Most people are illiterate when it comes to food, their views based on a combination of personal beliefs, semi-truths and not fully substantiated scientific claims. Dutch food and agricultural scientist, and author, Louise Fresco, picks five books to help us better understand the food we eat.
Louise O. Fresco is a food and agricultural scientist and president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. She is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize.
There’s so much writing about food, what we should eat, how we should grow it. After dipping into your book, am I right in thinking that, despite all the information that’s out there, you think the average person is badly informed about food?
Yes, and I think we could even say that most people are quite illiterate when it comes to food. A lot of the writing, what you find on the internet, is actually a combination of beliefs, half-informed truths, or science that hasn’t matured yet. You see this in the fads we have all the time, particularly in relation to dieting. People say, ‘Oh, you should eat this or that, or not eat meat, or not eat bread.’ The volume of writing doesn’t mean that people are informed. In fact, there’s more anxiety about food today than ever before.
Why do you think that is?
This is something I try to address in my book. I think it’s because of the enormous distance that has grown, over two generations, between the growing and production of food, and the consumer’s home. What’s happened in the last ten years is that people don’t even cook their meals anymore. So something that’s essential to our survival, which we are hardwired to want all the time, has become something over which we have no control. So it’s mixed with fear. It was, of course, always mixed with fear, but mainly fear of not having enough. Now it’s a fear of, ‘Is it safe? Is it right?’
The second factor here is that in a society where religion doesn’t play an important role anymore, and where the classic authorities—the teacher or the medical doctor—have declined so much, there’s nobody who can tell you what is right and wrong in food. So all kinds of beliefs can take root.
“There’s more anxiety about food today than ever before”
Thirdly, the internet has greatly helped—or not helped at all—in spreading ideas and having people repeat ideas. The end result is enormous confusion.
I’m sure we’ll touch on some of these issues again as we go through your books. Broadly, can you tell me what you’ve tried to do with these choices?
I tried to find a coherent way to think about food, which is not about the latest fashions. So I didn’t include recipe books. I picked historical books and particularly ones that are less well known, so I didn’t pick Claudia Roden or Michael Pollan. If you look at the history, you see that some of these discussions have been going on for a long time. Changing food habits and radically changing diets are not something of today. I could have chosen books on the history of agriculture, but I thought food would be more interesting for readers.
So this is the most recent book I’ve chosen. What Rachel Laudan shows—which most people don’t know—is that what we know about food is mainly about the food of the elite. We don’t know what poor people ate. They probably ate the same thing everyday. Cuisine, as a cultural concept, as a combination of recipes, which she introduces very nicely, has always been dominated by the court or religion. It’s shaped by the elite and then sort of trickles down. The interesting thing about her book is it’s not just a history of why we started eating potatoes, but about how court culture around food changed dramatically.
“There’s nobody who can tell you what is right and wrong in food. So all kinds of beliefs can take root”
She distinguishes a number of cuisines, from the cereal-based diet of the Middle East, which coincided with the beginning of agriculture and was also linked to the evolution of cities. Then, she moves to the Buddhist cuisine, rice, from central Asia all the way to Japan. There, the concept of refinement is important. The Japanese cuisine that we still know is quite different from Chinese cuisine.
What do you mean by refinement?
Refined taste, delicacies. So the court always goes with the delicate.
She also talks about how Catholicism, and the Habsburg and Bourbon courts, have influenced our eating. It’s much more extravagant, these festive meals of 36 different dishes from everywhere. Partly as a reaction to that, the northwestern European Protestant cuisine was much more simple: don’t do too much, don’t exaggerate. What she shows is that we are still influenced by all this today.
“We don’t appreciate farmers anymore or people working in the food industry, who make sure that we can all eat, always”
Today we actually don’t have court food or imperial cuisines anymore. We are the generation that have what used to be elite food at our disposal in a greater variety, at a lower price, and in unlimited amounts. That’s historically unique.
Is that what is leading to our anxiety, we don’t know what to choose because in the past we didn’t have a choice?
