Gulp by Mary Roach

13615414Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton, 2013. 348 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”, Roach’s book guides readers on the journey of their food — from the saliva generated at the smell of food to the stomach and then onto the colon and the way out. The path isn’t without a few side trips to answer questions like can one survive being swallowed alive, can the gas you pass be set on fire, and can you really eat yourself to death?

Bizarre-sounding? Maybe, but I enjoy learning random pieces of information that I can then share as “fun facts of the day”. And Roach makes the alimentary canal a far more fascinating place than I ever thought possible. Some of the more interesting facts I gleamed from reading this book (or, at least ones I can publicly share without attracting the spambots):

  • Like us, dogs are attracted to food based on smell, but what smells good to us is not actually what attracts them to food. (Nearly rotten meat is a pet favorite!) Same situation with cats, although they ultimately decide what to eat based on taste. An entire facility — complete with taste-testing dogs and cats — is decided to cracking the code.
  • Food preferences are largely set by the age of ten and are decided by the people around you. Namely, by the “gatekeeper” who (is presumed) to do all the shopping and cooking — mom.
  • In 1901, a man named Horace Fletcher tried to get the general public to adopt an intense regime of chewing — 722 bites for a shallot — because he believed chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies could help the eater absorb double the nutrients. And, if people received more nutrients per meal, they wouldn’t need to spend as much on food.
  • Your brain calibrates its understanding of “full” based on how much food you regularly eat. If you feel full more quickly after eating less, it is because your tolerance for food has diminished overtime. This “tolerance” affects the feedback loops stimulated for hormone and enzyme production.

Roach’s conversational tone makes it easy to understand some of the more difficult chemistry and biology concepts discussed in this book. (It only took me so long to read the book because the topic made it a distinctly bad choice for my lunch break.) Yet some of levity is a bit unnecessary. I don’t need to know how sexy or dull the scientists she’s conversing with, and there were certain chapters — the one about William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin, especially — when I wished there was more of a serious, technical bent to her writing.

That said, I enjoyed learning more about the part of the body that’s often derided and ignored, and I’d gladly pick up another one of Roach’s books. Probably as an audiobook since that seems like a better fit for her writing style.

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The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz

Subtitled “Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet”, Teicholz’s book documents how the low fat diet became the national – and thanks to America’s outsized influence on that global food system, international – nutrition diet nearly sixty years ago. With rates of heart disease skyrocketing, nutritionists and scientists assumed correction meant causation decreeing that fat, especially saturated fat, were to blame. Yet while rates of heart disease have declined over the past six decades, rates of obesity have increased tremendously and the general health of the American population has declined even as more and more Americans adhere to a low fat diet.

“A review in 2008 of all studies of the low-fat diet by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that there is ‘no probable or convincing evidence’ that a high level of fat in the diet causes heart disease or cancer. And in 2013 in Sweden, an expert health advisory group, after spending two years reviewing 16,000 studies, concluded that a diet low in fat was an ineffective strategy for tackling either obesity or diabetes.” (pg. 172)

The assumption of causation were based on epidemiological studies – that is, the study of people’s behaviors and eating habits – yet the major studies cited in support of the low fat diet would not pass a basic research methods course. Interviewees were studied during Lent when their eating habits would change based on religious edict; interviewees were overwhelming middle-age males. And the statistical significance of their conclusions were well within the acceptance rate – a 1.9 significance in a study that admitted to having a plus or minus 2 points variation.

The studies were also some of the first published in the United States giving the authors an inflated stature within the medical community such that their studies went unquestioned for decades. New studies or those that seemed to contradict the connection between a high fat diet and poor health were criticized in the opinion pages of journals of lower ranking and were largely ignored by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association, which maintained close ties with the original research, Ancel Keys, who determined low fat diets reduced the instances of heart disease.

High fat diets have also been associated with a higher rate of breast cancer; a tenuous link largely disproven by Walter Willet’s 1987 Nurses’ Health Study, which found that the more fat (particularly saturated fat) the nurses ate, the less likely they were to develop breast cancer. Willet’s study was dismissed by the director of the National Cancer Institute in an opinion piece where he argued that data from rats proved a high fat diet induced mammary tumors. Yet the director failed to mention that the most effective fats for growing tumors were polyunsaturated – the same fats found in vegetable oils Americans were being encouraged to use instead of animal-based fats (pg. 167).

This is one of the few examples of a study in which women were studied because, as Teicholz explains, women were excluded from most clinical and epidemiological studies because the heart disease epidemic initially affected more men than women. Yet this exclusion has continued with women representing only 20 percent of participants in studies until 1990 and only 25 percent thereafter (pg. 159). Yet women are expected to follow advice based on studies involving rats or men.

Children are also feed a low-fat diet; 88 percent of mothers in 1995 believed a low-fat diet was “important” or “very important” for their infants and 83 percent said they sometimes or always avoid giving fatty foods to their children (pg. 150). Yet there is no scientific evidence to back up the suggestion that children should avoid fats, particularly saturated fats.

