Orthorexia, Pollan and fear of food

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

As that master epistemologist (and occasional US defence secretary) Donald Rumsfeld reminded us in 2002, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Some of these unknown unknowns are probably harmful to us, but seeing as we don’t know what they are, there’s little we can do to safeguard ourselves against them. But as my earlier treatment of the moral panic relating to DStv and porn implied, a known unknown (in this case, the harmfulness of porn) can be treated in two entirely different ways.

First, we can react in a way premised on fear of the unknown, and formulate policy that assumes harm. Or we can respond in a way that satisfies known virtues (such as freedom) while treating the unknowns as variables that cannot be fully understood and that, therefore, cannot (yet) be used in formulating policy. These two responses point to a fundamental difference in how we regard and respond to risk, and it’s sometimes worth reminding ourselves how risk – and particularly, fear of risk – can in fact cause us to become less safe. Or to take on risk we may otherwise have avoided. An elegant example of this is provided by the data on car-crash fatalities in the three months following the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center, when a dramatic drop in air travel was accompanied by a proportional increase in the number of people who chose to get to their destinations by road.

A Cornell University study measured an additional 725 deaths from motor vehicle accidents, when compared with the same three months in the previous year, while a study by Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute indicated that just more than 1,000 additional deaths occurred in that year, compared with historical trends.
There is, of course, much profit to be made from fear, as our insurance policy repayments remind us every month. There are also some things that we should certainly be afraid of. What’s at issue here is our generalised disposition to be fearful, and the dangers of forgetting to consider potential unintended consequences of succumbing to the climate of fear.

One area which generates interesting examples of these fears, whether real or imagined, is food – both what we eat, and how we farm or manufacture our food. Some of these debates are old, and partly resolved, such as those relating to the negative impacts on animals of factory farming. Despite a large amount of agreement with the idea that we should not allow animals to suffer unnecessarily, the free-range and organic movements are, however, not without their complications and contradictions.

For example, consider the possibility that producing organic food may result in there being less food overall (due to the extra resources required to producing food organically), or in food becoming more expensive. Organic food, therefore, may be great for rich people, but less beneficial to the poor, who already have enough trouble feeding themselves.

But in the midst of the consensus we have, some issues around food are so new that there is currently little agreement. For example, regarding the cloning of food and the benefits or harms that may arise from advances in this area. For some, these potential dangers have led to advocating a neo-Luddism around food. And by “some”, I really mean Michael Pollan, the high priest of a campaign against high-fructose corn syrup, which is currently added to much of the industrially-produced food that we consume. In his most recent book, “Food Rules”, Pollan tries to help us navigate the frightening territory of the supermarket shelves via homilies such as:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise 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 in the book are meant to provide heuristics for a healthier life – but they still sound frighteningly simple-minded. 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.

More concerning – and this should be a worry for Pollan and his disciples also, seeing as the idea behind these books and movements is to encourage us to think more critically about what we eat – is that 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 life spans in the developed world are increasing, despite the fact that we are apparently poisoning ourselves with corn syrup and other nasty additives.

Furthermore, as a recent New York Times article argued, fears about “bad food” may be giving rise to a generation of children predisposed to eating disorders, in that “some parents are becoming overzealous, even obsessive, in efforts to engender good eating habits in children. With the best of intentions, these parents may be creating an unhealthy aura around food.” One physician working in the area of eating disorders, Steven Bratman, has even seen the need to coin a term to describe the modern obsession with eating “healthy” food: orthorexia. Those who suffer from orthorexia are fixated on “righteous eating” (stemming from the Greek “ortho, meaning straight and correct”).

Many of these concerns may well be redundant in the long-term, when meat is lab-grown, and biotechnology develops to the extent that producing food is far easier and cheaper than is currently the case. But until then, let us be careful to avoid generating hysterias around food, especially when those fearful mindsets may well carry costs.

The extent to which an over-correction towards “natural” and “organic” food (both of which are terms that mean whatever you want them to mean) may present future risks is a known unknown. But we can’t guarantee an optimal outcome by mythologising “primitive” ways of eating and manufacturing food, as that may also blind us to the benefits that technological advances in food could offer – and have offered already. Sometimes, there is nothing better than toasted sliced bread with processed cheese.

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.