Absolutely. Our brains are hardwired into wanting more food because we come out of hundreds of thousands of years of food scarcity. We want food because you never know whether we’ll go hungry tomorrow. But now, in many big cities all around the world, you can buy food 24 hours a day.
For what percentage of the world population is food scarcity a big issue today?
It’s about 11%, but these are all in areas of civil unrest and war. It’s those poor people in northern Syria or in the Horn of Africa. 100 years ago, nearly 60% of the world’s population had acute shortages of food. So you see what an enormous difference it is. In the UK and elsewhere, even 50 years ago, people used to spend half of their income on food. It is only 13-14% today, depending a little bit on class. So it is cheap and, therefore, it is also easy to waste. There is this tendency towards stuffing ourselves, literally. If food is really scarce and you don’t have a lot of money, you can’t go on eating food all the time.
Yes, when I take students to the supermarket and ask them what is special there, they never have the right answer. When we see apples in spring, that is not normal. We are far removed from the idea of shortage and the hard labour that went into working, the manual labour day after day. Life was brutish, nasty, and short, and that was it. Farmers 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, had such difficult lives. I think one of the tragedies of the distance that has grown is that we don’t appreciate farmers anymore or people working in the food industry, who make sure that we can all eat, always.
One other thing Rachel remarks on is that having a family dinner is quite a recent middle class thing. Our generation, we still have meals with the family. But you now have a new generation, generation Z, who don’t even have family meals anymore. In the US already, people sit on a couch watching a screen, especially in single parent households. The most telling statistic is that in Europe, the sale of dining tables has declined dramatically. People still have tables, but they do everything on those tables. The table dedicated as a space for food is on the decline.
I read one nice comment about Cuisine and Empire, which is that it’s also a bit of a crash course in world history.
Yes, and this applies to some of the other books I’ve chosen as well. Food is an incredibly fertile lens through which to see history because it ties together things that are so essential to survival. One thing I was just working on in the last few days is cheese. Why does cheddar have the colour it has, do you think?
Cheddar has an artificial colour that’s added to the cheese. If you let cows graze, then depending on the season and the quality of the grass, the colour of the milk fluctuates, because the carotenes and other colourings that are in there fluctuate. But the consumer likes to have the summer colour, which is bright yellow. So, starting in the 18th century, an artificial colour that comes from different plants, not from the grass, is added to the cheese-making process. That same colouring is now included in the list of E colourings. These are the E numbers that we have in Europe that are authorised colourings and food additives. There’s a great concern in many countries that these colourings and additives are dangerous for our health. But in the case of cheese colouring and a couple of other examples, they are already centuries old. I tell you this because these kinds of food lenses give you a new perspective on today and on yesterday.
Another point she makes is that all food is processed food, which I thought was interesting, given the emphasis these days on not eating processed food.
That’s a point my book makes again and again. The best way to say this is that farmers don’t grow bread. They grow wheat. Bread is considered a simple food, but the steps that go into making bread are considerable. All food, even the apples you eat—unless you picked them yourself from the tree—pass through some process, some stages of conservation — even if they’re just kept in containers with controlled gas with ethylene so they ripen at exactly the right moment. We do not eat raw food, but I’ll come to that when I talk about Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Yes shall we talk about the book by Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le Cuit (1964), next? He’s considered one of the founders of modern anthropology but I gather from some of the comments about the book that it’s quite hard to understand.
He’s a French structuralist, don’t even try it. This book is based on fieldwork he did in the 1930s in the Amazon. He was of Jewish descent and fled oncoming fascism. He already saw the problems coming in the 1930s, and went to Brazil. He was the first person to study the Indian tribes in the Amazon. His greatest contribution, for me, is that he describes those tribes as having an extremely complex culture. They were then, certainly, and even today seen as extremely primitive, but he showed that these are people with a coherent, systematic set of beliefs about all kinds of things, particularly food – up to the standard of the imperial cuisines that Rachel Laudan describes. So here you have the other end of the spectrum.
