The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate
By Jayson Lusk
(Crown Forum, 240 pages, $24)
Our great national food harangue continues unabated. A wide cast of characters—politicians, doctors, people who play doctors on television, Oprah—urge us, command us, beseech us to eat less of some things, or more of other things, though the specific diktats are ever-changing and often contradictory. Michelle Obama, who has all but created a Strategic Kale Reserve in her attempt to convince Americans to nosh their leafy greens, was at it again this May in the New York Times,urging Republicans not only to refrain from amending the WIC supplemental nutrition program, but also to heed the wisdom of Kepler and Copernicus. “Right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science,” Obama wrote, “by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars.” The first lady’s comrade in arms, Michael Bloomberg—notorious for leading a brigade of Mayors Against Illegal Gulps in a war on oversized sodas—has thankfully exited stage left, although the trans fat ban he championed continues to make New York City donuts, statistically speaking, 8.5 percent less delicious. The paleo diet, whose evangelists once blighted casual conversations everywhere, is giving way in the public consciousness. But the slack has been picked up and then some by the gluten-free diet, favored even among those for whom it is not a medical necessity. “Everyone should try no gluten for a week!” post-teen train-wreck Miley Cyrus exhorted her followers on Twitter. “The change in your skin, phyisical and mental health is amazing!” Even the Girls Scouts have gotten in on the act, recently introducing a gluten-free shortbread cookie to their door-to-door order form. Billions of dollars of this stuff flies off shelves each year, purchased by consumers who believe in the promised benefits of…well, it’s not quite clear.
To be honest, this food fixation has never made much sense to me. I grew up among those amber waves of grain, on a Midwestern corn and soybean farm. If a crunchy conservative, as defined by columnist Rod Dreher in his 2006 book by that name, is one who loves granola and Whole Foods, then I am surely a soggy conservative: soggy like a French fry left to linger in a heaping pile of ketchup. (Hunt’s, not Heinz. Never Teresa Heinz.)
But the great food harangue has become impossible to ignore, having now reached such loudness that I can no longer hear the waiter. How did we get here? Three recent books offer insight into that question, though the answer, of course, depends on which author you ask. In Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss puts the blame squarely in the boardrooms of faceless food manufacturers, who, in a sort of caloric arms race, continually pour more of those three delicious ingredients into their recipes. Hapless consumers, the story goes, can’t help but stuff their gullets. All of this justifies not only the harangue, but also, naturally, unspecified government intervention.
Moss, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist, is at his best when discussing research into how we perceive taste. Sweet is the only flavor for which newborns show preference, and salt lovers are made, not born. With sweetness, there’s a recognizable “bliss point”—sugary enough, but not overwhelming—that maximizes appeal. When Dr Pepper created its cherry vanilla flavor, it mixed sixty-one different batches, each slightly different, and conducted 3,904 tastings to find the most craveable formula. Powerful flavors, which hit the brain hard, are more satisfying, but we tire of them easily. Moss writes: “The biggest hits—be they Coca-Cola or Doritos or Kraft’s Velveeta Cheesy Skillet dinner kits—owe their success to formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct overriding single flavor that says to the brain: Enough already!”
But viewing food companies as antagonists seems to mean taking for granted the bounty they produce. For instance, he describes Kraft’s discovery that it could drastically reduce the time required to make cheese by using enzymes and emulsifiers. Cutting out the months-long aging and ripening process, the company created a continuous line—milk in one side of the plant, cheese out the other—that took mere days. Moss reports flatly, as if the fact were unremarkable, that in 1995, after a string of strong years, Kraft reported it had hit two billion pounds (one million tons!) of cheese. It does not denigrate artisan gouda or imported brie to observe that in a hungry world this accomplishment is nothing short of an economic miracle. Similarly, Moss states that Cargill produces 4.8 million pounds of food-grade salt every day, and that the high-end varieties are sold for just 10 cents per pound. That’s less than a minute’s work at minimum wage, for a pound of the stuff over which wars have been fought and men have died.
