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Archive for the 'Food' Category

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Upcoming Umami Events

UmamiOver the next week, Ole Mouritsen will be appearing coast-to-coast to talk about his new book: Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste.

Below is a list of upcoming events for Umami, a book which Harold McGree calls “a wide-ranging and welcome progress report on our understanding of taste and deliciousness”. (Please note, the two events at the Los Angeles and New York Umami Burger include special menus):

Wednesday, April 23 at 7:00 PM
UCLA, Science & Food Series
Schoenberg Hall
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA

Friday, April 25 at 3:00 PM
Umami Burger
1520 North Cahuenga Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028

Sunday, April 27 at 5:00 PM
Food Book Fair
Wythe Hotel Screening Room
80 Wythe Ave at N 11th
Brooklyn, NY 11249

Monday, April 28 at 12:00 (noon)
Umami Burger
432 Sixth Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Fashioning Appetite — Joanne Finkelstein

The following post by Joanne Finkelstein, author of Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity, was first published on The I.B. Tauris Blog:

Fashioning Appetitle, Joanne FinkelsteinEvaluating one another’s taste is an ordinary aspect of everyday social life. We look for signs of taste in high fashion goods and social habits. This encourages us to speak to one another through material objects, and even though the definition of taste is constantly shifting, we use it to display who are think we are.

“A person of taste is someone who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso” (Dwight MacDonald 1944: 22). This pithy definition of taste was an ironic comment on the newly affluent post-war classes who were struggling with emerging art movements in painting, cinema and literature. The concern with fashionable styles of living was capturing the hearts and minds of the aspirational classes. Mid-twentieth century was an era of tightening conformity and judging people by their lifestyle habits was becoming the prevailing order. Russell Lynes (1949) famously defined taste along three dimensions—highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow. He employed the antique notions of human physiognomy made popular by Johann Caspar Lavater in the eighteenth century to describe these positions. For Lavater, facial features revealed human qualities; low ears suggested criminality, thick lips were a sign of dissipation and a high forehead indicated intelligence and social superiority. Lynes adapted the metaphor to describe types of taste. Highbrow taste was expressed through well-fashioned appetites.

There was a deep irony in this: after exterminating millions across Europe on the basis of race and ethnicity, the new social order was describing taste and social value using eugenic concepts. This time around, however, the revolution was bloodless. Taste as a measure of human worth was not a killing offense but it was a cause of status panic across the newly affluent classes. According to C.W.Mills (1951) these groups were caught in a constant re-positioning of themselves within an ever-shifting mobile hierarchy defined by fashions, fads and foibles. In the post war era, social ranking was not only based on material possessions such as cars, furniture, art and household goods but also on signs of cultural capital produced by travel, leisure and luxury, and whether indeed individuals could see the influence of Pablo Picasso in the prosaic sausage.

Taste has been a contested idea since the seventeenth century yet it has endured into the present as a means of categorizing people and their habits (Bourdieu 1984: 2). How we handle objects and instruments such as cups and saucers, knives and forks, the habits and styles we develop for eating, drinking, standing and moving, have imposed a mannered overlay on the body and, to those watching our deftness with such objects, this is read as indicative of personal attributes. We see instances of mastery, or lack of them, in displays of individual competency and discernment. The raised pinkie finger holding the teacup and the unclipped vent on the new Burberry raincoat both signal the parvenu.

Taste brings attention to different types of desire. Pursuing an experience for its own sake because it is pleasing or reassuring or elevating, and pursuing a desire in order to gratify it and make it disappear, are two different impulses. The former involves detachment, of being able to recognize value in an idea without it having an immediate application, thus we enjoy art for its own sake; the latter is a more active process, a type of hunger, in which the desirable experience needs to be devoured and captured in order to nullify its insistence. Food, for example, can be both; it can be valued for its aesthetic qualities as well as being good to taste, a life-sustaining fuel. It has appeal as the subject for still life painting, as in the masterpieces of Carravaggio and Luis Meléndez, and it can be treated as a convenience as with the early modern chophouse and now with the food court in the local shopping mall.


