June 11, 2012
The average American consumes about 175 calories per day in sugary soda, at least according to the numbers presented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the recent roll-out of New York City’s anti-obesity campaign. Where do these statistics come from, and how accurate are they? After all, we can measure how much soda is being poured into the system, how many 12-ounce bottles and cans are sold on the open market (so-called “dispersal” data), but no one’s actually measuring the volume going down our collective hatch (“consumption” data). Moreover, if you ask city residents, they’ll tend to say, “Oh no, I don’t drink soda. I’m on a liver and cottage cheese kick.”
This phenomenon of underestimating junk food and overestimating healthy food in self-reported dietary surveys is known as the “Lean Cuisine syndrome.”
William Rathje, a forefather of modern garbology (the academic study of garbage, not a fancy name for street-sweeping), gave the phenomenon its name in his 1992 book Rubbish!. After examining trash bags full of soda cans and liquor bottles, Rathje found that what we claim to have eaten and drunk rarely lines up very closely with the actual stuff stuffed in the trash bag—especially when it comes to soda and liquor.
In other words, we are what we eat, but we tell the truth about it only in what we leave behind. Rathje is not a psychologist and doesn’t spell out exactly why we lie, but perhaps it’s a coping mechanism. After all, it’s tough to own up to another statistic—that a third of our food goes to waste.
May 9, 2012
Milk does the body good. It’s the instructive stuff of life; compounds in a mother’s milk can instill lifelong flavor preferences in her breast-fed offspring. (Meanwhile, infants fed cow’s milk formula may gain excessive weight.) Raw milk enthusiasts claim that cow’s milk is more beneficial if it hasn’t been heated and pasteurized. If Dana Goodyear’s recent story in The New Yorker (subscription required) is any indication, this vocal minority’s claims about a milky unpasteurized panacea is increasingly getting mainstream attention.
The raw milk trend has a certain appeal among libertarians, such as Ron Paul, who view the fight against food regulation as a symbol of freedom. But what’s curious about this movement is that Goodyear (and presumably The New Yorker’s estimable fact-checkers) found only one scientific study to support claims about the immune-enhancing properties of raw milk: the GABRIELA study, a survey conducted in rural Germany, Austria and Switzerland and published in October 2011 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. The study’s authors found that unheated “farm milk” contained a protective protein, although it could only partly explain the reduced rates of asthma. Raw milk might be one variable in a web of confounding factors. (After all, the children lived in rural homes, not in sterile labs.) The authors found no association between the bacterial counts in milk and a child’s health; they also couldn’t say whether those samples were representative of a child’s long-term exposure, nor could they rule out the effects of microbial exposure on a child’s developing immune system.
Perhaps raw milk represents a subset of post-Pasteurian activism opposed to our culture’s blanket war on germs. Since about 1989, when David Strachan advanced the “hygiene hypothesis,” an increasing body of evidence links chronic underexposure to germs and microbes to lasting health consequences. The idea is that encountering low levels of nonthreatening stimuli trains our bodies to fight potential allergens and, without such exposure, our immune systems malfunction. Just last week, a group linked the lack of biodiversity in urban areas for a “global megatrend” in allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases.
The health benefit of raw milk remains speculative and its risks remain high—milk is an excellent medium for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. But the GABRIELA study may hint at something else: the health halo of a nostalgic, if apocryphal, place. What little scientific research there is came from the Alps—a sort of Hunza Valley of the West—a place seemingly removed from the ills of modern society, home to Heidi and the curative powers of her grandfather’s goat’s milk (an idea in Nathaneal Johnson’s blog and forthcoming book, The Heidi Hypothesis). Then again, when has the quest for pure, natural foods really hinged on rational arguments?
April 30, 2012
In 1933, James Hilton, a British novelist who read about travels in Yunnan Province in National Geographic magazine, wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which describes a mythical kingdom set far, far away from the rest of time: Shangri-La. Three years later, Frank Capra turned Hilton’s paperback best-seller into a film. The place entered our lexicon as an earthly retreat from the worries of modern civilization.
The fictional Shangri-La appears to be an amalgam of Yunnan Province and Tibet. But the people of the Hunza Valley in Pakistan became, in the American mind, the closest thing to the real-life incarnations of the people of Shangri-La. The Hunzakut people reportedly lived to be 100 and had a practically illness-free existence in an inaccessible mountain valley. Paeans to healthy Hunza proliferated. President Eisenhower’s cardiologist reported that Hunza men could eat 3,000 apricots in one sitting. In 1960, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial extolling the virtues of the Hunza diet as a harbinger of hope for human longevity and modern medicine.
