Category Archives: obesity

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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The Naked Chef Exposed, part Trois!

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Three)

The television show is up to the third episode and the lists are STILL buzzing! The current crop of comments question why Jamie Oliver (now universally shortened among posters to the sexy/chic/intheknow acronym “JO”) isn’t being accepted (supposedly), why other food celebrities haven’t garnered as much interest as “JO”, and why it takes a food celebrity to excite people about school food. There have been articles in the NYT as well as a blog post from a school food activist in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/04/food-revolution-a-school-lunch-expert-reacts/38479/). Overall, there seems to be more support of JO, and less horror about the tone of the show. Regardless, a deep skepticism seems to exist, and I am still wondering why.

That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I do think I have a few reasons – they are probably not the only ones, but might be interesting to think about.

But first, I want to highlight the work of people who are doing something about school food. I’m only going to mention a few groups, so keep in mind there are HUNDREDS of people working to improve school food.

This anonymous blogger, a teacher, is eating school food everyday: http://www.grist.org/article/2010-04-04-underground-school-lunch-blogger-hits-good-morning-america/

Chef Bobo has been doing some amazing things with lunches at the Calhoun school: http://www.calhoun.org/page.cfm?p=2045.

The Renegade Lunch Lady is an inspiration to us all: http://www.chefann.com/

Here in Philadelphia there is the remarkable Urban Nutrition Initiative: http://www.urbannutrition.org/

And let’s not forget the Edible Schoolyard: http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/

So, to return to the query most recently heard on the lists, “will JO’s effort make a difference and why aren’t more people aware of these school lunch problems?” I’ll propose some reasons.

First, there are programs trying to create change, and they are doing so (see the list above, a few of many). Mostly these groups are operating on a small scale of one or several schools, so awareness outside of their catchment area is too often limited. While those of us in the food change world are VERY aware of them, much of the rest of the country is not. So JO is big news, and it seems like yes, indeed, he’s ‘starting’ a revolution.

Second, I think that just as Alice Waters gets people riled up, JO does as well because nobody likes to be told they are not performing optimally in matters of diet and health (see this story in the LA Times about Waters: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-alice-waters2-2010apr02,0,3120516.story?page=1). In other words, it’s not just that someone is telling others what to do, it’s that they are telling others what to do when the others know that they really – ahem – SHOULD be doing it already. Nagging is annoying, especially food/health nagging, which enters the moral identity sphere and makes everyone feel guilty.

But third and most important, I think the primary reason that JO’s program is getting so many knickers in a twist is that this is one of the VERY first times that the public is being made aware that school food problems are SYSTEMIC. To quote wholesale from one of the more recent ASFS posters “Jamie Oliver is opening the same can of worms that many others around the country are opening to try to change a broken entrenched system, in his case it’s on TV.  In my community mothers, teachers and community food activists are facing the same situations and obstacles as they question and try to address the complex nature of school lunch reform. Jamie has turned a spotlight on this problem and school lunch will become a topic of discussion in more households around the country because of this TV program, this is needed“.

Contemplating bad choices is one thing – and easily amended (Choose better! Be more responsible!) – but grappling with sure knowledge that the system is broken is frightening, because how and where does one start to fix the system when it seems intractably busted?

Most of the United State’s discourse about food is framed as personal choice; bad food is a bad choice and thus bad nutrition a personal issue, a personal problem, and (too often) considered a personal moral failing. Certainly this has been the message of previous attempts to change food habits, in particular the quite excellent TV show “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids”. This is a message that resonates nicely in our country, which eagerly embraces a YOYO (You’re On Your Own) as opposed to WITT (We’re In This Together”) health policy. Personal moral and food failures can be fixed in the YOYO world, but problems caused by broken systems are impossible to fix without embracing a WITT perspective. Because the JO Food Revolution TV show demonstrates that the problems are multi-causal and multi-sectoral (home, school administrators and employees, the USDA requirements, the food distribution system, public attitudes and the food industry) the viewer is left with the ugly and frightening realization that whole durned food system is going to have to change if little Johnny and Jane are going to be able to eat healthy food on a regular basis at home and in school. And that, dear reader, is a brand-new revelation for too many of the average TV audience. Yes, we’d think that Food Inc., Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the rest would have made that clear to the public but the – ahem – inconvenient truth is that they haven’t, because too much of what they expose can be understood within a ‘choose better’ framework. School lunches are where the capacity for choice ends, and the sure knowledge of loss of choice and agency is frightening, especially in a philosophically consumerist society. School food is the (a cliché, sorry) canary in the coal mine for our food system, and too many people are just waking up to the dearth of chirping. But worst of all, they are waking up to the knowledge that by working alone and singly (the Cowboy Metaphor) or choosing wisely (the Good Consumer Fantasy) they can’t make a difference. Fixing the system requires systemic solutions, which are only possible when a WITT philosophy is embraced. The idea that no man is an island unto himself is sometimes hard for Americans to accept.