Friday, March 28th, 2014

Insects: A Sustainable Alternative to Meat

The following news report (see video below) includes interviews with coauthors of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, scientist Arnolds Van Huis and chef Henk Van Gurp, in which they consider some of the environmental benefits of eating insects. Unlike raising livestock for food, which contributes to rising levels of greenhouse gas (see excerpt below), insects and using them for food has minimal impact.

In the following excerpt from The Insect Cookbook, the authors provide further detail about why insects are a sustainable alternative to meat:

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that livestock is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and is, as such, an important contributor to global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions include methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Simply by burping and passing gas, cattle release more than one-third of all methane emissions worldwide. Methane contributes twenty-three times more to global warming than does carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas emitted by cars. Livestock generates close to two-thirds of all nitrous oxide released; this gas is 289 times more damaging than CO2. Some insects, such as termites, also produce methane, releasing 4 percent of all emissions of this gas worldwide. By contrast, the edible insects mentioned in this cookbook, such as mealworms
and migratory locusts, produce far less greenhouse gas per kilogram of product than do cows or pigs.

Livestock also produces more than two-thirds of the world’s ammonia emissions, which are one of the main causes of acid rain. Per kilogram of body weight produced, pigs produce fifty times more ammonia than do locusts.


Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Cooking with Insects — Recipes for Hopper Kebabs and Buglava

Hopper Kebabs

In addition to explaining the nutritional and environmental value of eating insects, the authors of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, also provide dozens of great recipes. Below are two such recipes. Hopper Kebabs (see image above) use grasshoppers with their legs and wings removed. As the authors explain, grasshoppers are considered a delicacy in parts of Africa and clever entrepreneurs in Australia are now marketing them as “sky prawns” to help increase their popularity.

The other recipe is buglava which uses mealworms, which is rich in potassium, iron, zinc and vitamins and minerals and is also enjoyed throughout the world. Both these insects are now increasingly available for purchase in the United States and can be bought from World Entomophagy.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

TED Talk from Marcel Dicke on the Nutritional and Environmental Impact of Eating Insects

In the following video taken from a TED Talk , Marcel Dicke, coauthor of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, discusses the environmental and nutritional importance of eating insects:

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be eating insects. They’re much better for you than regular meat.”

The Insect Cookbook, Arnold van Huis, Henk van Gurp, and Marcel Dicke

In recent interview with the Boston Globe , Marcel Dicke, one of the coauthors of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, discussed his new book and the benefits of eating insects.

Dicke concedes that there continue to be those in the media that see his work promoting eating insects in a less than serious light. However, as he points out, eating insects can play an important role in food sustainability:

The world is facing a food security problem. We hope to make people aware, to show them there are good reasons for eating insects. We’re not telling anyone to stop eating meat completely, but about 70 percent of all agricultural land is used to produce livestock, and we’re going to have to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050. There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this.

Moreover, eating insects, which is done throughout the world, is good for you:

[Insects are] rich in minerals; they’re high in protein. In terms of nutrition, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be eating insects. They’re much better for you than regular meat.

Dicke also discusses which insects are best to eat and the ways in which people in the West are slowly coming around to the idea of eating them. Much of the challenge is in the presentation of dishes prepared with insects and marketing the notion of insects as palatable. As Dicke points out, contemporary Western resistance to eating insects is somewhat anomaly :

It’s in our genes to eat insects; humanoids have always done this. Around the world, 2 billion people eat them on a daily basis—there’s nothing strange about this…. In our culture, we’ve always been taught that insects are disgusting. We try to live in an insect-free world, a sterile world where everything is clean. On the other hand, this world wouldn’t be here if not for insects—without them there would be no pollination of plants.

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of The Insect Cookbook

The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet,  Arnold van Huis, Henk van Gurp, and Marcel Dicke

This week we will be featuring The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, by Arnold van Huis, Henk van Gurp, and Marcel Dicke on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 28st at 3:00 pm.

In The Insect Cookbook, two entomologists and a chef make the case for insects as a sustainable source of protein for humans and a necessary part of our future diet.

For more on the book, learn how to make Hopper Kebabs and Buglava or watch a video of Marcel Dicke’s Ted Talk.

