight." From the research I've seen, the evidence for serious health detriments from being in the slightly overweight category is very limited.
Some scientists think the "healthy weight" category should be pushed even lower.
I think we should all be concerned about that minority of advocates who are pushing for very low weights. We have a serious and undeniable problem, in this country, of eating disorders.
What do you think about the current move to ban trans fats from restaurants?
I think it's fine if a city wants to ban trans fats. Will it improve the health of the population? To a modest extent. Will it help as much as other things that could be done, like providing better, fresher foods to populations that have a hard time getting those? Absolutely not.
And then: What are people going to be eating instead?
Do you think whole foods are better than prepackaged foods?
I'm a big fan of farmers' markets. I love locally grown food, fresh food. At the same time, I think we need a little historical perspective. For earlier generations, highly processed foods were miraculous. To be able to open a can of a delicious soup was a wonderful thing. When frozen food came along, to be able to have food that tasted fresh when you thawed it was great.
Today, many people are suspicious of anything that smacks of technology interacting with their food. So we've gone 180 degrees. In fact, the nutrient value of flash-frozen vegetables can be higher than so-called fresh, if the fresh has been transported and sat around for a while. It may not taste as fresh either. I was interested to discover that top chefs sometimes use packaged foods to get the freshest flavor.
You also don't seem to see anything inherently wrong with "nonnatural" preservatives or flavorings.
If a food flavoring is not harmful to my health and it enhances the taste of the food, why would I have a problem with it? When we hear the word "natural," we think of a Mother Nature who's benevolent and good. But Mother Nature gives us earthquakes, hurricanes and e. coli also. And while I don't go in the opposite direction and suggest technology should be worshiped, often it is technology that has protected us, to the extent that we're protected, from those.
Do you have food fears yourself or things you don't eat?
I have a bad reaction to chickpeas, so I don't eat those.
Do you worry about stick margarine?
I don't worry about it, but I can't remember the last time I ate it. If I want to eat butter, I'll eat butter. This morning for breakfast I had a hot cereal with a small amount of whipped butter. And a little bit of milk.
These days I use 2 percent. But yesterday, for breakfast, I had cereal with full-fat yogurt. It was wonderful. I would never put nonfat yogurt on a cereal. It would taste like water.
Among all the things we're scared of, are fears about food in any way special?
You don't have to fly on an airplane if you have a major fear of flying. You don't have to let your children play in the playground if you're scared of them getting snatched by a stranger. The difference with food is - you have to eat. You're going to have to resolve your fears. I'm interested in how people do that.
How do people do it?
One strategy is what I refer to as "safe treyf" - the term comes from a study on New York Jews' habit of eating Chinese food even though it isn't kosher.
I think people are designating for themselves some form of safe treyf all the time. Like: "I'll eat meat, but only skinless chicken so that the saturated fat that I'm concerned about will have been removed, and it's not red meat." Or, instead of candy bars, people will buy "nutrition bars" - pretty much candy bars if you look at their ingredients.
What do you want people to take away from your book?
I want people to see that there are so many wonderful possibilities of how to eat. There are all these great cuisines, chefs and ingredients out there. To limit yourself unnecessarily is really to deprive yourselves of some of the great pleasures available.
Rosie Mestel writes for the Los Angeles Times.