November 6, 2016
I’ve been writing this blog once a week for seven years now. Maybe that explains why every now and then I sit down of a weekend and discover I don’t really have much to say—a phenomenon that accounts for recent stream of consciousness rants that link PBS commercials to cooking shows and the debacle that Americans have come to know as their current political culture. I’ve covered a lot of the ground that can be covered in 800 word blurbs over that seven years, including even a few reflections on the very idea of ranting. Nevertheless, I can still be brought up short by the obvious things that I’ve omitted in accumulating enough entries to fill a daily calendar. One of them showed up on the front cover of the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. To wit: food supplements.
The notion that our spiritual elders possessed knowledge that is disrespected, repressed and largely forgotten by mainstream food culture has a lot of appeal. The idea that when they incorporated things like St. John’s wort or ginko balboa into their diet it helped them ward off obesity related diseases or fluctuations in mood fascinates the same aging hippies out there who also extol the benefits of brown rice, bulger and quinoa. (Kale is another story altogether). It jibes nicely with a narrative that has a science community that developed the A-bomb and Agent Orange conspiring with the greedy barons of a food industry that spends all day trying to figure out how they can replace food with some of industrial detritus of building A-bombs and Agent Orange in order to increase their already obscene profits. We certainly can’t trust any of them when it comes to figuring out what we should be stuffing into our faces.
Our lack of confidence in the people behind the stuff on our supermarket shelves translates into a lack of trust in the products themselves. The last two or three decades have only added farmers themselves to the people we can’t trust. My point here is that there really is an ethos, at least, behind the scramble to recover these sources of ancient wisdom, and this ethos feels a lot like an ethic to anyone who is inclined to think that ancient wisdom is more credible than modern science. I’ve always thought it kind of strange how ancient wisdom now gets dispensed out of little plastic bottles containing capsules and tablets, but that’s also another story altogether.
Or maybe it isn’t, because Consumer Reports is urging us to notice that the profit-orientation of the supplement industry is pretty similar to that of that evil demon presiding over the fires of Mordor, the industrial food system. The Food and Drug Administration has been urging us to adopt a skeptical attitude for some time now, but they’ve been spanked by Congressional action back in 1994. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act sharply limits FDA’s authority to regulate products in this category, so long as they do not represent themselves as having therapeutic uses. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but it seems to be a pretty fuzzy line that’s drawn between claiming that you can cure a disease, on the one hand, and merely implying that using the product might have healthful benefits, on the other. If there are readers out there who want to weigh in on this nebulous point, have at it.
I hope I’ve already said enough to demonstrate that there are philosophical questions at stake here, and ethical implications involved in whether something gets called a food, a dietary supplement or a drug. And that would be a sufficient objective for even the most serious-minded entries in the Thornapple Blog. Consumer Reports has another shoe they want to drop, however: Oh, and by the way, these supplements can kill you. If that seems a bit overheated to the aging hippies out there headed down to the supplement section at the local co-op, just pare it back to the possibility that they can hurt you as surely as they can possibly help you. After all, we know that’s true for any food, right from the get go. I’d finish up by saying that if I’ve really piqued your interest in something you didn’t know already, you should just go read the Consumer Reports articles yourself. I’m never been here to distribute health or dietary advice in all the years I’ve been pushing this turkey, and I’m not about to start now.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University