In this way (and many others), Moss lets his biases show. He relies upon sources like a former Coke executive who turned conscientious objector to the cola wars after—no joke—falling in love with a free-spirited, Amazon rainforest-wandering health-food hippie. The executive now sells carrots. Or the daughter of the Oscar Mayer employee responsible for creating Lunchables, who finally realized what her father had wrought after—again, no joke—going to work for Congressman Barney Frank and being scolded by an insufferable volunteer: “Do you realize all that plastic is going into the landfill? And all those nitrates in that ham?” One chapter is simply titled, “I want to see a lot of body bags,” which sounds damning until readers find out the context: a Pepsi exec hammering the competition during a fiery sales pep talk. Moss describes those in the food business as men who avoided “too much of the kind of foods and drinks their companies sold,” as if, to make up an example, Ben and Jerry are imagined to subsist solely on pints of their Cherry Garcia ice cream. I began to wish the book had come with a noisemaker I could press to play a few orchestra hits—Hollywood’s dramatic DUN-DUN-DUN!—whenever I reached an anticlimactic line.
At best, the consumers Moss describes are passive; at worst, they’re mindless. Manufacturers have “pushed more fatty products into the American diet” by creating food “perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption” at prices so low as to “turn processed food into the only logical choice shoppers could make.” And when a company familiar with addiction, Philip Morris, buys Kraft, cigarette executives—and let’s be clear, there can be no greater evil—end up running the show. But this line of thinking is fraught with contradiction. For one thing, Moss acknowledges product failure. He discusses at length the abject disappointment of sliced cream cheese and recounts an early meeting at which General Mills’ marketing team pleaded for the company to introduce sugarcoated cereal: “We’ve got to be able to move into this area to survive!” So which is it? Are food companies beholden to the market and their customers? Or are consumers just rats trapped in a Skinner box—albeit one emblazoned with the friendly face of Tony the Tiger?
Enter Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, who injects costs and comparative advantages into the conversation. Lusk’s latest book, The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate, argues that the true culprits in the great food harangue are the haranguers: kitchen-chair pundits like Michael Moss who create unreasonable fear by peddling fashionable but romanticized notions about what we should eat.
Lusk takes on orthodoxies one by one, citing scientific journals to bolster his claims. For instance, in the section on locavorism, the trend of favoring food grown nearby (variously defined as a radius of 100 or 250 or 300 miles), he cities a British study on the efficiency of big-box distribution. According to its authors, a consumer buying organic vegetables who drives much more than four miles round trip to the farmer’s market is actually burning more carbon than one who buys off the supermarket shelf. Further, Lusk maintains, as economists are wont to do, that regions should specialize in the commodities they produce most efficiently, and then trade for the rest. He recounts writing an article with the sarcastic subtitle, “Why pineapples shouldn’t be grown in North Dakota.” A reader objected that this was a silly caricature of locavorism, but neither would the reader concede that the northern state should import the tropical fruit. “The answer, in not so many words,” Lusk writes, “was that people in North Dakota shouldn’t want pineapples.”
When it comes to genetically modified crops, Lusk concedes that there may be some environmental risk, but argues that this potential future harm is vastly outweighed by real immediate benefits. He cites a 2003 study from the journal Science that found the introduction of biotech cotton to 157 farms in rural India reduced insecticide use by nearly 70 percent and simultaneously increased yield by more than 80 percent. The case against organic food is similar. Lusk cites a synthesis of fifty-five studies, published five years ago in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that showed no evidence that organics are more nutritious. He argues (pointing to yet more studies) that Americans’ coffee habit is more carcinogenic than any pesticide residue on their produce. And he suggests that consumers misunderstand the organic label. Organics can and do come from large, so-called “factory” farms. They can be sprayed with all manner of fungicides and pesticides, provided those chemicals are “natural.” Yields are 20 to 30 percent lower, so converting to organics means putting more land under the plow.
Lusk has written a polemic, and his rhetoric is over the top at times. (Rule of thumb: A book about food should never, ever contain the word “Gestapo.”) Skeptical readers will no doubt seize upon his tone, dismiss him as a crank who cherry-picks his data, and dig up other research that contradicts his scientific conclusions. That said, Lusk picks philosophical fights too. Specifically, he rebuts paternalists who claim consumers are either too confused to know what’s in their best interest, or too weak-willed to do it: “The supposed proof of this irrational behavior is said to be found in survey responses in which we say we wished we weighed less or saved more. But our current self will always wish that our previous self had dieted and saved more, because we are now in the position to reap the benefits without paying any of the costs.” Nor does he find statistics on diabetes or heart attacks to be convincing. “By saying that a heart attack is evidence of poor decision making, the paternalist is drawing a false comparison between the choice made by a fictitious, all-knowing being with perfect foresight and a real human faced with trade-offs and uncertain outcomes.”
