Populations that eat a Western diet consistently develop high rates of chronic diseases. What remains subject to debate is exactly what about this diet makes it so lethal? Michael Pollan: Cooked a Natural History of Transformation.
Miss Mapelle, an elderly amateur sleuth living in a quiet village in the Shires and concerned for the health of the children in her local community has been conducting her own investigations into the killer in our food. She has shown the findings of her investigations to the local Chief Inspector and persuaded him to gather all the usual suspects together in the drawing room of her modest manor house.
It is a pleasant room with sun filtering in through the sash windows. After decades of uncertainty, after a long, harrowing journey through the food of darkness, after a sleepless night in the subterranean halogen-lit laboratory it is a relief to see the sash-windows open through wich a gentle breeze blows adding some much needed fresh air.
The butler has just served tea. All the usual, traditional, suspects are present – meat, fat, diary, grains, salt, sugar, spices, herbs, fruit, vegetables – all waiting in nervous anticipation to find out whodunit and hoping that this is their moment to finally prove their innocence. Also present are regulators, legislators, dieticians, NGO’s, medical experts and historians. Sitting in a comfortable arm-chair by the fire-place we find Napoleon relaxed with a glass of brandy resting comfortably between his trotters.
Is it the presence in the western diet of some “bad” nutrient, such as saturated fat or refined carbohydrates or cholesterol? Or is it the absence from it of some essential “good” nutrient, like fibre or omega-3 fatty acids?, Michael Pollan Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Miss Mapelle begins by eliminating all traditional foods and methods from her list of suspects.
“We can say, with absolute certainty,” she begins “that our ancestors consumed only traditional, natural food for the simple reason invented foods did not exist. Chronic food related diseases were extremely rare. Compare this to modern populations who are eating ever more invented ingredients in their daily diet. Chronic disease is common-place and is on the rise. This logic, alone, leads me to conclude that the traditional “western” diet categorically is not responsible for the death stalking our food landscape.”
The traditional food congregated in the room – but particularly traditional western food which had been the focus of so much accusations over the years – let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Traditional foods do not contain “bad” nutrients. Quite the contrary. Traditional, natural food is full of essential “good” nutrients such as fibre or omega-3 fatty acids.”
“The trail”, Miss Mapelle concludes decisively as she turns to face Napoleon, “leads us to … the “modern” western diet composed as it is of novel, invented foods. It is modern, invented novel foods which contain the “bad” nutrients that is slowly killing us be it in the form of trans-fats or an over concentration of fructose. Further, the modern western diet encourages us to eat food devoid of “good” nutrients found in the correct balance in our natural, traditional diet. Artificial flavourings such a mono-sodium glutemate decieve the body into thinking they are eating a nutritional meal when, in fact, they are eating a sterile dish devoid of essential nutrients.”
To illustrate her point Miss Mapelle pulls a photograph out of her battered leather bag. “This gentleman,” Miss Mapelle proposes, “like hundreds of others is not suffering from gluttony but from an over reliance on modern, invented food found primarly (though not exclusively) in convenience, industrially processed foods. His diet is devoid of nutrients and is full of chronic poisons leading to a form of modern malnutrition.”
Everyone in the room lets out a sudden gasp!
“No! Surely not?!” they exclaim, “Novel food is benevolent. We have been assured it is safer than safe. Indeed it is produced by Napoleon – an eminent, learned Professor of Science. Science, since the time of Wakely and Pasteur, is the light, the truth and the way! You must be wrong Miss Mapelle!” The regulators, the legislators, the NGO’s, the historians and the medical doctors all nod in agreement.
Napoleon stands calmly. He pulls himself to his full height and with an air of sadness and just a touch of condescension looks Miss Mapelle deep in the eye.
“My dear Miss Mapelle,” he begins, “of course I would not expect you to understand. Unlike me you have not spent the better part of your life studying the sciences but let me try and put it as simply as I can to you and all those present in the room today. All food – both natural and novel – is nothing more than a chemical construct. That’s all. Food can be compared to a Lego brick. The thousand of chemical molecules that make up our food are not unlike the different shapes and colours of this popular children’s toy. Like a Lego brick food can be reassembled, reorganised and restructured to our preferences. Nature provides one shape. Novel foods another. A protein is a protein is a protein and whether we eat if from a calf born in the barn-yard or from cells harvested in a petri-dish it makes not a jot of difference. At the end of the day they are indistinguishable – they all form the sum total of the food’s constituent parts. The important point – that I think a “reasonable consumer” would understand – is that if I open a pack of Reb-A sweetener or if I went to my backyard and chewed on a stevia leaf, the same molecule would pass my lips. And it is natural. How can I then be guilty of producing lethal food?”
