You are what you refuse to eat. However broad we may claim our tastes to be, all societies have foods that disgust or intimidate them: substances that can theoretically be eaten for nourishment but which, if eaten, would mark the consumer as ignorant, gross, unclean, unfit for human company, and (possibly) racially inferior. Whales, dogs, frogs, locusts, and horses all provide protein to some human communities somewhere, although even discussing those creatures as menu items can make many Western readers queasy—just as unsettled, in fact, as religious Muslims and Jews become in the presence of pork or ham. These fears are richly illustrative for social attitudes. Sometimes the dislike can have religious roots; sometimes it reflects human attitudes toward one particular kind of animal, although not to its near-related kin; and sometimes it claims to be based on a conviction that the food in question is actively harmful or dangerous.
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As modern society notionally extols science as its chief source of objective wisdom, it is not surprising that our own food taboos often arise from scientific claims. The problem, of course, is that scientific certainty is a very malleable thing. Anyone who saw Woody Allen’s 1973 film Sleeper will recall how scientists in the far future struggle to comprehend the preferences of a 1970s health food aficionado. But surely, they ask in wonderment, did he not have access to deep fat, to steak, cream pies, and fudge? Was there really a time when such wonderful foods were regarded as dangerous and unhealthy? That is exactly the opposite of what we know in our own enlightened 22nd century.
In his engaging, thoroughly researched, and well-written study Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein offers a history of the major themes in pseudo-scientific dietary alarmism since the late 19th century. He focuses chiefly on the United States, suggesting in effect that Americans over the past 130 years or so have been subjected to successive waves of alimentary terrorism, which have instilled into them something like a pathological fear of food. (I would question this exceptionalism: Europeans are not less subject to food panics, they just succumb to different ones). While several of these panics have subsided or been discredited, other very similar concerns still haunt us today. And even those earlier concerns that are supposedly dead and exorcised have left relics in the form of popular folklore about Good and Bad Foods.
Although he could have taken any number of examples, Levenstein wisely focuses on several main case-studies, each of which had at its center a leading advocate who boldly publicized claims about a particular menace—in social science terms, these figures were moral entrepreneurs, who in their way tried to reshape society as comprehensively as an industrial entrepreneur like Henry Ford. One such was Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian who proved to his own satisfaction the dangers posed by harmful bacteria multiplying in the colon. This caused the dreadful condition of “autointoxication,” which caused human beings to die in their 70s and 80s instead of enjoying the 140-year lifespan to which they were naturally entitled. (Metchnikoff, I am happy to report, died at age 71.) Although the long-term solution to the problem was self-evidently the surgical removal of the colons of most patients, society might take years to reach the cultural maturity to accept such drastic measures. In the meantime, anyone desiring health and longevity needed dietary change, and above all a recognition of the benefits of that obscure miracle food, “yogurt.”
Among his other claims to fame, Metchnikoff pioneered what would become a familiar habit among food advocates, by identifying a distant people somewhere around the globe whose healthy natural diet prevented them from acquiring Western ailments. Although Metchnikoff pointed to supposedly long-lived Balkan shepherds as his exemplars, later generations would find equal wonders among primitive peoples in the Caucasus or Himalayas—peoples whose healthful reputations endured until any more critical scientist chose to examine them skeptically.
Levenstein then describes other succeeding waves of concern that in many ways reproduced the autointoxication fad, including concerns over tainted beef and milk in the 20th century, and the later fascination with vitamins as the source of all health and well-being. Elmer McCollum played the entrepreneurial role in the vitamin scare, Ancel Keys in the modern panic over saturated fats (“Lipophobia”). Although Levenstein never denies the existence of quite authentic problems, for instance involving contaminated meat or milk, he scrupulously distinguishes between real and imagined dangers; the irrational concerns that he describes fully merit the name of “panic.”
Levenstein’s book is much more than a believe-it-or-not catalogue of human folly, of what Charles Mackay famously termed Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The author offers readers a brief but invaluable primer on how to interpret claims that they might encounter: always, he suggests,
look at those propounding those fears and ask “what’s in it for them?” … “[T]hem” of course includes the usual suspects: food companies trying to promote and profit from food fears. However it also includes thousands of other people with career interests in scaring us … [including] scientists hoping to keep the research grants flowing by discovering connections between diet and health; it also involves well meaning people working for other public and nonprofit agencies who try to prove their usefulness by warning about dangerous eating habits.
Throughout the book, we see interest-group politics at work, often using the cover of disinterested public health campaigns. The campaign against tainted beef owed much to the activism of major meat enterprises hoping to suppress poorer and less regulated rivals. Fears of the Demon Milk ended when the dairy industry organized publicity campaigns to promote the image of milk as a source of health and vigor.
Social problems are the subject of a great deal of work by social scientists. Recognizing that problems are neither universal nor self-evident, scholars try to understand the means by which they are constructed and presented to the public, through a process akin to marketing. Ordinary people have neither the time nor the strength to be equally concerned about all potential dangers all the time, so they have to be persuaded that one particular danger is eminently worthy of concern, while others are not. Imagine a lay person walking past the various market stalls of a bazaar, while the different merchants cry out, “Look at this problem! It’s out to get your children!” “No, look at this one—it’s much more threatening!” And so on. To understand any problem, then—whether food-related or not—we need to understand several different parts of the story: the sellers (the advocates, moral entrepreneurs, and true believers pushing the theory); the buyers or consumers (the general public); and the means and rhetoric by which problems are marketed, usually through the mass media.
Fear of Food suggests many different leads on each of these components, although it does not treat each exhaustively. Levenstein is undoubtedly best on the entrepreneurs and the theories they present, but he is less interested, perhaps, in why they win credibility in any particular era. After all, people come up with ridiculous theories all the time, but only a few achieve the national prestige and acceptance of the examples he offers here, such as the omnipotent vitamin. Why? Were these particular theories uniquely well packaged and convincingly sold to a mainstream public? Or was there something about them that appealed to the tastes and interests of consumers at particular times? Did these fads hit when conditions were uniquely ripe in ways that they would not have been a decade or so earlier or later?
Personally, I would pay more attention to the interests and enthusiasms of the lay public, the consumers of these dietary problems, whose concerns and obsessions shift enormously over time. Some years ago, Ruth Clifford Engs published an intriguing account of Clean Living Movements through American history, those eras of fanatical concern about healthy food, bodily purity, sexual reform, and (usually) avoidance of alcohol and intoxicants, themes that are usually closely linked to religious revivalism. One such wave swept the country from 1830 through 1860, another in the early 20th century, and yet another began in the mid 1970s. Each in turn left its residue in terms of religious movements, and also of food products. The 19th-century movement, for instance, bequeathed such famous names as Kellogg of the cereal and Graham of the crackers.
In other words, America’s ambiguous attitudes toward food (healthful but at the same time potentially lethal) are intimately bound up with its spiritual and moral concerns. Only by appreciating that cultural dimension can we understand what scientific claims will strike ordinary consumers of news as credible and (dare I say) palatable at any given time. It’s much more than just America’s “Puritan streak.”
That one criticism apart, Fear of Food is a delicious book.
1.Ruth Clifford Engs, Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform (Praeger, 2000).
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperOne).