Food for Thought

Sugar Blues
by: William Dufty

Omnivore's Dilemma
by: Michael Pollan

I had actually planned to review these two books in January, when we're all busy making our New Year's Resolutions to get fit and lose a few pounds.

Needless to say, my "resolution" to write these reviews failed!

Better late than never, though, and now I can say that they're right in time for the "get ready for summer clothes" fitness efforts.

Neither of these books is specifically about fitness, diet, or exercise. And neither book is new. Sugar Blues was written in 1975, and "Omnivore's Dilemma was written in 2006. Another confession: I'm still reading both of them. They're not the kind of book you necessarily sit down and read cover to cover. There is much to be, no pun intended, digested in each, and your immediate impulse upon reading them will be to change your eating habits, more than to race to the finish of the books.

What each book is about is an important way of considering healthful eating - that does not advocate fad dieting or a particular menu of good foods/bad foods.

Let's start with Sugar Blues, as it's the older and simpler of the two.

Sugar Blues is, of course, about sugar. The book traces the history of man's love affair with sugar, from our use of naturally occurring sugars (like honey and maple syrup) both as a sweetener and a basis for alcoholic beverages, but more importantly, our discovery of refined sugars, from cane and beet, and how this refined sugar not only coincided with dozens of health and dental problems, but even resulted in the proliferation of the slave trade (growing, harvesting, and refining sugar cane is labor intensive, and planters soon learned there were huge profits to be made when the manpower could be had at a fraction of the cost by simply enslaving the workers).

While sugar was initially thought of as a medicine (and in small doses and for specific purposes, such as the treatment of bed sores, it still is), in the massive quantities in which we consume it, it can more rightly be considered a drug, or even a poison.

One of the points author Dufty makes is that refined sugar is so concentrated that there is no way in nature we would ever be able to consume the enormous doses that we do by simply adding a few teaspoons of sugar to our coffee, or on our cereal, let alone the amounts we take on by drinking a soft drink, eating a cookie, or even eating something as harmless appearing as commercially prepared soup or cereal. Virtually everything we eat, Dufty counsels us, contains sugar.

Humans are programmed to like sweet - it's how we recognize our mother's milk, and are inclined to eat it. Sweet generally means "safe to eat," so we are attracted to sweetness.

The problem comes about when this sweetness becomes part of everything on the grocery store shelves. And when you combine it with fat, sugar is devastatingly appealing - appealing to the point of being as addictive as crack, and as hard to kick.

Dufty traces the rise of ailments that can be linked directly to sugar consumption, like diabetes and obesity, and indirectly, such as premature aging and mental and emotional issues. And Dufty warns us that most of us are literally addicted to sugar - we crave it in ever-increasing quantities.

Dufty suggests simply getting rid of sugar in our diets. We'll get plenty if we eat fresh fruits and vegetables. The proof of Dufty's addiction thesis is in actually attempting to go cold turkey on sugar. When I first read this book many years ago, I did try - and it's next to impossible. After a few hours you start to feel uncomfortable, and after a few days, it's just about all you can think of. It is possible to eliminate processed sugar from your diet, but it requires a dedication that few can muster - you have to virtually eat no processed foods, and you even have to keep a watchful eye on vitamins, over the counter medicines, and even many wines and beers (which can have, believe it or not, added sugar).

Still, the health benefits are worth it. Anyone who does get rid of sugar in his diet will lose weight, and will probably see better skin, will sleep better, and might even find increased energy levels. But if you can't do without it completely due to either preference or lifestyle, being conscious of reducing it is worth the effort.

Omnivore's Dilemma's author, Michael Pollan set himself a two-part challenge: inquire into the diet of a species that can eat literally anything (plant, animal, fish, even minerals), and trace the origin of four typical American meals. Where did all the ingredients originate?

It's not so simple as, "Oh, the eggs came from chickens and were cooked in butter than came from the milk that was produced by a cow." He wants to know, what did the chickens eat and where did the chicken feed come from? How was it processed? What health effects did it have on the chickens? What kind of conditions did the chickens experience in their live that might have an effect on the eggs they produce? For example, what sorts of chemicals and medicines were fed to the chickens, and are residues of these things found in the eggs we eventually consume? What effect do these chemicals have on our health and well-being?

(We all know by now that the hormones fed to cattle, for example, actually end up in the meat we eat. In places less well-regulated than the United States, in certain parts of South and Central America, for example, hormones are actually in the meat in sufficient quantities to make little girls of six sexually mature.)

Just the section of the book on corn is enough to make you want to stop eating altogether. "Indeed, one of the many eye-openers in the book is the prevalence of corn in the American diet; of the 45,000 items in a supermarket, more than a quarter contain corn. Pollan meditates on the freakishly protean nature of the corn plant and looks at how the food industry has exploited it, to the detriment of everyone from farmers to fat-and-getting-fatter Americans." (Publisher's Review)

Turns out that corn as we eat it today never occurred in nature - it has been hybridized, processed, "fractionated," so that it can be added most of the more popular foods we eat - adding calories and appealing taste. And of course, nature never intended that when we eat applesauce, we'd be eating a big dose of high fructose corn syrup along with it.

