Diet and Health

March 28, 2010

I should be clear about this: I am a fat man. I have more than my share of the diseases characteristic of the 21st century. I do not deny that my lifetime diet has played a huge part leading up to my present state of health. I am not the person you want to consult when it comes to diet and health. I accept a major share of the responsibility for my fate. To question the link between diet and health would be crazy.

But there is a place for crazed thinking in food ethics. With no implied application to my own personal case, the tendency to connect diet and health in contemporary food ethics is as overblown as it is irresistible. Michael Pollan’s work is a case in point. He started out focused on ecological and cultural themes, and wrote broadly on diet and ethics (often focused on animals) in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As his celebrity has grown, he has been drawn, kicking and screaming at times, into America’s obsession with diet and health. His short book In Defense of Food provides a devastating critique of what he calls “nutritionism”: the tendency to reduce all food values to their constituent part so that they may be assessed through scientific studies of the diet/health relationship. In place of this, Pollan suggests some simple advice that has been advocated by one of my friends and heroes, Joan Dye Gussow, for many years: eat real food.

Gussow’s reasons for eating real food (that is whole rather than processed foods—Pollan summarizes this by advising us to shop around the edges of the grocery store) are as much cultural, historical and political as they are nutritional. And the reason for downplaying the health angle is that the study of diet/health relationships has been plagued by insurmountable obstacles. For any individual (that would be you and me) the cause of good health is going to be a very complex mix of difficult-to-sort out things. Good genes mean a lot. But among things under your control, physical activity may be the most decisive. The meals that an average farmer of the 1900s ate are hardly consistent with today’s food pyramid, but if you are in the fields all day busting your butt, you are not likely to become obese.

But you might get fat in spite of all that, or you might have a stroke at age 52, and that’s why it is, I repeat, crazy to deny a connection between diet and health. The scientific study of diet and health is necessarily a study of large populations, and these studies are only very weakly correlated to things like genetics and physical exercise. One can tease out broad relationships with some degree of certitude, and that is the thinking behind the food pyramid and other dietary advice. Some recent work has shown that what your grandparents ate may be having as much causal influence over your health as what you yourself ate! But moving from these statistical correlations to dietary advice that will get taken up by individuals is a minefield of fallacious inferences. For years it was thought that Japanese diets high in fish and low in fat contributed to low rates of heart disease, and this correlation still is the basis of nutritional advice. But now some analysts suggest that the whole thing may have just been a discrepancy in the way heart disease is reported in Japan.

Public health officials and nutritionists are also making very broad assumptions about what you are already eating and how you spend your day when they put together dietary recommendations.  These assumptions also reflect statistical averages. One possible fallacy here is that the person who is already mindful of what they eat is almost certainly quite far from “the average American” in what, when and how they eat. It is also that person who may be most likely to be looking for dietary advice. And if you are reading this blog, you are probably well on the way to becoming mindful. The official food pyramid has now become a set of guidelines that can be tailor to individuals according to a number of ethnic, genetic and lifestyle variables.

Given the American proclivity to link diet and health, it is not surprising that foodies have their own pet theories on the health giving attributes of kale or raw milk and the health robbing properties of meat and high fructose corn sweetener. To his credit, the svelte Pollan resisted the role of diet-health-advice-giver as long as he could but if you are thin and good-looking and the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Linda Wertheimer have asked you for rules, you finally give in. As for me, I’m holding out: no advice on diet and health. I’ll defend your ethical right to hold onto whatever crazy theory you have, but as for me, I’m keeping mum.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


March 21, 2010

Once upon a time there was a chicken that I liked. The chicken—at this point sex unknown—was curious, friendly, always the first to “greet” me. He was the chicken that was not completely with his flock. The chicken that stepped to a different drum. When the flock was a little older and knew what was “home base”—the roosting spot in the coop—the 12 chickens were given their freedom. This chicken loved to wander just a little further. So, this chicken became my favorite chicken because of these endearing qualities.