Friday, December 6th, 2013

The Westernization of Chinese Food

The Land of the Five Flavors, Thomas HollmannIn the epilogue to The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann concludes with a look at the changes in Chinese food and eating habits. In the following excerpt he discusses the introduction of such Western staples as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to China:

Mineral water, lemonade, and other fizzy drinks have been sold in China since the 1860s. Coca-Cola started trying to conquer the Chinese market in 1918, but it took nine years until the first bottling in Shang­hai. This success did not hold for long: The Communists’ accession to power was followed by a long dry period, and Coca-Cola was only able to re-establish itself in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It has since achieved a market share almost double that of its peren­nial competitor, Pepsi. Coca-Cola was the main sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and tried to strengthen its market presence in the following year, but the authorities eventually refused it permission to take over Huiyuan, the biggest domestic juice manufacturer. Inci­dentally, the Chinese do not always drink their Coke chilled: A popular remedy for a head cold is to add ginger and drink it.

The opening of McDonald’s first restaurant in China in 1992 was a major event. It was the biggest branch the fast food chain had ever set up worldwide, serving up to 40,000 customers on the opening day in Beijing. Twenty years later, there were around 1,400 branches Still, that was not enough to overtake Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which is the market leader among Western fast food chains in China and looks set to remain so for a long time to come. US $3 billion investments from 2009 to 2011. This is due to the enduring popularity of chicken, as well as the remarkable flexibility that enables KFC to adapt to indige­nous food tastes. Perhaps only Pizza Hut matches this degree of ingenuity: The type of pizza they serve in China has even less in common with the Italian product than the U.S. variety.

Western firms have demonstrated their adaptive capacity in China in other ways such as paying workers below the minimum wage or contravening food safety regulations. Indigenous Chinese companies have barely profited from this: Their repeated attempts to imitate for­eign competitors have largely proved unsustainable. The same applies to development of alternative concepts that attempt to combine local tradition and mass production. Even massive government support and emphasis on the positive medicinal effects of these products have failed.


Thursday, December 5th, 2013

The Long History of the Noodle (plus a Dumpling recipe!) via The Land of the Five Flavors

As Thomas Hollmann suggests in his book The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, the noodle looms large in Chinese food. Below is an excerpt from the book in which he examines some of the basics of the long, glorious history of the Chinese noodle. Likewise, the dumpling and its many variations have also been staples of Chinese cuisine and as a special bonus, we’ve provided you with a dumpling recipe (see below) from The Land of the Five Flavors:

It is impossible to envisage Chinese cooking without noodles. They have a long tradition: no other country in the world can look back on a history of four thousand years of noodles. Interestingly, the earliest archeological find of noodles did not occur in the core regions with a reputation for inventiveness, but in the far western province of Qinghai.

Researchers excavating a settlement there in 2005 found a clay bowl with surpris­ing contents: thin noodles made from a millet-based flour, up to 50 centimeters long, and slightly resembling spaghetti. The find site, Lajia, has been famous ever since.

This does not mean that noodles have a continuous history dating back four thousand years, for the next evidence of noodle consumption is not until the Han dynasty. Yet the arguments for the exis­tence of noodles in that period, which are based solely on written sources, are not entirely convincing. The term used for pasta at that time covered bakery prod­ucts as well.

Through the ages, flour has always been the main basis of dough. Although products from ground wheat and rice grains have a larger market share today than in the past, flour produced from mil­let, buckwheat, and yams is also still used.

Mung bean starch is used to make very fine glass noodles. Other in­gredients may include salt, oil, baking soda, and various flavorings and colorings. Eggs have increasingly been used as well for approximately the last 500 years. Production methods for noodles vary greatly. There are at least five different techniques for achieving the right length and thinness.

There is also a long tradition in China of filled noodles resembling Italian varieties such as tortellini, ravioli and, most commonly, mezza­lune. Written sources suggest they may date back as far as the Han dynasty, but the early records are not absolutely clear, and the oldest detailed description dates back to the end of the third century.