The reality, as Lusk sees it, is simple: Food is safer, cheaper, more abundant, and of higher quality than ever before. Since 1950, American agricultural output has increased by a factor of 2.75, while land use has dropped by 27.5 percent. Beef and pork cost 20 percent less, in real terms, than they did in 1970, and poultry costs 50 percent less. Very few of us these days worry about where our next meal is coming from, and having thus fulfilled the base requirements on Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs, we now argue incessantly about its top: self-actualization, self esteem, sense of belonging. What will give me those warm fuzzies and make me feel in sync with the harmonics of Earth? Do I imagine that the duck l’orange I’m chomping was once a happy young creature, cavorting in a field of wild daisies and quacking with unrestrained joy?
What we can be sure of, if Harvey Levenstein’s Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat can be taken as any indication, is twofold: that the pleas of Michelle Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and Co. are simply the latest in a long and proud tradition of great national food harangues, and that when today’s fads fade, others will be waiting in line to take their place. Levenstein, a history professor at McMaster University in Ontario, begins his survey with germophobia around the beginning of the twentieth century. Flies in particular were thought to spread disease, so Kansas’s director of public health put bounties of cash and movie tickets on their bulbous, red-eyed heads. The state’s schoolchildren took up the call, bringing to their teachers thirty bushels of dead flies—about seven million in all—after just ten weeks. As vitamins began to be discovered, vitamania took hold, and housewives were soon spooning cod liver oil into reluctant mouths all across America. Thiamine was of particular interest near the outbreak of World War II, after a study of ten patients in a state mental institution suggested a lack of it led to sluggishness and fatigue. Leading authorities demanded that millers begin enriching their flour with the substance. They argued that too little thiamine would erode the national will and might spell defeat were the country invaded.
Over the course of years and decades, readers watch as white bread goes from bad (because milling stripped nutrients) to good (because it was more digestible than whole wheat) then back to bad. The Shangri-La to be emulated bounces from the remote Hunza valley in the Himalayas, where chronic disease is supposedly nonexistent and lifespans reach 140 years, to Naples, whose residents, seemingly immune to heart disease, inspire the “Mediterranean” diet. Saturated fats fall out of favor and cause heart disease and breast cancer…until they don’t. Trans-fats, such as in margarine, are a healthier substitute…until they aren’t.
What makes Levenstein’s book compelling, though, is not simply watching the slow zig-zag of progress. It’s seeing claims we now find wild be made in baldy moral language, with no hesitation and absolute certitude. Jean Mayer, a Harvard nutritionist and future president of Tufts University, opined in a ’60s newspaper column that encouraging low-carbohydrate diets was “in a sense the equivalent of mass murder.” Doubleday advertised the anti-fat book Eat Well and Stay Well with the bold headline: “Will you commit suicide this year?” J.I. Rodale, who founded Prevention Magazine, proclaimed, “I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” just weeks before he died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-two. Harvey Wiley, the father of the Food and Drug Administration, warned errant housewives in 1909 that “The average ice box is a charnel house, which not only holds death, but spreads it.” Levenstein’s bibliography contains dozens of citations from the archives of the New York Times—the perch from which Moss and liberal foodies such as Michael Pollan make their pronouncements today.
Levenstein’s point, elucidated in his book’s coda, is not that modern dietary recommendations are necessarily wrong, but that consumers should take them with a whole shakerful of salt. Individual health outcomes involve huge variability. Even serious scientific studies generally come with caveats and hedges. News reports written by hamfisted journalists inevitably make research seem more complete and sweeping than intended. In the end, Levenstein comes back to that age-old advice: moderation in all things.
So by all means, go ahead and savor your quinoa and organic rutabaga soufflé. But leave me and my French fries alone.