Lévi-Strauss’s argument in Le Cru et le Cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) is that the first, most basic dichotomy in food history—in terms of complex classified systems of thinking about food—is between the cooked and the non-cooked. We changed, as mankind, when we discovered fire. That changes everything because cooking makes food more available in a biological way, it makes it possible to keep it, and it also starts the division of labour between men and women.
So these Amazon Indians have an exceedingly coherent, logical system about how to classify food, which starts from that basic dichotomy all the way down, about what fish to eat and why. Around every one of these classifications, there was a whole system of beliefs and explanations and myths. The reason I put it on the list is because nobody knows this anymore. This was the first work that opened our eyes to the fact that wherever you go, food is so important that it leads to very complex classifications and mythologies. It is a seminal book. It’s impossible to read, but it is absolutely essential, because it shaped our thinking.
“There is nothing in our daily behaviour that is so ingrained or so twisted around moral ideas as food.”
Also, Lévi-Strauss, in this period in the Amazon, took a camera with him and took some of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen of people. These were primitive people, who didn’t even have clothes or hardly any clothes. They lived in thatched huts in the forest and were completely oblivious of the camera. You see these women and children playing together. They had no toys, nothing. There is a serenity and a joy in their faces, and they are extremely beautiful. You see girls that could be models today, sitting in the sand or a boy playing with a little monkey or something. It’s of a beauty that is nearly supernatural.
So the Amazon tribe has myths, and now we, similarly, have myths?
Everybody has myths. Everybody has not just myths, but classifications about good and bad. There is nothing in our daily behaviour that is so ingrained or so twisted around moral ideas as food. We know what is good and bad in terms of eating, in terms of food stuffs, in terms of sharing or not sharing, or eating alone. We have moral categories for everything around food.
OK but sausages are a staple of the English childhood diet. When you see parents telling their children to eat up their sausages—having just read what the World Health Organization is saying—what do you do in those situations?
Then I look at the science. I am, after all, a scientist, and I see that what the media has made out of it is not at all held up by the science. In this particular case, the science only says that if you look at certain components in the sausages, the risks of those components, in the long term, causing bowel cancer is greater than from some other categories. But, as always in food, the number one rule is that you cannot rely on any studies that only look at one particular food stuff because it is the pattern that counts, and the pattern over time.
“If you eat a hamburger everyday, it’s a problem. But if you eat a pineapple everyday, it’s not a good idea either. It is diversity that counts”
That’s why the epidemiology of food intake related to health is so extremely complicated. In this case, yes, there is a slight risk, not just with sausages, but with red meat in general. That doesn’t mean that if you eat small quantities of red meat three times a week there is a major problem. Of course not. It’s very unfortunate. This is what we were talking about at the beginning: why are we so worried? It’s also because the media is always making some bad news out of something which, from a scientific point of view, is far more nuanced and far more complicated.
It’s very confusing. There’s always something new in the newspaper we’re not supposed to be eating.
Yes. And of course the other driver is that scientists, because they are underfunded nearly everywhere in the world, have a benefit in bringing out bad news because it attracts attention and maybe leads to new funding.
But at the same time, there are people eating extremely unhealthily.
How do you know what to do, especially as you can’t learn it from your parents because the recommendations keep changing?
The best rule is, first of all, not to worry too much about food, because if it becomes an obsession, you don’t enjoy it anymore and you’re not making things any better. I’m really serious about that. The second rule is diversity, diversity, diversity. There is not a single food item, not even a hamburger, that is wrong in itself. This is where your moral categories sometimes intersect with the practice of life. There is not something bad or good about a single thing — unless it is made with no attention to animal welfare or with child-slavery, or it’s polluted or toxic.
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Normal food stuffs, in our countries at least, are not unhealthy by definition. They are not morally bad by definition. They become bad if they’re part of a pattern that is unhealthy. So if you eat a hamburger everyday, it’s a problem. But if you eat a pineapple everyday, all the time, it’s not a good idea either. It is diversity that counts and food needs to be part of a healthier pattern.