Due to an unfortunate encounter with a predator soon after getting the flock of 12, one of these chickens “disappeared”. From this day forward I counted chickens to see if I had all eleven. One day in late July—Saturday, July 25 to be exact—I counted and recounted and recounted. Chickens tend to move around quite a bit and it is sometimes difficult to feel you have an accurate count, even with only eleven chickens. But sure enough there were only 10 chickens. And you guessed it. It was my favorite chicken that was nowhere to be found. This caused me great sadness. After searching on my own, I enlisted the help of farmer and landowner Jane, one who had much more chicken experience than my few weeks. Together we looked all around the barn. “Chickens can get in some pretty strange places,” she said. This search proved fruitless, rather, chickenless. I was distraught, but did not know what else to do.

A few days later I was on my way to Stratford, Ontario to the Shakespeare Festival, placing my chickens’ care in Jane’s hands. Still no sign of my favorite chicken. On Saturday, August 1, I had returned from Stratford the previous evening. I was cleaning the chicken coop when I saw an overturned feeding pan. Prior to being turned over, it had been unused and leaning against the wall of the coop. This small overturned pan began to move!

Oh my gosh, maybe it’s a rat!

Oh my gosh, maybe it’s a bunch of mice!

Oh my gosh, I thought the unthinkable—it couldn’t possibly be my favorite chicken under there?!

Quickly finding a long-handled hoe I slowly lifted the pan from the wood shavings on the floor of the coop. There to my delight and utter astonishment was my favorite chicken. Here-to-fore, always and forever after referred to as “F.C.” (Favorite Chicken). As time went on and friends heard my story of finding F.C. they said he should be called L.C. for Lucky Chicken, but to me he was always F.C. So out wobbled F.C. looking as if he had come back from the dead—his feathers completely matted, disheveled—total disarray. He limped over to the food and began to eat. Remember it had been exactly a week—Saturday to Saturday—that he had completely disappeared. Some of the other members of his flock began to peck him—he was an extremely weak chicken, so very much subject to the pecking order (quite literally). And after being “gone” for a week, as I’ve been told, the chickens probably did not recognize him as part of the flock. Both are apparently good reasons in the chicken world to peck a fellow chicken.

At this point I felt immensely relieved that he was hungry and beginning to eat. Just across on the other side of the coop, a few feet away was another smaller coop. I quickly set up food and water and placed him safely in his own coop. I must tell you that my emotions during all of this were very strong. Because of my newness with caring for chickens, I had felt inadequate and the thought of F.C. suffering due to my inexperience caused me many tears.

F.C. continued to gain in strength and at each of my visits he was glad to have my attention. For me and for him there was happiness—in whatever form you choose to believe that chickens can be happy. After about 1½ or 2 weeks it became clear that F.C. wanted to be back with his flock. He could see them. During their daytime roaming, the other chickens could come up to his fence. He was the one locked in, and they had their freedom. After two unsuccessful attempts at having him rejoin his flock—one or two of the other roosters attacked him—he was finally able to rejoin them after three weeks “in isolation.” It was quite obvious to me that he was happy to be with them. It was a more natural state for him, and yet, he was aware that he was low in the pecking order and must be wary.

From this day forward as I came to the barn (my routine was generally every other day, I live about 17 miles from the farm), F.C. was always the one that greeted me as I entered the barn. On some level we “knew” each other and he “knew” I had been his rescuer. Most of these days I tried to have something I could hand-feed him: greens, a small apple. I also made sure he could have full access to food, because he never was 100% included back into the flock.

As time passed he continued to greet me with his strong “cock-a-doodle-doo”, usually long before I even got close to the barn door, he knew I was on the farm. And so it was a joyful friendship: one inexperienced chicken “farmer” (me) and one very special chicken, F. C.

It has been a hard winter. My world is much quieter now. On January 30 our family lost our beloved 14 year-old beagle, Molly. And now, March 17, I have lost all my chickens to predators. On March 16th I discovered F.C.’s body in the coop. Luckily for me Farmer Jane was working at home and we buried F.C. Today, March 17th I placed a marker near where he was buried.

♥ F.C. – Diane’s Favorite Chicken ♥

I want to be known that on this farm there lived a very special rooster and he was loved.

Diane Thompson is Core Group Coordinator for Thornapple CSA

Peanut Butter

March 14 2010

Okay! How many of you out there love peanut butter? It turns out March is National Peanut Butter Month.

I got home from work on Friday and Diane was cooking up luscious hamburgers from some of Jane Bush’s ground beef. It was a very appealing scene to see her cooking up some supper that she had every reason to think I would relish. And there was also something quite satisfying about the sound of those burger patties sizzling in the pan. I realize I may be offending some of the vegetarians out there with this (like my children), and possibly some climate activists, too. But hey! Those cows were pasture raised. They had (or so I believe) a happy life, and there were no petro-carbon based feeds in their diet. And she was serving the burgers on whole grain local bread, too. So Diane was really walking the walk in cooking up a couple of hamburgers.

Insensitive boob that I am, however, I took a look at those burgers and they just didn’t look right, at least not right at that moment. I wound up toasting some of that local whole-grain bread and making a peanut butter sandwich. Just to comply with the rules of full disclosure here, I should indicate that the peanut butter came from the East Lansing Food Co-op, the butter I added came from Calder Dairy and the jelly I put on it was Poorrock Abbey Wild Bilberry Jam that we got from the monks up on the Kewanee Peninsula when we were up there summer before last. This was good stuff, not the peanut butter-on-a-bright-orange-cracker-out-of-a-cellophane-wrapper routine that (I confess) I am occasionally guilty of. Again, cut me some slack, here!

Now before I start pimping for peanut butter I had better make yet another revelation in the interest of full disclosure (remember, in my real life I am a food ethicist). Diane’s mother has a peanut farm in Georgia. If I could just get all the members of Thornapple CSA to start eating peanut butter sandwiches once or twice a week, it would probably make us very, very rich. I expect we make a buck or two off of every peanut butter sandwich that is eaten in the United States. So start slathering that brown stuff and we can start watching the chips roll in!

My problem is that I was actually brought up to think of peanut butter as kind of a lame substitute for real food. In defense of my late mother, it’s not so much that I was literally brought up that way as it was that this is what I somehow took from growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Sure, I had my share of peanut butter sandwiches out of wax paper bags at school lunch hour. It’s not like she was trying to shield me from peanut butter or something. I’m sure she was fully satisfied that this was a healthy lunch for me–even if it was made on Butternut Bread, Denver’s version of the mushy Wonder substance that we latter learned was full of toxic partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. She was not the least embarrassed about sending me to school with a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper, and it don’t recall being embarrassed about eating them. Everybody was eating them.

Still and all somehow, I wound up as an adult thinking that peanut butter was only something that you hauled out when you were not prepared to make an actual meal. I suppose it was always in the cupboard, even when I was a bachelor, because after all a cupboard is supposed to have some peanut butter. But I bet there were years that passed without needing to buy peanut butter more than once or twice, at least until I had kids myself and it was time to send them off to school (but with a plastic baggie that kept the Iron Kids Wonder Bread much, much fresher!). This is what we took to be progress in the 1980s. So maybe it was just that this was somehow kids food. Not something that I was supposed to eat as an adult.

So imagine how surprised I was a couple of years ago to discover that I actually like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve had to wean myself off the Wonder Bread, though I still buy some once a year for old times’ sake. Now that I’ve done that successfully, I’ve learned to admit that I really like a peanut butter and bilberry jelly sandwich on nice fresh (or slightly stale and toasted) whole grain local bakery bread. This is a difficult admission, because it just doesn’t fit my self-image as a crusty and skeptical curmudgeon. Maybe this is just a sign of aging: It’s not so much contrary to my image as it’s the case that I now really am a crusty old curmudgeon who stands up his lovely wife for a lousy peanut butter sandwich. But what the hey, I’m going to quit blogging and go make myself another one right now.

