What EM Is Thinking

Frequent FoodAnthropology book reviewer Ellen Messer has sent us this eclectic collection of comments and insights into recent food and nutrition related news. We hope to be able to publish more commentary from food and nutrition anthropologists on current events and public policy in coming months.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

16 Jan 17. What’s news? New York Times

Sugary sodas account for 10% of one grocery chain-store food tabs of SNAP beneficiaries, whose receipts show they also buy lower amounts of fruits and vegetables than non-SNAP consumers.  Will this convince law makers to dis-allow sugary beverages as SNAP purchases?  Or will lawmakers use this as an excuse to cut SNAP benefits so government food-and-nutrition benefits don’t contribute to chronic-disease inducing high consumption of sugars?  Nutritionist and food-policy analyst Marion Nestle sounded off against the evil, sugary beverage industry lobbyists, with support from David Ludwig, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s New Balance Obesity Prevention Center.  Another critical voice is Michele Simon, a public-health lawyer, who railed against government (and taxpayer) subsidized sugar and diet-related disease.  In the past, surprising voices against restrictions have included the Food Research and Action Center, which resists any policy change that might stigmatize low-income SNAP beneficiaries.  Perhaps they are also thinking that stigma might resonate with those who want to cut SNAP benefits—period.

Do those who analyze food purchases and dietary intakes have the right methodologies? Should sugar intakes be restricted for everyone? If so, how?

Gary Taubes, a food writer whose earlier book demonizing nutritionists as a large part of the problem of establishing fat over sugar as the culprit, has spent an additional four years trying to understand the science behind sugar’s debilitating impacts (see Chef/Sustainable Food Advocate Dan Barber’s NYTimes review).  Taube’s basic contextual arguments are as follows: Since the 1960s, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic disease have become worldwide epidemics.  He thinks surging intakes of refined sugar, a category that includes cane, beet, and high-fructose corn sugar, is the cause.  His research traces increasing intakes everywhere. In the US, big intakes of sugar followed the earliest Surgeon General’s report and associated Dietary Guidelines advising Americans to eat less fat, especially saturated (animal) fats.  The food industry happily complied, by reformulating products that contained less fat, especially saturated fat, but contained more sugar.  To substantiate the science, Taubes zeros in on the different ways the body metabolizes different sugars.  The arguments, and a continuing diatribe against professional nutritionists who insist that calories do count, and that sugar alone can’t be blamed, so aid and abet the sugar industry, can be accessed here.  There is also a badly edited, earlier video that features Taubes with Tufts Nutrition Dean Mozaffarian, available here.

Although Taubes accepts the nutritional wisdom that individuals and populations differ genetically on their capacities to metabolize foods and their nutritional components, he favors a tobacco analogy that asserts there is no safe level of refined sugar intake.  The biological key to understanding why sugar is so toxic concerns its metabolism and impact on insulin function, the pancreas and liver, and resulting skewing of energy use and fat storage in all foods.  This biochemical process is still incompletely understood, and may involve not only sugar’s direct impact on human biology but also the consequences of not eating certain foods that protect against sugar’s harmful effects.  As a former chain smoker, who has weaned himself off tobacco but for years used nicotine patches to dull the craving, he favors complete elimination of sugar; i.e. “no safe level” although he recognizes this is unrealistic given that sugar is an ingredient in most foods.  (This was one place where his culinary knowledge was faulty, because sugar not only contributes “sweetness” but also binds other flavors together, which is why it appears in recipes for sauces and stews.  Before sugar production and processing became part of the colonial Triangular Trade, it was a valuable spice that was used sparingly like other relatively expensive spices.)  He also demonstrated an unwillingness to think more completely or complexly about the combinations of sugar plus other foods that might be skewing nutrient utilization.  Other likely contributing factors are separated vegetable fats that enter the food stream at greater scale during the same period, after the 1960s, when overweight up-ticks dangerously along with chronic disease. Other possibilities are more hormones or chemical additives or unintentional toxins in animal products. In general terms, he does wonder whether there is something missing in the diet that might have been protective, including fats of various types.  This dietary gap is intrinsic to Tufts Nutrition Dean Dariush Mozaffarian ’s argument that the epidemiological data does not rule out high consumption of sugar, as opposed to fat, as a risk factor for heart and other chronic diseases.  Taubes’ response is that sugar is the common denominator everywhere, but especially sugary beverages.  These other foods are not necessarily present or part of the epidemiological picture everywhere in the world. But I wonder, as I think not only of sugar and alcohol, but fry bread that is part of Native American foods, and all the hush puppies and other fried foods that are typical in African American diets.

I sense nutrition shares with agricultural sciences the dilemma that existing methodologies do not allow researchers to ask more complex questions about diet.  The equations handle one or at most two or a few dietary factors at a time.  In dietary studies, researchers also aggregate primary and secondary foods in what may be unhelpful ways.  Thus, USDA researchers, analyzing SNAP vs. non-SNAP food-purchase data from the receipts of a major food chain, find that SNAP recipients, in aggregate, purchase soft drinks as 10% of their food expenses.  This does not count the beverages purchased at corner convenience stores or prepared food venues.  The rest of the tallies reveal 80 percent of the tabs go for primary (40%) and secondary (40%) food staples, two categories that overlap in that “milk” is counted as a primary staple but “dairy” is a secondary staple.  Legumes overlap primary and secondary.  Nutritionists such as Marion Nestle champion reduction and preferably elimination of sugary beverages in diets. This is not going to happen, but what could change?  How might nutritionists adjust their methods (“cluster analysis”) to take into account fuller dietary patterns?

Meanwhile, laboratories in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are trying to reduce (red) meat consumption for any number of environmental, ideological, or political reasons. Laboratory efforts to mimic beef burgers with microbial ingredients has become a growth industry for food chemists and sensory experts and food-studies (especially social and cultural studies in the history of science and technology) researchers who track and compare the motivations, terms of analysis, and sensory and economic results of such lab-meat efforts.  The latest entry concerns “Impossible Burgers” which contain a clone of “heme” iron, which is what gives meat burgers their flavor.  The article also includes a video, which makes the burgers seem (to me) quite unappealing.

Sensory analysts are also busy developing more flavorful berries.  An engaging professional profile describes the passionate expertise of one Driscoll employee, who applies the lessons learned in his UC Davis undergraduate concentration Nutrition, and two master’s degrees; one in nutrition biology, a second in food science and technology.

Father writes to ethicist—my son, after one season at a pricey Ivy League university, is passionate about sustainable agriculture and says he wants to be a farmer.  Is it acceptable for me, the father who is paying the bills, to be upset?  The ethicist (Anthony Appiah) replies: did you contract for a major investment career when you invested in his college education?  He will yet hob-nob with the children of millionaires and major investment-house officials. In any case, sustainable food enterprise or farming are respectable and ethical occupations…

Finally, in preparation for the inauguration of Donald Trump:

  • Go back a week to food-writer Corby Kummer’s review of three recent books on the history of U.S. food culture. It suggests that the overall theme in American food history is to welcome immigrants.
  • On evolved or un-evolved behaviors, check the January 16, 2017 science and culture reflections by an NPR correspondent, who cites interpretations of Donald Trump’s character by primatologists and ethnographers of foragers. These traits are consistent with non-human and human primates asserting dominance, like a would-be alpha male (chimp) leading his troop, or a forager bragging about his success as a hunter bringing down prey.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, applied anthropology, Food Studies, nutrition

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