Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

April 12, 2012

The clue to some of this book's limitations, from a British point of view, is in the name. "We" who worry and "we" who eat are American (and middle class). Many very good books, received with pleasure by a global readership, are by, for and about the American middle classes, but here the specificity probably limits the appeal of what is essentially an intelligent and well-researched piece of self-analysis.

Fear of Food offers a history of food scares in the US from the end of the 19th century up to the present day, beginning with (legitimate) concerns about the purity of milk in cities in the 1890s and ending with repeated outbreaks of E. coli resulting from intensive farming and butchery today. As this summary suggests, much of the focus is on animal products, and there is surprisingly little reference to vegetarianism, or indeed to those who, for religious or cultural reasons, avoid the full range of American meats. Harvey Levenstein is explicit about his middle-class focus, stating at the beginning that the middle classes have a distinctive relationship with food because they tend to live in cities and pay attention to popular science and health stories. The Puritan heritage of middle-class Americans, he suggests, encourages them to make choices about food based on ideas about health rather than pleasure, and sometimes to welcome the proscription of things that taste good; even within the urban middle class, those who don't identify with European Protestantism are implicitly excluded.

Within those limits, Levenstein has fun and the book is entertaining. I enjoyed the account of the bounty offered to children bringing quarts of dead flies into newspaper offices during the First World War (for it turns out that Americans measure flies, like butter, in liquid form). The changes in advertising are telling, from flour with which "the hands of the miller have not come into contact ... at any stage" in 1917 to the allegedly "artisanal, hand-made" breads sold in modern supermarkets. There is something sad in the persistence of the story about the long-lived Hunza people in Shangri-La (northern Pakistan), who were regularly reported to live almost for ever on a diet of yogurt and dried apricots, a feat that Americans were unable to replicate even when yogurt became available. Levenstein cites an English doctor running a clinic in Shangri-La in the 1950s, who remarked that the Hunza did not record dates of birth, and did suffer all the usual illnesses of poverty and dearth - facts that were not allowed to get in the way of a good story, and a hundred marketing campaigns, about "natural wisdom" and the healthy consequences of a "simple life".

The final chapters, about the fear of fat, red meat and especially cholesterol that characterised Anglo-American concerns about food at the end of the past century, are more serious and also more problematic. In "Lipophobia" and then "Creating a National Eating Disorder", Levenstein begins to expose some of the vested interests and ambitions among medical researchers that distort scientific evidence and public policy, showing how flawed research into the relationships between diet, cholesterol levels and heart disease formed the basis of popular belief and behaviour. He implies acceptance of the more recent idea that the real culprit in causing obesity, heart disease and diabetes may be excessive consumption of sugar.

And here's the problem: it's amusing to reflect on the misconceptions of earlier generations of scientists and eaters, and cheering to think that maybe butter and (organic, grass-reared) steak are not so bad after all, but we can only think these things from a position of "truth". Until readers and writers accept that we are almost certainly just as wrong as our ancestors were, books of debunking continue to leave a troubling aftertaste.

Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

By Harvey Levenstein. University of Chicago Press. 232pp, £16.00. ISBN 9780226473741. Published 13 April 2012.

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