It’s past time for a new socio-moral consensus of thought and action about food, and that’s a terrifying process to contemplate in a country that too often substitutes loud expressions of individual piety and descriptions of personal choice for moral action, and believes that only individual action can solve problems. How do we start to change the system, when we’ve stopped believing that the system exists?

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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The Naked Chef Exposed! (Part 2)

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Two)

So, the Jamie Oliver message seems to be causing great consternation amongst food scholars and activists. Both the ASFS and Comfood crowds have been batting the show about most unmercifully. Their comments fall into several broad categories; I haven’t statistically analyzed the content, so be kind and understand this is a method-free overview. However, given the sheer volume of Listserve posts, I COULD HAVE used any standard text analysis software, which in and of itself is something to ponder. As I do here.

The primary thread on ASFS started off with this subject line title: “’Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap” which certainly set the tone for the many posts that followed. The broad themes are as follows:

“We don’t need no stinkin’ advice”: By far the greatest volume of complaint is within this category, and perfectly summed by this quote, which occurred midway through the fray: “But judging from others’ takes on it, this program seems to be one in a long line depicting self-righteous British experts coming into Americans’ lives and homes and telling us what we’re doing wrong.” This was reiterated by a Guardian columnist, and refuted by a number of folks on the lists who insisted they had no trouble being told how to live by Brits, Italians, Outer Mongolians or any other group of foodie dogooders.

It’s not Feminist or Politically Correct: A theme built upon the chosen film site (a Southern, working-class town), linked to the funny hick accents of the townspeople, and bolstered by Jamie’s habits of calling people – especially the Lunch Ladies – by neo-disrespectful terms such as “hon” and “girls”. This was defended by several posters with the argument that Jamie is a product of his nation and class, which considers those phrases acceptable. If still annoying.

Various ad hominem attacks, from generalized Jamie-fatigue to critiques of celebrity chef hubris: this category mostly focused on queries about what and why a ‘celebrity chef’ (clearly written with dripping ichor) thinks he has the right to critique food use of children and families. See #1 above, add a soupcon of envy, and you’ve nailed the tone.

Queries about if he is successful: this set contains quite a lot of extraneous pro-and con information relating to research about school food, working-class diets, and the tyranny of health education. Various side posts about schools, class, food change and global media culture definitively ran the thread(s) right off the rails.

The need for more information about what people really do and really eat before we espouse change While most posts of this type blithely ignored the data pertaining to the subject already in existence (in the vein of ‘what do we really know about food use anyway?”), some (on ASFS in particular) pointed out where data are missing and called for more targeted studies.

Critiques of his message, largely relating to his insistence that ‘fresh and easy’ is easy to accomplish if you know how, including why is it or isn’t easy (with renewed divagation into contemplation of working-class lives and time budgets). The best part of this thread was the comparison of cooking from scratch to good sex and fast/frozen food to masturbation (it gets the job done, but….).

Discussions about how valueless reality TV is, and why this isn’t a good medium for creating real food use change, or that it is a good venue because: “unfortunately western culture is inspired by sound bites, celebrities and brands…if the message comes from ‘Victoria Beckham’ it has far more impact than Joe Schmoo who is an MP and has worked tirelessly on the same issues! I suppose the same can be said for the masses…who prefer entertaining reality TV over listening to a doctor or nurse ‘drone’ on about nutrition….”. Which neatly reified the condescending tone of the whole taradiddle.

And of course, the many additional posts to confirm that one already did do, or didn’t do, what Jamie espoused. Many of these were solidly self-congratulatory and (back to back) usually contradictory. The highlight was a link to a youtube video that lauded the work of the poster and dramatically asked why Jamie’s Food Revolution “didn’t teach people to cook”… thereby ignoring his “Pass it On” campaign, community education kitchens (Food Centres), and solid record of really quite good (and endearingly simplistic) cookbooks assuring readers that ‘cooking is easy, and you can do it!’