I did, by the way, eat that very acceptable burger yesterday for lunch as a “leftover”.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


March 7, 2010

David Letterman said it: Without caffeine I wouldn’t have any personality at all. Along about 5:05 on Friday afternoon one of my work colleagues pointed out that our faculty meeting was cutting into Spring Break. The main thing that means for me is a bit more time to drink coffee and read after I get up in the morning. The opportunity to sit and sip a good cup of coffee (cream, no sugar) ranks right up there with blues music and homemade chili. Right now I’m making it from some beans I bought at Caribou Coffee in the Minneapolis airport. More exotic trips to places like Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Brazil have always involved bringing home a little of the local coffee. Less exotic trips to places like Grand Rapids always require a stop at Martha’s Vineyard where I can get some Deadman’s Reach, brewed by Ravens Brew out on the West Coast.

Diane, on the other hand, is into tea. She is so much into tea that a few weeks back when I was laid up after foot surgery was the first time in thirty years of marriage that she ever made a pot of coffee. But she is no better than me in terms of her exotic tastes.  For her, it’s Yorkshire Tea or nothing. This would be nothing but a trip to the local market if we lived in the United Kingdom, but right now she is making tea that we bought on the internet and had shipped to us from God knows where. We’ve occasionally been able to buy Yorkshire Tea at T J Maxx, but she is looking for a more reliable source.

Our predilection for sourcing coffee and tea from afar returns me to a theme I raised in connection with Delicious Tamales a few blogs back. On the one hand, we don’t grow coffee or tea in Michigan, so this is never going to be compatible with a strict locavore diet. On the other hand, we have a perfectly good roaster here in Lansing in Paramount Coffee. In fact, when we lived back in West Lafayette, Indiana one of the local shops stocked Paramount Coffee as an exotic food. I don’t go on long trips just to buy coffee. Paramount roasts a nice Fair Trade coffee that I buy when I’m strictly local. But I’m out and about quite a bit in my job, so picking up a pound of coffee from elsewhere is fun for me. One could look at coffee and tea as brief “moral holidays” or “Marco Polos” (the limited exceptions that are allowed in locavore diets). But they aren’t exceptions in the same sense as Delicious Tamales. Not only are we drinking coffee or tea every day, coffee and tea have become such important parts of our routine that they are part of what makes life living.

Both tea and coffee have been enjoyed by people from all social classes in their areas of origin for centuries, and began to be consumed as luxuries among rich and powerful Europeans in the 1600s. Tea caught on first. By the mid-19th century, Sidney Mintz tells us that very sweet tea was serving as an important source of daily energy for workers in the factories of England. The Dutch spread coffee cultivation out of Northern Africa to their colonies around the world. It is now grown in more than 70 countries. Outside of Great Britain and Asia, coffee is now more widely preferred. But none of this begins to capture what coffee means to lots of people. Think about those white coffee cups sitting on the counter in Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks”. The image speaks volumes about how deeply coffee has affected American culture.

Coffee has also affected the environment. Coffee plantations have been the cause of biodiversity loss and human exploitation. The rise of “Organic” and “Fair Trade” coffee over the last two decades has been designed as a response that allows small farmers to stay in production with sustainable methods. I just finished reading a great book called Nature’s Matrix by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandemeer and Angus Wright that discusses coffee (among other things). They argue that trying to preserve biodiversity by protecting large plots from all agricultural use has actually been counterproductive in the tropics. What matters is the kind of agriculture. Shade grown coffee (and some systems that approximate a shade-grown approach) allows for compatibility between biodiversity and the income needs of very poor people. A “consumption ethic” that is accordingly targeted can help, though Perfecto, Vandemeer and Wright stress the need for political support to resistance movements in the tropics over buying fair trade shade grown coffees.  Many of these farmers would do better by moving away from crops that depend so heavily on consumption in the North, where events like the current economic downturn can cause a dramatic drop in what they get for their coffee or tea. Yet it certainly doesn’t help them for us to boycott coffee and tea. Companies like Raven’s Brew now routinely post information on sustainability on their websites. A look at their page suggests that they are making an effort, but frankly its pretty difficult to tell how seriously the effort they are making actually is.

Brew a pot and dial up Trout Fishing in America on the internet and listen to this song off of their “Big Trouble” album:

All I want is a proper cup of coffee, made in a proper copper coffee pot,

I may be off my dot, but I want a proper coffee in a proper copper pot.

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots, they are no use to me!

If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee in a proper copper coffee pot, I’ll have a cup of tea!”

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University