Dumpling Recipe


Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Drinking, Drinking Games, Drinking at Weddings, and Drinking at Funerals in China

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese CuisineIn the chapter “Heavenly Dew” from The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann examines the history of drink and alcohol in China. In the following excerpt he considers the popularity of drinking games and the symbolic role drinking has in various rites of passage, including weddings:

Drinking contests were very popular, particularly in the late imperial age. “Wine clubs,” societies that existed around the mid-nineteenth century, were described by the missionary Justus Doolittle, who worked in Fujian from 1849 to 1864; and there were also informal gatherings. Historical records going even further back describe types of drinking contests in which the players might have to fulfill tasks requiring a respectable level of mental proficiency as well. They in­cluded reciting impromptu poems based on set quotations or ideographs, sometimes with specific rhyme schemes.

This apparent continuity over the cen­turies may well be explained by the historical sources’ exclusive focus on elite culture. In fact, there were probably also simpler game variations in ancient times for heavy gambling was already wide­spread then. Today’s drinkers mostly play games like charades, which involve guessing about given mimed terms, or they draw cards, or throw dice. Other familiar games, such as recit­ing tongue twisters, rearranging phrases to a set pattern, and answering general knowledge questions, can also be used to determine who, if any­one, should take the drinking cup. Another frequently described game involves two people seated facing each other, waving their hands around in quick succession. To Westerners this often looks like tossing coins, but it is more complicated because the goal is to say the correct number of outstretched fingers at the moment your opponent opens his or her hand.


Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

The History of Chinese Food! Images from The Land of the Five Flavors

From propaganda posters to depictions of festive banquets (and their aftermath), The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture by Thomas Hollmann and translated by Karen Margolis, captures the rich history of Chinese food and its centrality to Chinese culture.

Below are images from the book and for more on the book, you can also read the chapter Rice Doesn’t Rain from Heaven.

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
After-dinner nap (scroll painting attributed to Lu Yao, ninth century)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Fruit vendor (propaganda poster, 1978)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Large kitchen (stone relief, second century)

The Land of Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Culture
Watermelon vendor (watercolor, around 1870)


Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Book Giveaway — The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine

The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas O. Höllmann

This week we will be featuring The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, by Thomas O. Höllmann.

We are offering a FREE copy of The Land of Five Flavors to a lucky winner.

To enter our Book Giveaway, simply e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on Friday, December 6 at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Throughout the week we will also be featuring The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine on our blog, twitter, and facebook. You can also read the chapter Rice Doesn’t Rain from Heaven

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Doughnuts? A Thanksgiving Tradition? Apparently So.

Gastropolis, Thanksgiving in New York City

We culminate our week-long (or, at least short week) feature on Thanksgiving with a quick look at the holiday’s history in New York City.

In his chapter, “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” from Gastropolis: Food and New York City, Andrew Smith describes the role both George Washington and doughnuts have played in how the holiday has been celebrated in New York City:

Although it had originated in New England, [Thanksgiving] was quickly adopted in communities throughout New York. Indeed, it was in New York City that President George Washington issued the first presiden­tial thanksgiving proclamation, which set aside Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a day of prayer and thanksgiving. New York was one of the first states outside New England to declare Thanksgiving an official holiday. In 1795, John Jay, the governor of New York, tried to establish a statewide thanksgiving day, and in 1817 it was finally recognized as a state holiday. Thanksgiving was celebrated with what is now considered the traditional meal of turkey, apple pie, mince pie, and cranberries; New Yorkers often added doughnuts and crullers to the menu. Thanksgiving holiday remained an important holiday throughout the nineteenth century. The Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a mission in the gang-infested Five Points District, and on Thanksgiving Day, under the eyes of their bene­factors, the ladies paraded and fed hundreds of Sunday- school students.

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Talking Turkey with Herve This!

Thanksgiving, Turkey

“Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine.”—Herve This

In highlighting our books on this blog, we like to think we provide some food for thought. Well, with Thanksgiving just a couple of days away, we thought we provide some more practical (or somewhat practical) advice on cooking a turkey from none other than Herve This, author of Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor and other titles on the science of food.

In a 2010 interview with Nature, This suggested the dishwasher as a possible cooking method:

Q: Another professional technique is to cook food for long periods at low temperatures in a vacuum-sealed bag. How might a home chef emulate this ‘sous-vide’ method?

Herve This: Use the dishwasher! For the next holiday meal, I recommend that you prepare two turkeys. Cook one in the dishwasher, in a plastic bag, for several cycles of your machine. In this way, you can get low temperatures. Butterfly the other turkey and cook it on the grill, creating the maximum expanse of delicious crispy skin. Then serve the moist, flavourful meat from the dishwasher turkey with the grilled skin. A good accompaniment would be foie gras, also cooked in the dishwasher at low temperature.