The most trenchant complaint was that by stating that the “Food Revolution Starts Here!” Jamie ignores all the important work done by other schools, groups and individuals around the country. Since this is a very legitimate gripe, I was surprised to see that it didn’t have legs in the thread wars. However, the obvious reason for this omission –  reality TV thrives on manufactured drama and dichotomies – was mentioned, although on the Comfood list there was some consternation that the producers hadn’t reached out to members of the school-food-change community before the show was filmed. However, as a result of this complaint the producers did invite various activists to participate in the last episode. We shall see what happens.

Many writers popped up to support him, and to remind others that he did indeed cause positive change in British schools. This encouraged a new set of posts, which questioned any changes, and cited studies demonstrating the opposite. Which led to posts citing studies that demonstrated that other methods like Jamie’s methods work, and can be linked to any number of positive outcomes. Further posts ensued, mentioning studies demonstrating a correlation between children preferring and eating fresh food and doing better in school. Today, one writer explained that Jamie’s Britishness was the reason for the hostility, and that “It’s a shame though because borders and nationality don’t really have a lot to do with all this, and what’s being missed here – and it worked in Britain – is a prime opportunity to overhaul some food habits that are simply killing people. What’s revolutionary about Oliver is that he’s a celebrity chef who’s genuinely interested in helping people and his track record is good.  Ah well, you can lead a horse to water…”

My take on this extended commentary and controversy will come in Part Three…. And in the meantime, don’t miss Episode Two: http://www.hulu.com/watch/138201/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-102#s-p1-so-i0

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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The Naked Chef Exposed!

Jamie Oliver in the news… and stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part One)

Last week provided a watershed moment in my inbox volume as message after message about Jamie Oliver’s new campaign for US school lunches clogged the box day after day (and still more today!). Both the ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) and Comfood (Community Food Security Coalition) lists were abuzz about that cheeky lad Jamie Oliver and his TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_oliver.html) and new TV show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Episode One can be found here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/136381/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-101). Building on the success of his British school reform he is starting off in Huntington, WV, the unhealthiest town in America (according to recent national mortality statistics), to bring rational eating patterns and healthier school lunches to the land of the deep-fried hushpuppy. The show is standard low-budget reality TV fare, with a sharply dichotomized problem (unwillingness to change habits vs. the realization that those food habits are causing obesity and morbidity), the usual crowd of emotional and supposedly self-reflective protagonists, and a fair bit of emotionalism from both Jamie and townspeople – all set in a post-industrial Southern blue-collar town. In addition to the supreme villain of entrenched food exceptionalism (who does this British kid think he is anyway, to come tell us in the US how to eat?) there are grumpy and offended lunch ladies, winsome children throwing away school lunch apples (but eating the chicken nuggets!), a family that eats nothing but fatty processed food, and grandstanding gestures such as lard in wheelbarrows and the ceremonial funeral of a deep-fat fryer. It’s the “A Team”, applied to food, and with only one team member – Jamie.

Quotes from the show will hopefully illustrate the tone:

Jamie:

“I’m talking about causing a big fuss and changing things. Change”

“The food revolution starts here”

“I want to be the polite English guy, but the first thing I see is pizza for breakfast”

“It tastes like starchy fluff with nuts in it – absolutely awful”

“The freezer was an Aladdin’s cave of processed crap; I didn’t know what most of it was, and when I don’t know what something is…”

“The bread the one thing that was made from scratch today and none of them are eating it”

 Or, this exchange between a Lunch Lady and Jamie:

“We have something wonderful called potato pearls” (LL)

“Is it really potatoes?” (JO)

“I hope so” (LL)

And this set of statements, between the mother of the family profiled and Jamie:

“I want my children to succeed in life and this isn’t going to get them there”

“Seeing that food scares me that I am opening my kids to a world of failure”

And the response, from Jamie: “She’s not a bad mum, she just needs help”

And Jamie is there, to provide the help; he immediately informs Mum and the kids that he is going to teach them to cook healthy affordable meals from scratch, and emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility for meals and cooking by telling the eldest son “You’re a man now, you can get there in that kitchen and you can knock out a dinner”. That might be a transgressive gender role instruction for a blue-collar town, but it certainly illustrates the importance of learning how to cook.

And he’s got additional help, in the form of Parson Steve Willis, who is tired of seeing his parishioners die young from nutrition-related disease. He’s got the school district on his side, allowing him to commandeer school kitchens to serve food from scratch, and he’s got his boundless high spirits and sense of doing good to nurture him in the dark hours, when his adversaries attack. Allied against him are the Lunch Ladies, a comically hick local radio jock, and a school filled with willful imps who prefer processed food to fresh, whole ingredients prepared from scratch. After contemplating his ‘haters’ Jamie cries in a playground, overwhelmed by the reality that they don’t see how much he cares.

