Saturday, 17 October 2015

Food (Again)

The subject of this week's rant is Food. Again. Only this time it's not about LittleBear and Food, it's about Other People and Food. It's about the complete and utter tripe that people write about food, about what's good for you and what's not, and why. It's about my irritation with a world that has degenerated into soundbite-education, where complex ideas are washed over and replaced with buzzwords and fads.

Eat organic food because Nature provides the right balance of nutrients! No it doesn't. Nature provides the fly agaric mushroom, the puffer fish, belladonna, arsenic, cyanide and other poisons without number. Nature doesn't give a damn about you or your nutritional requirements. Nature would as soon you were eaten by a bear as have you consume organic fair-trade wholewheat pasta. There are a wide range of perfectly good reasons for eating organic food, like reducing the level of pesticides in our environment, or improving the safety of farm workers, or limiting the quantity of synthetic hormones we're exposed to. Random anthropomorphism of an abstract concept is not a good reason.

Don't eat chemicals, chemicals are bad! Everything's a chemical, get over it. And the fact that it may be synthesised by humans doesn't necessarily make it any better or worse than something naturally occurring. (See arsenic, cyanide etc above) There are plenty of man-made additions to my food that I am more than happy to accept. I quite like using self-raising flour, with added bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartare. I find salt a pretty good additive, and it's not all going to be sea salt. How about vinegar? Where are you going to draw the line between man-made chemicals against naturally occurring? How industrial does the process need to be? Is it OK to ferment my grape juice?

Don't eat anything you can't pronounce! This one really bugs me, as a trite way of trying to condense down some complex ideas about synthetic additives and healthy eating. It bugs me because I happen to be quite capable of pronouncing Pyridoxal 5'-phosphate without batting an eyelid, but am still a little uncertain on the Guardian-approved pronunciation of quinoa. (That first one is vitamin B6 by the way). It bugs me because, as in the vitamin B6 example, there are some really, really good things to have in your diet that just happen to have quite complex names. Even I might stumble a little halfway through (2S)-2-[[4-[(2-amino-4-oxo-1H-pteridin-6-yl) methylamino] benzoyl] amino] pentanedioic acid, but I was more than happy to ingest folic acid supplements throughout my pregnancy.

So, how about this for an idea? How about we start talking like grown-ups? How about we demand higher standards from the media in terms of using real, scientifically-literate language? How about we attempt to wrap our tiny little minds around the possibilities of complexity and nuance and subtlety? How about we consider the possibility of moderation and compromise instead of black and white? Let's stop declaring that because some man-made additives are pretty awful and some merely of dubious nutritional value, it therefore follows that everything mankind has ever synthesised chemically is tantamount to being the work of the devil. And while we're at it, we could even acknowledge that Nature is a pretty dab hand at making really, really, really nasty poisons, so let's not paint her as the heroine of the piece either. Go on, have a go, just for me.


  1. I occasionally offer to HELP people pronounce things! Usually I can draw a diagram even! Somehow this is not met with approbation.

    Another of Nature's fine creations: poison ivy. Because it's not deterministic, yo.

    1. It's funny how often people don't seem to appreciate diagrams isn't it? Life is so much easier with the aid of a handy diagram or two, and yet it still seems to be inappropriate in a social setting...

  2. Yeah, why don't people like diagrams?

    This baffled me when I was a kid, because my Dad is a chartered mechanical engineer, so everything came with a diagram. I still feel a great sense of liberating naughtiness when I throw an envelope into the recycling instead of carefully cutting off the front part to join a pile of useful scrap paper for having diagrams drawn on it... there were little piles and pens in most rooms of the house...