Now for those not comfortable with Maytag cuisine, here is an excerpt from Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking on the science of roasting a turkey:

Since it is juicy, tender meat that we want, it is clear why there is no question of opening the oven while the meat is roasting. The water vapor that is released in a limited quantity could escape and then be replaced by the vaporization of a certain quantity of the juices. Opening the oven dries out the turkey. Neither, however, should one humidify the oven before putting the turkey in. In the presence of too much water, the surface water cannot evaporate, and the skin will not get crispy.

Having thus resolved the problem of the surface, the serious problem of tenderness within remains. We cannot disappoint our guests, who fear the pro­verbial dryness of the turkey.

Since tenderness results necessarily from the deterioration of the connec­tive tissue, let us consider this tissue. It principally contains three kinds of pro­teins: collagen, already discussed many times, reticulin, and elastin. Neither reticulin or elastin are notably altered by the heat of the oven, but the triple helixes of the collagen molecules can be broken up and form gelatin, which is soft when it is in water, as we all know.

Calculating the cooking time requires some skill, because the denaturation of the collagen and the coagulation of the muscle proteins (actin and myosin, mainly) take place at different temperatures and different speeds in the different parts of the turkey. It is necessary to know that the temperature of 70° (158°F) is essential for transforming the collagen into gelatin and tenderizing the mus­cles. But the longer the turkey remains at a high temperature, the more water it loses and the more its proteins risk coagulating. The optimal cooking time, consequently, is the minimum time it takes to attain the temperature of 70°C (158°F) at the center of the turkey.


Monday, November 25th, 2013

Loosen Those Belts! The Science of Overeating (Just in Time for Thanksgiving)


With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we thought we would look at one of the darker traditions of the holiday: overating. Sure, the food is delicious and plentiful but we should know better. But are there other, scientific factors that can explain why we stuff ourselves at Thanksgiving?

The following is an excerpt from Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters, by Gordon Shepherd and now available in paper. In the excerpt Shepherd begins by looking at fast food and then looks at some of the neurological reasons for why we overeat at Thanksgiving and other times of the year.

[F]ast food contains a variety of food types and flavors. This is called the supermarket, smorgasbord, or buffet effect. This idea actually originated with a blind French scientist named Jacque Le Magnen in Paris, who became a legend in research on feeding. In the 1950s he began detailed studies of laboratory rats fed different kinds of diets. He found that on daily lab chow they showed little weight gain, but if he offered them chow with different flavors they quickly began to gain weight. This effect was rediscovered in 1981 by Barbara Rolls and her colleagues at Oxford, who called it sensory-specific satiety, meaning that with one flavor the animal quickly becomes full and bored with eating more, whereas a new flavor stimulates renewed eating. This is the effect we all experience at Thanksgiving or buffets or banquets when we feel the urge to go on eating every new dish or course. It is an expression of the fact that the brain is always interested in something new or changing, a characteristic we have seen in all the sensory systems. Although the fast- food industry probably did not know of Le Magnen’s research, it designed its foods as if it did.


Monday, November 11th, 2013

Herve This on Note by Note Cuisine and the Food of the Future

A recent segment on the BBC took viewers inside the lab and the mind of Herve This, author of Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor and the forthcoming Note-by-Note Cooking. In the segment, This argues and shows that since foodstuff is made of different chemicals, one could create nutritious dishes using powders, oils and liquids that contain the building-blocks of food, rather than conventional raw ingredients.

This terms this principle Note by Note cuisine akin to a composer creating a work.

Friday, June 28th, 2013

An Interview with Gyorgy Scrinis

Nutritionism, Gyorgy Scrinis Today, the final day of our book giveaway for Gyorgy Scrinis’s Nutritionism:The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, we have an interview with Dr. Scrinis in which he discusses the limitations of nutritionism, the “nutritional gaze,” and how to correct popular conceptions of nutrition.

How does margarine exemplify the limitations of nutritionism?