“Hunzaphilia” is one of the many compelling (if a bit chronologically disordered) stories in historian Harvey Levenstein’s new book Fear of Food. The natural, edible fountain of eternal Himalayan youth fit into a long line of claims about exceptional longevity—except that, at least among the Hunzakut, it contradicted the truth. One Japanese doctor, Levenstein writes, reported “rampant signs of poor health and malnutrition—goiter, conjunctivitis, rheumatism, and tuberculosis—as well as what seemed to be horrific levels of infant and child mortality, which are also signs of poor nutrition.”
Nonetheless, the idea that these healthy people cut off from the rest of the world could live practically forever would persist, Levenstein writes, thanks in part to an ex-I.R.S. employee named Jerome Irving Rodale. Like Hilton, he had never traveled to the Hunza Valley, but Rodale was well-versed in the robust genre of books touting the Hunza—including both Robert McCarrison’s 1921 Studies in Deficiency Disease and G.T. Wrench’s 1938 The Wheel of Health, one of the basic texts of the health food movement.
Rodale’s book The Healthy Hunzas attributed their longevity to whole grains, dried apricots and almonds, as well as breastfeeding, relatively low alcohol use and plenty of exercise. “They are a group of 20,000 people, none of whom dies of cancer or drops dead with heart disease. In fact, heart trouble is completely unknown in that country! Feeble-mindedness and mental debilitations which are dangerously rampant in the United States are likewise alien to the vigorous Hunzas.”
Later, Rodale founded Prevention magazine, and Levenstein writes, “It regularly used the Hunza as examples of how eating natural foods could ward off the illnesses caused by the over-civilized diet.” By avoiding modern science and with it the ills of modern society—all on the basis of what it was not—Rodale’s exaltation of a more “primitive” people paved the way for the Paleolithic Diet, the Primitive Diet and the modern natural foods movement as a whole.
Yet Hunza health and longevity remains apocryphal, and Rodale himself left us with one of the movement’s more dramatic cautionary notes. One week after telling Wade Greene, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, “I’m going to live to be 100 unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver,” Rodale went on the Dick Cavett show, served some asparagus boiled in urine, and then died on Cavett’s couch. He was 72.
Image: Wind-powered apricot cracker via Nigel Allan/Geographic Review, 1990.
January 31, 2012
From guest blogger Jeanne Maglaty
Earlier this month, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new portrait of Alice Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
In the photographic portrait, a mulberry tree looms over Waters, looking chic in black in the Edible Schoolyard, her organic teaching garden and kitchen project in Berkeley that connects kids to “real” food and encourages healthy eating.
“The thing that I love most is that I’m very small and nature is very big,” said Waters as she stood beside the portrait, teary-eyed.
Waters’ acolytes gathered around her as she spoke in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, some as teary-eyed as she. But hundreds of other hungry guests dared not move closer and risk losing their place in line for the food at the event.
Washington, D.C, culinary celebrities had prepared edible innovations for a glittery reception. Here’s who and what you missed if you weren’t there:
Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve: Rappahannock River oysters with coriander migonette and green goddess vinaigrette
Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio: Roasted winter vegetables with wheat berries and garlic and anchovy dressing
Chef-owner José Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermin—Acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico ham; Selecciónes de Embutidos Fermin—Selection of cured Spanish sausages
Chef-owner Mike Isabella of Graffiato: Crudo of wild striped bass with kumquats, cranberries and arugula
Chef-owner Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: Winter root vegetable & Mushroom gratin with Ecopia Farms microlettuces
Chef-founder Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant: Lightly smoked duck breast with savory fig chutney and French baguette crostinis
Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery: Mount Tam cheese—bloomy, rinded triple crème, mushroomy, buttery; Red Hawk cheese—washed rind, triple crème, unctuous, aromatic; Wagon Wheel cheese—pressed and aged cow’s milk cheese, medium strength, semi-firm
Bar manager Adam Bernbach of Proof and Estadio: Catoctin Creek Gin with Tarragon-Pear Soda
Who could resist a single morsel? My daughter and I went back for seconds.
Waters has espoused her culinary philosophy based on using fresh, local products for 40 years. I asked cheesemonger Adam Smith of Cowgirl Creamery if it was difficult to decide what to serve at a reception for such a prominent person in his field.