“I find this argument hard to, err, swallow.” Miss Mapelle answers .
“In the past few decades our intellectual abilities have been racing ahead of our metabolic capabilities. Napoleon’s brains can be compared to a Formula 1 racing car with all cylinders operating under full capacity, happily inventing and devising novel foods that could not be replicated in nature. The human stomach, on the other hand, is plodding along at the pace of evolution, like the donkey at the mill-stone . The rope that binds the two together – intellect and metabolism – is put under great strain and when it snaps, as inevitably it will, the fall out is chronic disease.”
“Mankind’s ability to digest food,” Miss Mapelle continues “is a complex, highly-integrated and finely balanced recital. For the performance to succeed a number of actors (enzymes, bacteria, nutrients, acids, genes etc.) must perform their lines and steps with precision. The performers have been dancing their complex, integrated choreography for thousands of years based on the food gifted to mankine by nature. Any changes to the food consumed that may have occurred over the centuries, such as natural mutations or cross-breeding would have been limited, occurred slowly and been gradually introduced. This more modest, slower and natural introduction of changes to the food eaten has allowed the metabolic performers to adjust to their new choreography without too much of a strain on the human physiology.”
Miss Mapelle pulls another picture out of her battered leather bag showing a chorus-line of dancers dancing in step to the music to illustrate her point.
“With the onslaught of novel foods in recent decades, however, the chorus-line now focuses all its energies on learning their new script, neglecting their set pieces, getting confused and gifting us chronic food related illnesses as opposed to robust good health … resulting in a crash.”
“Nonsense! Nonsense!” Napoleon retorts. “This is tittle-tattle. Nothing more than idle conjecture. You can not prove this. Your science is junk. It is I who control food science and the pathway to the truth! I will show the world that you are nothing but an ignorant amateur with no qualifications. Your science might be suited to the Facebook generation but it is not genuine. Unlike me you do not head a world renowned research department on innovative foods, you do not have a PhD in bio-engineering and you are not a qualified Doctor of Medicine. What qualifications do you have to enter this debate? No judge or jury is going to believe you over me.”
All heads swivel to Miss Mapelle. Napoleon has a point. How is she going to respond?
“A long time ago,” Miss Maple answers, “I studied the liberal arts. It is a much maligned branch of academic study these days as the young are encouraged to believe that our future prosperity lies solely in the sciences but it was a discipline which challenged me to read widely, extensively and to question the status quo. I was taught in the art of writing an essay with a beginning a middle and encouraged to voice an opinion with proper references. Later I studied the law. Equity taught me to look behind the hyperbole and question a person’s intentions not their mission statement. The evidence needs to be collated but it will be and when it is you will be found guilty of mass murder unless you agree to co-operate and accept some of the blame for the mess you have helped create .”
At this point the Chief Inspector stands up to read Napoleon his rights.
“Napoleon, I am charging you with the murder of thousands of individuals who have been consuming your food over the past decade. You have used the human population as guinea pigs resulting in an untold number of unnecessary deaths and you are continuing to deny your guilt. Police! Arrest this pig and bring him in for questioning.”
As Napoleon is dragged away he shouts “I’m innocent! You can not prove my guilt. I have the science to prove my innocence” Underneath Napoleon is sweating. Has the turn-key to nature’s attic been discovered? When they open it they will find Grandma Josephine stitching her cloth of food knowledge together? Will they find the natural and supernatural still clinging together even after they have been soiled and debased by Napoleon? Will they see that nature’s beauty has been ripped apart by his Industrial estates, factories and cost-saving efficiencies?
If so, the Cult of A Benevolent Food Innovator will be at an end. It could usher in a new era when populations no longer feel compelled to talk about “real” food. Rather, as in the past mankind will just talk about “food”.
And so it was that nature was freed from her dusty attic and restored to her former beauty, Grandma Josephine’s cloth was bit by bit stitched back together again, Farmer Snowball returned to farm his land and Napoleon was asked to offer solutions when necessity demanded it.
And they all ate happily ever after.