"The book is really three in one: The first section discusses industrial farming; the second, organic food, both as big business and on a relatively small farm; and the third, what it is like to hunt and gather food for oneself. And each section culminates in a meal -- a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's; roast chicken, vegetables and a salad from Whole Foods; and grilled chicken, corn and a chocolate soufflé (made with fresh eggs) from a sustainable farm; and, finally, mushrooms and pork, foraged from the wild." (The Washington Post)

Pollan points out that the food industry has a serious problem with its business model: the only way for it to grow is with population growth. Ultimately, except for a small handful of outliers, most people can eat 2000 calories a day, give or take. No amount of coaxing will get us to consume significantly more. Yes, most of u eat toward the top of our range - hence the epidemic obesity in America. Still, beyond a certain point, and assuming we will eat to the point of obesity, there is just so much we can eat and no more.

Moreover, agriculture has become incredibly adept at producing corn. It can coax an enormous amount of the soil - and this corn is then turned into beef and pork and chicken and eggs and milk, as well as corn products such as oil and syrup and meal and fractions.

"In the United States, Pollan makes clear, we're mostly fed by two things: corn and oil. We may not sit down to bowls of yummy petroleum, but almost everything we eat has used enormous amounts of fossil fuels to get to our tables. Oil products are part of the fertilizers that feed plants, the pesticides that keep insects away from them, the fuels used by the trains and trucks that transport them across the country, and the packaging in which they're wrapped. We're addicted to oil, and we really like to eat.

"Oil underlines Pollan's story about agribusiness, but corn is its focus. American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. "Tell me what you eat," said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, "and I will tell you what you are." We're corn.

"Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain; some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water and poisoning marine ecosystems. The industrial logic also means vast farms that grow only corn. When the price of corn drops, the solution, the farmer hopes, is to plant more corn for next year. The paradoxical result? While farmers earn less, there's an over-supply of cheap corn, and that means finding ever more ways to use it up." (Washington Post)

Pollan doesn't really offer a "solution" as such. He does suggest that perhaps if we all got closer to the source of the foods we eat, we would eat better, and we'd eat less. He isn't too squeamish to hunt a wild pig, kill it, process it, and eat it. Many of us have had the thought that if we had to kill our own meat we might not be vegetarians, but we'd have meat a lot less often.

Pollan's final idea of appropriate eating, based on all his research and experience, features these six characteristics

1. Everything on the menu would be hunted, gathered or grown by him.
2. The menu would include at least one item from each edible kingdom: animal, vegetable and fungus (and salt, a mineral).
3. All foods would be in season and fresh.
4. No money would be spent on the meal. (The foods would be obtained outside of the food industry.)
5. Nobody who didn't participate in the hunting, gathering and growing would dine.
6. The meal would be cooked by him.

What would happen, I wonder, if we all stopped eating sugar, and we all followed these six precepts? A thought to be pondered.

Good eating!


My Year Without said…
Both books are two of my favorites! Omnivore's read like a workbook for me. I dog-eared and wrote in the margins and read very very slowly. I had to have another book going at the same time.

The first time I read Sugar Blues I gave up sugar on the spot! Very powerful and important book.

You are an excellent book reviewer.

A few more books that are health/nutrition related that you might enjoy (and I am reading right now) are:
"Food Politics" by Marion Nestle
"Mindless Eating" by Brian Wansink

Anyway, thanks for great reviews!
Nancy said…
I agree about "Mindless Eating," - also reviewed earlier in the blog! - I will have to pick up "Food Politics," as well. Thanks!
E. L. Fay said…
Oh boy, what a great post! I've worked in food retail since I was 15 (am 23 now and finally quitting that industry – a year after graduating college). I have seen first hand how people eat. The store where I currently work is also in a low-income area, which is even more interesting. People will spend literally $100+ of their foodstamp money on meat. Now, I'm no vegetarian either but you're not supposed to be eating that much steak! Also popular are frozen foods. Even Lean Cuisines, which are low in calories and don't contain trans fats, still contain tons of salt and artificial preservatives (and that's not what most people buy anyway – think the TGI Friday dinners). And then there's the really bad junk food, like Twinkies and Ho Hos, which are just gross. Add to that the tons and tons of chips, cookies, candy, ice cream, (non-diet) soda, heavily processed snack foods, sugary juices (i.e. Kool-Aid mix), ENERGY DRINKS (can't believe those are legal. . .), and the really bad kids' cereals (i.e. Fruit Loops), and suddenly the reason America is fat is blindingly obvious. Unfortunately, this stuff tends to be cheaper than healthier fare, so that's what the people who shop here tend to buy the most of. WIC is annoying to ring up, but at least the recipients are basically being ordered to get good food.

Now I'm no health food nut, but seeing what these people spend money on has actually inspired me to eat better. I try not to be too judgmental either, since I ate pretty badly in college. One weekend, I even lived off Chex snack mix, coffee, and wine coolers. Luckily I'm an avid runner who also walked everywhere (including my off-campus job two miles away) so I didn't gain much weight. But I wasn't shopping for a family.

I'm wondering if either book mentioned salt at all? I've heard that's pretty omnipresent in food today too and that avoiding it is just about impossible.
Nancy said…
Salt is mentioned, though isn't singled out as nearly the culprit other "foods" are considered to be.

I have to say that as one who has a tendency to experience edema, I was interested to discover that sugar is as, if not more, likely to cause this condition than just plain salt - and the two together are doom. (Thus pizza, for example, or barbeque, which contain a lot of both, are really deadly!)

Sugar Blues, at least, should be a once-a-year read to remind me of why I'm sticking with a decent diet in spite of my worst inclinations!

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