Addicted to victimhood

Being married to someone who is obsessed with food has its upsides, in that the cooking of regular and delicious meals is something the Doctor enjoys doing (or so she claims, after years of doing so). I can apparently cook too, but this is a hypothesis that I’d rather not subject to much testing, in that I fear the loss of a potentially undeserved reputation. But it has its downsides too, in that her time spent thinking about food, and reading in the discipline of “Food Studies”, involves having to listen to and read an awful amount of utter tosh. Being a naturally inquisitive sort of fellow, I sometimes get caught in the crossfire, which led to us recently having a conversation about the evils of high-fructose corn syrup, which is apparently in everything.

It’s not simply your food that’s imperiled, but also your drinks, your toothpaste, and your shoes (I’m not sure about the last one). And judging by the alarmist rhetoric of people who like to talk about this sort of thing, it’s likely to kill you, while simultaneously supporting something referred to as the “nutritional-industrial complex”, thanks to subsidies given to American farmers to grow even more corn from which to make our shoes. I’m sure there are real issues here, and that many of the political and economic concerns people have around food production are legitimate. But underlying those concerns is perhaps a broader concern – that of H.Sapiens once again finding someone to blame for their choices. Whether it’s Laura Ripley, who eats plenty of crisps and chocolates because she “emotionally [doesn’t] always feel like eating an apple“, smokers who want to sue tobacco companies for their cancer, or morons who spill hot coffee on themselves and think it’s someone’s fault that the coffee was hot, resulting in all Americans now having to drink lukewarm coffee.

On the food side, Michael Pollan is of course the high priest of the campaign against high-fructose corn syrup. I must confess to having read, and enjoyed, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but judging by snippets from a couple of interviews in Democracy Now, corn syrup must also either rot your brain or turn you into a marketing uber-guru. His new book, Food Rules, is currently number 7 on Amazon’s sales charts, despite it being (by all accounts) a rewrite of his In Defense of Food, but with a larger font and more whitespace. But that has not stopped hundreds of thousands of disciples queuing to pay to read homilies like:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce
  • The whiter the bread, the sooner you will be dead
  • Don’t buy any food you see advertised on television

Of course, many of his principles have an underlying justification, and the 64 rules offered are meant to provide heuristics for a healthier life – but they still sound really stupid. The second rule I’ve quoted, for example, includes an injunction that would prohibit illiterate people from eating anything at all. As for my great-grandmother, I have little idea what she may or may not have recognised as food, but imagine I’m safe if I stick with lamb, steak, bread and potatoes. Who knows.

More concerning – and this should be a concern for Pollan also, seeing as The Omnivore’s Dilemma encouraged us to think more critically about what we eat – these principles are far more likely to lead to a slavish worship of rules rather than a thoughtful engagement with what we eat. I doubt, for example, whether most Pollan-ites would wonder why it is that lifespans in the developed world are increasing, despite the fact that we are apparently poisoning ourselves with corn syrup and other nasties.

Another (presumably) unintended consequence of Pollan’s interventions has been that some products are now marketed as actually being healthier because they contain real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup as a substitute for sugar. He admits to feeling somewhat responsible for this, and tells us:

So I came up with a rule to avoid all these schemes, which is, don’t buy any food you see advertised on television. That is the only way to avoid their marketing cleverness. And that rule captures most processed food, because two-thirds of ad budgets go to heavily processed food. Only about five percent of ad budgets go to, you know, prunes or walnuts or real foods. So I’m hoping that your common sense will not—you know, will allow you not to tar them with the same brush.

I’m hoping that your common sense, and mine, will allow us to not feel the need for a book titled “Eating for Dummies” – although perhaps that very book is on the desk of a publisher somewhere, with an endorsement from Pollan himself. Because not everything can be controlled, and everything is not always someone else’s fault. In general, I think we have a pretty good understanding of what’s good for us and what’s not, and sometimes choose to ignore our better judgement in favour of flavor or convenience. Emotionally, we may not always feel like eating an apple, but that doesn’t mean that we currently believe it’s actually healthier to eat a cheeseburger.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.