Margarine is one of the few highly processed foods that many nutrition experts have promoted—and in some cases continue to promote—as a healthy food, or at least as healthier than butter. It illustrates their willingness to believe in the truth of their nutritional hypotheses, to the point where this overrides other ways of evaluating food quality, but also overrides the sensual and cultural significance of butter. Margarine manufacturers worked this out decades ago, and have refined the art of nutritionally engineering their products so as seduce those nutrition experts in awe of polyunsaturated fats, reduced fat foods, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol-lowering plant sterols.

What are the political consequences of nutritionism?

One of the ideological functions of nutritionism is that it is so faithfully serves the interests of the food industry. Nutritionism provides the rationale for the production of nutritional commodities, such as nutrient-fortified food products. But it also helps to construct the types of subjects—nutriticentric subjects and consumers—that desire and demand these nutritional commodities.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Gyorgy Scrinis on Alternatives to Nutritionism

“Nutrition experts can either lead or be led by the burgeoning food-quality movement and can choose to play a key role in developing food-quality literacy and food policies that promote and pro­tect the quality of our food.”—Gyorgy Scrinis

Nutritionism, Gyorgy ScrinisIn the concluding chapter to Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, Gyorgy Scrinis argues for how we can create alternative and better ways of interpreting and understanding the real nutritional value of the food we eat:

Constructing alternatives to nutritionism ultimately requires more than carrying out and interpreting nutrition science differently, develop­ing alternative dietary guidelines, or adopting personal strategies for navi­gating the nutriscape. Given food corporations’ central role in perpetuating the ideology of nutritionism, their level of influence over government policies and scientific research, and their ability to nutritionally market their products, the power of these corporations must also be addressed. Limiting or removing the food industry’s ability to use nutrient and health claims is an important step, as this is the primary means through which nutritional knowledge is now disseminated to the public, as well as a pri­mary strategy for marketing highly processed foods. Limiting industry influence over the governments’ dietary guidelines and food regulations is also essential if those guidelines and regulations are to be in the interests of public health, social equity, and ecological sustainability.

The provision of good quality food for all also requires direct govern­ment regulation of food quality and of the types of foods that can be pro­duced and marketed. The best way to limit the consumption of processed-reconstituted foods is not through nutrition education campaigns, nor regressive “fat taxes,” but by limiting—through strict food composition regulations—the food industry’s ability to produce poor—quality foods. Determining the criteria for such food regulations means drawing on the latest nutrition science, and therefore negotiating the limitations, debates, and uncertainties within nutrition research. But the focus of research and debate also needs to shift from differentiating between the health impli­cations of whole foods or naturally occurring nutrients, to differentiating and identifying the health effects of foods on the basis of food production and processing quality. Nutrition experts can either lead or be led by the burgeoning food-quality movement and can choose to play a key role in developing food-quality literacy and food policies that promote and pro­tect the quality of our food.

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Gyorgy Scrinis on the Commodification of Nutritionism

“Food corporations have colonized the nutriscape, flooding the food supply with nutritionally engineered products and nutritional marketing claims and accentuating the nutritional anxieties and nutritional needs of consumers—needs that these corporations are well placed to commodify and exploit.”—Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism

Nutritionism, Gyorgy ScrinisIn Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, Gyorgy Scrinis examines how the idea of “nutritionism” has altered our understanding of food quality and what is truly healthy for us. In the following excerpt from the chapter A Clash of Nutritional Ideologies, how food manufacturers have used the idea of nutritionism for their own gain:

Nutritionism has provided a powerful conceptual framework for trans­forming nutrients and nutritional knowledge into marketable food prod­ucts and for further commodifying food production and consumption practices. Food manufacturers construct a nutritional facade around a food product, a facade for advertising some of the nutrients in the food product. This nutritional facade distracts the attention of consumers from the ingredients, additives, and processing techniques em­ployed in the production of the food. For example, highly refined breakfast cereals with 38 percent sugar content, such as Cocoa Krispies, are adver­tised as a “good source of vitamin D,” a promotion of nutritional benefits common among cereal manufacturers.10 Since the mid-1990s, in the United States and in other countries, government regulators have also al­lowed various types of direct health claims to appear on food labels and in food advertisements. This includes functional claims such as “calcium helps build strong bones” and disease prevention claims such as that the soluble fiber in oats reduces the risk of heart disease. These health claims further exaggerate the role of single nutrients, or of single foods, in the cause or prevention of diseases and other health outcomes.