Not at all, he answered. He selected three cheeses that the Petaluma, California, creamery made from organic milk purchased from a neighboring dairy.
Nearby, Bernbach mixed cocktails using gin that was distilled (from organic rye grain) only 50 miles away from the nation’s capital in Purcellville, Virginia.
Dave Woody’s selection as the portrait’s artist came with his first-prize win in the gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition in 2009. You can see the new portrait of Waters on the museum’s first floor near the G Street NW entrance.
January 13, 2012
San Francisco-based photographer Caren Alpert has captured mouth-watering shots of food, stylish portraits of chefs and glimpses of chic restaurant interiors for clients such as Bon Appetit, Saveur Magazine and the Food Network. But, beginning in 2008, she branched out from her editorial and catalog work to experiment in fine art.
Alpert has taken magnified photographs of foods, from Brussels sprouts to Lifesavers, using a scanning electron microscope at her alma mater, the University of Arizona. Titled “Terra Cibus,” meaning “nurturing from the earth,” the series, recently exhibited at the James Beard Foundation in New York, provides viewers a new, and often bizarre, look at familiar foods.
I spoke with Alpert about the project:
Can you describe the process of preparing the samples and getting the shot?
I choose the foods out here in San Francisco. I sort of curate them if you will. I decide what I want to shoot. I overnight them to the lab in Arizona. They go through a dehydration process and then a metal coating process. Depending on what the food is, the length of dehydration can yield a better result and different metals used in the coating can yield a different result. That is the preparation process.
With a scanning electron microscope you are photographing the surface of a subject or a specimen—in my case, food. I am basically photographing the electrons bouncing off of the surface.
What have been the most interesting foods under the microscope?
Have you gotten a sense of which foods are photogenic under the microscope and which are not?
I am getting better. But I wouldn’t say I am dead on 100 percent of the time.
I read that you tried a tortilla chip and it was boring looking. Have there been other duds?
Interestingly, it has been difficult to photograph meats and proteins. Bacon, for example—I thought it would be more interesting than it was at first pass. I am trying to find the best way to photograph foods like that, that are higher in fats.
What sort of editing do you do?
The machine captures in black and white only. We do a post-processing treatment back at the studio where we infuse the color of the original foods as best we can.
After photographing a shrimp tail, you went to a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to inquire about its feathery texture. Do you often take your photographs to outside experts?
Certainly when I am stumped, yes. I am trying to involve more information about what we are looking at. The shrimp tail was quite surprising. Because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a local gem for us, it was nice to be able to call on them, and they were very receptive to helping out. They were also very surprised to see the image. That is the part of the tail where you hold it and bite it off and then you throw the tail back on your plate. It is right there at that sort of cartilagey intersection.
What have you learned about food from these photographs?
How an unprocessed food or an organic food intakes water or air, you see a lot of that. Processed foods are very sharp and spiky, whereas unprocessed or more organic foods sort of have a repetitive pattern.
Has working on this series changed your own eating habits in any way?
No. Probably the biggest shock—but it hasn’t been enough to change my eating habits—is the French’s fried onions, which you sprinkle over your string bean casserole. They are really irregular and very violent looking compared to some of the others. You would think after seeing it, it would be enough to make you not want to eat them. But they are sort of a guilty pleasure. I snack on those occasionally.
Is healthy eating part of the goal? What do you hope viewers take away from the photographs?
I hope the viewers think about their own choices everyday or how they influence others around them. I got an email a few months ago from a man who said he and his two kids were on my website trying to guess all the foods. Then they would go back to their kitchen cupboards or refrigerator drawers to see if they had any of those foods at home. I think if it can encourage dialogue like that it is really interesting and successful.
I sort of like to encourage the viewer to look at it more aesthetically. I think people are so floored. “Oh my gosh, that is my lunch sandwich or that is my chocolate cake or that is my morning blueberries.” People are just fascinated. They are taken with the beauty of some foods and not others, of course. I got another email from a young woman in Spain who said that she and her boyfriend were fighting about images as art. She thought the images were beautiful and artistic, and he thought, oh, anyone can do that. They were having an argument about what makes art. That’s awesome, you know? It is really encouraging people to think about the parameters they put around those definitions.
More images can be seen at www.carenalpertfineart.com. Prints are available for purchase directly through the photographer.