New Statesman
July 18, 2005


Food for thought: panic attacks.

By William Skidelsky

Unless you drink two litres of water a day, your body won't be
properly hydrated. People in the west consume far too much salt,
increasing their risk of high blood pressure. Non-organic foods are
covered in harmful pesticides. The incidence of obesity would be
drastically reduced if only we stopped gorging on Big Macs.

Many people would regard all of the above claims as true. After all,
they are repeated incessantly in the media, by health officials and in
general conversation. They have become nuggets of wisdom that shape
our understanding of the relationship between what we eat and the
healthiness of our bodies. So they must be true, mustn't they?

Well, not according to the authors of a bold new book: Panic Nation:
unpicking the myths we're told about food and health (John Blake).
Edited by two biochemists, Stanley Feldman and Vincent Marks, it sets
out to demonstrate that, when it comes to food, we are collectively
the victims of an incredible amount of hogwash.

The basic problem, according to the authors, is that our society is in
thrall to the "precautionary principle". Ours is a worse-case-scenario
mentality whereby any small or medium-sized risk is converted into a
portent of near-certain catastrophe. Relatively trivial dangers --
such as the recent Sudan 1 scandal -- are magnified out of all
proportion. Food is a natural focus for scaremongering, since it is
common to everyone. According to Feldman and Marks, this is why so
many of us believe that the food we eat is killing us, even though
life- expectancy is longer than at any time in human history.

It is hard not to concede that they have a point. The tone of the book
may be trenchant, but the arguments are sensible and even-handed. The
authors do not deny that the food we eat affects us, or that it is
important to eat healthily. What they do say is that our ability to
look rationally at the issues is hampered by the prevalence of all
sorts of myths. The chapter on junk food is particularly thought-
provoking. The term "junk food", it is suggested, is an oxymoron,
since if a substance has nutritional value, then by definition it
cannot be junk. Fat is fat, whether it comes from processed ground
beef or from an Aberdeen Angus steak. Big Macs may not be good for
you, but they are not outrageously unhealthy either: in fact, they
contain roughly the same calories as a Safeway tomato, chicken and
basil salad.

Fine, but does this matter? Is it really a problem if we exaggerate
the danger of Big Macs? Well, Feldman and Marks would retort, it does
matter, because it changes the way we view an issue such as obesity.
At present, the responsibility for obesity is placed squarely at the
door of a group of foods that we arbitrarily choose to label "junk".
If these foods were banned, or at the very least taxed, then obesity
would disappear. In fact, the issue is more complex. A number of
factors cause obesity, among them exercise levels, metabolism and
diet. Whether or not a person habitually visits McDonald's may not be
all that important.

The book makes other provocative claims. Pesticides are not present in
large enough quantities to be remotely dangerous. The virtues of
organic food are largely mythical, as are the hazards of GM. And as
for fluid intake, it seems that you can safely put that bottle of
mineral water away. Of the two litres the average person requires
daily, half is provided as an inevitable consequence of the food they
eat, and the rest by two cups of coffee and a glass of beer.

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