The introduction of reduced-fat, low-calorie, and vitamin-fortified food products during the 1970s and 1980s has since diversified into the production of a broader range of nutritionally engineered foods with added food components that target a wider range of health conditions. This includes plant sterol–enriched cholesterol-lowering margarine and probiotic yogurt that improves gut health. Nutrition experts and the food industry often refer to these nutritionally engineered and marketed foods as “functional foods,” since they supposedly enhance specific bodily func­tions or health conditions.

There is a deep complicity between nutritionism and the commercial interests of food manufacturers in the present era—a complicity that nu­trition experts have been relatively slow to recognize. The food industry has certainly exploited nutrition science in various ways, such as selec­tively appropriating nutritional research, funding its own nutrition stud­ies, and using government-endorsed health claims to market their prod­ucts. However, the food industry has now also appropriated and taken control of the nutritionism paradigm itself and has become central to its maintenance, dominance, and public dissemination. Food corporations have colonized the nutriscape, flooding the food supply with nutritionally engineered products and nutritional marketing claims and accentuating the nutritional anxieties and nutritional needs of consumers—needs that these corporations are well placed to commodify and exploit. Yet many nutrition experts seem to ignore or be oblivious to this corporate capture of nutritionism, or corporate nutritionism.

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Gyorgy Scrinis on Nutritionism

Nutritionism, Gyorgy ScrinisThe following post is by Gyorgy Scrinis, author of Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice:

Does the food you’re eating contain good or bad fats, good or bad carbs, vitamin D, fiber, calcium, antioxidants, cheap calories, or empty calories, and is it low-G.I., energy dense, or nutrient dense? Our language for describing food has itself become nutrient dense, even if many of the manufactured foods and drinks we consume are not.

Nutrition science and dietary advice have for many decades been characterized by a dominant focus on nutrients as the key to understanding the relationship between food and health, and a reductive interpretation of these nutrients. The “truth” of the relationship between food and the body has been sought by nutrition experts—and definitive dietary advice has been communicated to the lay public—primarily at the level of nutrients, rather than at the level of foods and dietary patterns.

Such is the dominance of this ideology of nutritionism, as I refer to it, that until recently it has largely been taken-for-granted and remained unexamined. In Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, I set out to deconstruct the origins and the characteristics of this understanding of food and nutrients, to explore its various manifestations and consequences, and to propose alternatives to nutritionism.

I reflect on various nutritional debates and controversies across three eras of nutritionism—the eras of quantifying nutritionism, good-and-bad nutritionism, and the contemporary era of functional nutritionism—and through a number of case studies, including the margarine versus butter debate, the battle between diets framed in terms of their macronutrient profile, and the emergence of so-called functional foods that are promoted by the food industry as capable of enhancing our health in a precise and targeted fashion.

The celebration of margarine as a more healthful spread than butter illustrates how a reductive and simplified interpretation of food in terms of supposedly “good” and “bad”fats led nutrition experts to ignore concerns over the highly processed and chemically reconstituted character of margarine, and to exaggerate its health benefits. From the 1960s, margarine was transformed from being a cheap imitation of butter, to being perceived as better than the original food it had been designed to simulate. The unveiling of the harmfulness of the trans-fats in margarine in the 1990s has ironically been used by nutrition experts to reinforce and extend the discourse of good and bad fats (trans-fats are now bad fats). Margarine varieties containing extracted and reconstituted plant sterols are now even celebrated as cholesterol-lowering, health-enhancing functional foods.

The primary way in which weight-loss diets have been promoted since the 1970s is in terms of their ratio of fat, carbs and protein. These diets are premised on the idea that the macronutrient ratio is the prime determinant of a food’s impacts on weight gain or weight loss, regardless of the particular foods in which these macronutrients are contained. The government-endorsed low-fat campaign that dominated the 1980s and 1990s was an early expression of this macronutrient reductionism, insisting that fat is bad, and by extension that reduced-fat foods are better than their high-fat equivalents. The Atkins-style low-carb diet has essentially been a mirror image of the low-fat ideology.