Avoiding these fats means Americans have focused on utilizing vegetable oils and replaced the fats from meat, eggs, milk, and cheese in their diets with more carbohydrates, the bases of both the USDA’s food pyramid and the Mediterranean Diet. Carbohydrates wreak havoc on the body’s ability to process insulin, which then causes the body to store fat rather than burn it and leads to increased waist lines.

The anti-carbohydrates diet was, of course, made famous by Robert C. Atkins , and Teicholz spends a chapter examining how the medical establishment responded to Atkins diet. She points out some of the flaws with the diet and the lack of studies to back up its assertions, but she seems to be largely in favor of the diet over the heavily championed Mediterranean Diet, which she also focuses on in its own chapter.

Obviously, I learned quite a bit from this book. It turned everything I have ever read on the topic of obesity and the American food system on its head, and I would heartily recommend it on that point alone. It is not always the easiest book to follow – a bit repetitive, a bit unclear – and there are some chapters that could have been trimmed or cut all together to made it a clearer read. Teicholz engages in some of the same manipulation of (bad) data to fit her argument, but those moments are rather obvious. And beyond the implications for personal and public health policy, I think the book would make an interesting addition to any college research methodology class because of the questions it raises about how science and statistics can be fallible and manipulated.

Book Mentioned:

  • Teicholz, Nina. The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print. 480 pgs. ISBN: 9781451624427. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster. Retrieved: December 23, 2014.

The Coke Machine by Michael Blanding

I am horribly addicted to Coca Cola. I can easily down six or seven cans (or, their equivalent at a restaurant) without batting an eye, which obviously places me in the “heavy user” category by The Coca Cola Company.

I have tried many times over the past six years to kick the habit going cold turkey for ten weeks or ten months until I convince myself that my birthday or graduation or general stress or the fact that I do not smoke or drink means I should be able to have a can of Coke. Of course, one leads to one a day and then one a day leads to a can of Coke with my morning snack, my lunch, my dinner, and before bed. (And then I wonder why I can’t fall asleep.)

I know Coca Cola is bad for me; I have read multiple books arguing against the product based solely on health. But I still struggle not to reach for the product at every turn, and I had hoped in picking up this book that Blanding would offer an argument to help compel me to pick the habit once and for all. Unfortunately, the book relies on a narrative constructed for the filmiest strings and failed to convince me that Coke is worse for anything but my own personal health.

Blanding’s argument takes a three prong approach: Coca-Cola’s use of advertising to promote its unhealthy product, the relationship with its bottlers and links to paramilitary groups in Colombia, and water in both the bottled form and the production of its flagship products. The first prong was the most interesting and the most convincing, although I was largely familiar with the history of Coca-Cola and its use of advertisement. Clearly, utilizing Santa and adorable polar bears are going to teach children that the product is good for them because the associate good with those images.

But my interest during this section was piqued as Blanding detailed the ironclad, exclusive contracts public schools districts signed with Coca Cola in the United States. We had vending machines for Coca Cola products in my public middle school and public high school with varying access rules (i.e. only on afterschool in middle school) and the argument was that selling these products help cash strapped schools finance their students education. However, Blanding cites multiple examples and combs through several contracts to show how untrue this claim is.

The last two prongs, especially the sections on the death of union leaders in South America, are where the argument begins to fall apart. Blanding attempts to draw a direct line where one does not exist, and I found it difficult to follow his logic as he argued that Coca Cola was responsible for a manager of its bottling plant (which is a separate entity from the flagship corporation) fighting against a union in such despicable ways. I mean, no company wants to encourage their workers to unionize but that does not mean they are circling internal memos instructing their managers to kill union organizers. Fire them, yes, but I doubt kill them. Blanding readily admits that his proof is weak, that other companies in Colombia engaged in far worse tactics.

Bottled water is a crock; the product is rarely cleaner than tap water and provides no added benefits. In fact, the plastic bottles contribute to the trashing of our environment and require massive amounts of energy inputs including oil to produce. However, I have read more convincing and detailed arguments against bottled water than the one presented in this book, which read like an addition to stretch out a tired argument. There was nothing new or groundbreaking within the text about this particular product of the Coca Cola Company or about the company in general.

I listened to the audiobook read by George K. Wilson, whose monotone voice failed to make the subject matter more interesting or engaging. Even the chapters on Colombia’s civil war and the violence there were read in the same tone as the legal examination of Coca Cola’s contracts with public schools.

Book Mentioned:

  • Blanding, Michael. The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink. Read by George K. Wilson. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, 2010. Audiobook. 13 hours, 3 minutes. ISBN: 9781400118946. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Tantor Media. Retrieved: November 30, 2014.