So yes, it’s standard reality show pablum, except…except…except…. that Jamie is right.

The school food is processed, low-nutrient junk, the profiled home’s cooked meals contain nothing but copious amounts of fat, low-end meat protein, sugar, and starch, the town is filled with obese people, and the health statistics demonstrate a dire present and even more doomed future. So why is everyone up in arms about this show? 

Coming soon, in Part Two of The Naked Chef Exposed I will examine the food world’s Listserve responses….

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

Picture courtesy of Emily Yates-Doerr

Try this as a thought experiment: Imagine a store that sells broccoli and doughnuts, along with everything else a grocery store sells.  Now, let’s manipulate the prices of those two items to see whether or not we can get people to buy more or less of each.  Why?  Well, we are going to assume that broccoli is healthier than doughnuts and we want to find out if we can get people to buy more of the former than the latter.  Of course, we can probably use price to influence these purchases.  But wait, you might say, that is silly.  Nobody substitutes broccoli for doughnuts.  People buy them for entirely different occasions.   And you might add that just buying them doesn’t tell us much.  Do people who buy broccoli actually eat it before it rots in the fridge?  Do they smother it in butter or cheese?  Is there someone out there who ponders whether or not to have doughnuts rather than broccoli with their steak?  Clearly this experiment leaves a lot of relevant information out of the picture.  We probably would not want to use this sort of experiment to figure out how to address obesity in the U.S.

One of the key insights of nutritional anthropology—of all anthropology, really—is that human behavior can best be understood holistically.  This means that food consumption choices, for example, can rarely be explained by only one thing, like price.  To understand why people purchase items at a grocery store—and why they later consume them, assuming they do—we need to look at the social relations those items help create and maintain, as well as the meanings people attach to particular goods.  We also want to put the whole set of transactions and meanings into historical and political-economic context.

In other words, when you buy broccoli or doughnuts, there is a lot of explaining to be done.  And if we, as a society, decide that we are too fat, we need to look very carefully at the whole context of fatness in figuring out what kinds of policies might help address the problem (for one good take on that, check out the wonderful book Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley).

About a week ago, National Public Radio ran a story on an effort to encourage grocery store shoppers to buy healthier food.  The journalist, Allison Aubrey, cited a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo who set up an entire fake supermarket and then recruited some mothers to shop there.  They supplied the mothers with money and then manipulated prices on items they (the researchers) decided were healthy and junk in order to see if they could influence choices.  They discovered that prices can have an impact, although they also found out that the mothers would still buy “junk” if they had money left over after purchasing reduced price broccoli.  The reporter also found a “behavioral economist” who, citing a “theory of loss aversion,” said he found this behavior (by the mothers, not the researchers) unsurprising.

As far as I know, they did not study whether or not anyone ate any of the stuff they bought.

This is stunning, you have to admit.  No, not the price sensitivity.  I think that is pretty obvious.  Rather, the idea that researchers would set up an entire fake grocery store.  Why not study how people really shop, in real stores?  Why not see what they do with the food they buy?  And find out what their families do with it?  Maybe even ask them about it.  No, not in a survey.  Not even in a focus group.  Go watch them.  Hang out with them.  Follow them around.  Check out differences between what they think they do, say they do…and really do.  The fake grocery store merely allows researchers—perhaps this is what behavioral economists do—to assume away big chunks of social, cultural and historic context.  It turns out, of course, that there are anthropologists who have studied consumption practices in a more holistic manner.  Daniel Miller and colleagues (check out the Material World blog) have done some great work in this area, for example.  And read this brilliant story about what happens when an anthropologist observes a family actually eating breakfast.

The vigilant team here at FoodAnthropology has found even more fantastic recent work by anthropologists that help put these choices in context.  Amy Paugh and Carolina Izquierdo recently published work on the battles between parents and children over what constitutes healthy dining in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (“Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction,”2009, vol. 19, number 2).  Joylin Namie has produced some very useful recent work on the role children play in family food choices, writing recently in Anthropology News that “When it comes to food in US households, children may not be driving the car, but they are often driving the cart” (“The Power of Children Over Household Consumption,” 2008, volume 49, number 4, pages 11-12).  Price, it turns out, is only one factor in determining why people buy food.  We need, as these anthropologists (and many others) show, to pay attention to what people really do and to why they do it if we want to develop policies that will really address obesity.

Otherwise we may as well be comparing broccoli and doughnuts.

Posted by David Beriss.

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