Books About Food Politics

I’ve written two theses on industrial agriculture, food politics, obesity, and American eating habits yet I still do not feel like I can truly call myself an expert. There are still so many books to read on the topic, so many books still to be written. But if there is a topic I constantly find myself suggesting nonfiction books for, it would be food politics (or, the more sinister sounding “Industrial Agriculture”).

Most people have heard of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan so I left it off my list of suggested reading below, and I tried to provide a mix of styles of nonfiction — narrative, academic, etc — so there is hopefully something for everyone. Of course, limiting myself to eight books means I’m only showing you the tip of the iceburg so I encourage anyone interesting in food to peruse my “food” category for additional titles. Or maybe you have one to recommend me?

foodbooks

  • Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss) — Moss utilizes examples from some of the most recognizable and profitable food companies and brands of the last half century — Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Oreos, Cargill, Capri Sun — to explain how the average American ended up here. His book inspired many conversations with friends and acquaintances and is one of the few I have been able to apply to my eating habits.
  • Fast Food Nation (Eric Scholsser) — If I had to select one book that revolutionized how I “vote” for food, it would be Scholsser’s exposes on the fast food industry. Until Moss’ book, this was the book I would put forth as the best one to begin with.
  • America’s Food (Harvey Blatt) — This book is exactly what I was looking for when I launched the Honors Project back in 2012 and is probably the most academic title on this list. It is, however, one of the few books to compare the problems of the US food system with those around the (developed) world or assess consumption on a nation-wide scale.
  • Animal Factory (David Kirby) — I appreciate how Kirby does not demonize the farmer or the consumer. Instead, he concentrates on how the system as a whole is broken shying away from animal rights and focusing on the environmental and health problems derived from factory farming of meat.
  • The Big Fat Surprise (Nina Telcholz) — I’m cheating a bit because I have not actually read this title. It is on my to-read list and was heavily referenced in Moss’ book. From my understanding, the book looks at the, according to Telcholz, sketchy science behind the declaration that people avoid fatty foods such as butter. And who doesn’t want an excuse to use real butter in their recipes?
  • Bottled and Sold (Peter H. Gleick) — What I liked best about Gleick’s book, which examines bottled water, was how accessible it is. There’s no complicated jargon that makes it difficult to understand the situation.
  • Food Politics (Marion Nestle) — The amount of information contained in this book can be slightly overwhelming, but Nestle is the one author who succinctly dismantles the idea that the responsibility for obesity begins and ends with an individual. I also love her chapter on the food pyramid (now a plate) and how the food industry manipulated it to confuse the consumer.
  • Tomatoland (Barry Estabrook) — By focusing on a single item, Estabrook is able to cover all the hidden aspects of industrial agriculture — its dependence upon illegal immigration, the deplorable working conditions, the bland taste of America’s produce. One of the most shocking facts I gleamed from this book is that consumers cannot achieve variety by purchasing grape or cheery tomatoes instead of slicing tomatoes because each so-called variation in the American grocery story is from the same type of tomato and only differ in appearance.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Child’s memoir was placed on my mental to-read list after the release of the film “Julie and Julia” in 2009, but I was only recently reminded of this when I spied the audiobook read by Kimberly Farr on the shelf at the public library. In the book, Child explains how she fell in love with French food in the fall of 1948 during her very first meal in the country after her ship docked in Le Havre en route to Paris and how that love turned her into the most famous cook in America.

Although Child previously worked for the United States Information Agency (precursor to the CIA) in China, where she met her husband Paul during World War II, she moved to Paris without a job in the agency or an understanding of the French language and immediately became bored. Determined to become fluent in the language and utterly in love with the cuisine, Child enrolls in the Cordon Bleu and learns how to master the art of French cooking, which she eventually parlays into a renowned cookbook for American cooks and the very first cooking show on television.

Compiled from interviews between Child and Alex Prud’homme, her husband’s grandnephew, during the last eight months of her life, the book was completed and published by Prud’homme in 2006 following her death in August 2004. Yet the novel never loses Child’s voice — I felt as though as I was having a conversation with her — and her love of French cuisine and the French people is conveyed with gusto and infectious enthusiasm. Leaves me with the desire to run out, buy Child’s cookbook, and make beef bourguignon and French bread.

The memoir is told with impressive detail making Paris, Marseilles, and Provence of the 1940s and 1950s seem charming, quaint, and alive yet what struck me was how different her recollections of life in France are with my own. Paris in the twenty-first century is filled with chains — American and non-American, alike — and I never experienced the atmosphere surrounding food that she so fondly recollects, although I did try many of the dishes she praises in this text. A bit odd to experience nostalgia for a time over sixty years past, but I suppose it is testimony to the writing of Child and Prud’homme that they managed to make me feel this way.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Child, Julia with Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. Read by Kimberly Farr. New York: Books on Tape, 2006. Audiobook. 11 hrs, 17 minutes. ISBN: 9781415927243. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Books on Tape. Retrieved: October 12, 2014.