We are now focused on lots of people being overweight. Overweight becomes a problem if it is part of a pattern of not moving at all. A lot of people may have a BMI that’s slightly higher than the normal, but if they are still moving, that is not a risk. Of course, people do not understand how the concept of risk works either. They think risk is telling them what will happen, when it’s only a probability.
Charles Mann brings the message to all of us, which many people don’t know, that our food patterns are heavily influenced by trade. Today, with the whole discussion about Brexit and TTIP and trade arrangements, people often blame trade liberalisation for all the bad things happening to us. It’s good to realise that trade has been part and parcel of shaping our food culture, and, most importantly, has made it possible to accommodate local shortages. Local shortages of food or seasonality don’t need to be a problem, if you know you can eat imported food from somewhere else. It also helps to do away with too many price fluctuations or very expensive price spikes for poor people. So trade is, in many ways, very positive, even if there can be negative effects in terms of jobs.
What Mann shows is that ‘the Columbian Exchange’—Columbus discovering the Americas—led to the very significant introduction of foodstuffs to the Old World (Europe and Asia) and from the Old World to the New World. The Columbian Exchange has given us our potato, and the Chinese their sweet potato. These two crops were the basis for demographic expansion in both parts of the world, because they were easy to grow, with calories and reasonable nutritional qualities. It also gave Africa many of its food crops. Apart from some local millets, all the basic food stuffs in Africa today are imported. People think about Africa being so traditional, but this is not the case. Maize is not African. Rice, wheat and sorghum are not African. Peanuts and cassava—a major staple for central Africa—are not African.
I love that bit in your book, about the ‘local’ food movement. Strictly speaking, none of the food we grow in northwest Europe is local.
Exactly, because our food, before the Columbian Exchange, came from the Middle East. There was hardly anything that was worth preparing or eating. This is why the historical perspective is so important. Also, local meant local shortages – unless you were very rich.
So Charles Mann has many interesting stories about many foods, but the main message is the importance of trade and the fact that there have been massive movements of foods backwards and forwards.
The implication being that the Columbian Exchange changed the course of world history?
Yes. It was so dramatic because nobody knew about the Americas before, and it all came within a century. It is also the speed at which changes occurred. Our trade with China and India was also massive and very important, but it took place over millennia. The speed of change is also a factor that makes our anxieties greater today. It is the speed of globalisation over two or three decades that frightens everybody.
One thing I should add about Mann is that not only did the Columbian Exchange bring Europe food, farm animals and guinea pigs and fowl and so on, the reverse also happened: it brought unknown bacteria and pathogens to the Americas. So it also had disastrous results there. But if you think of something typically American, from the Western frontier, it is cowboys. Yet, neither cowboys nor American Indians could have had horses until there was this exchange.
They came from Europe?
From Asia. This exchange turned everything around.
I chose this book because I thought it would be nice for your readers but it is also another lens, this time looking at two countries – so close together and yet with vastly different traditions and ideas about what is good, what is morally good, what is ‘proper,’ as you say in English.
“For me, the main shock was when I came back to the Netherlands about 8 years ago. My office, at the time, was near the equivalent of your Bond Street and I could see people eating on the street. People were eating all the time – all the time.”
One interesting new dimension that Mennell adds is that we have learned, over centuries and centuries, to control our appetite. Living in scarcity means that the control is through the lack of supply. When food becomes more abundant, society, and individuals, have to learn how to deal with this continuous supply. We are still not there, obviously.
Mennell introduces the idea that culture is about trying to control all kinds of appetites – also sexual appetite, the appetite to kill each other, and so on. Culture is about restraining the options in the face of all the options. This is very relevant for food. You see that England and France have done it in different ways. The French have gone much more for refined cuisine, for limiting the options in terms of what was acceptable. What is acceptable in France is not at all what is acceptable in England, but in both cases it is about learning to control one’s individual appetite. And he looks also at the history. That’s still very relevant today.
How have we controlled our appetites?
By defining certain foods as delicacies. This actually feeds into what Rachel Laudan is talking about in upper class cuisine, which is all about delicacies, things you eat in small quantities. You see that very clearly in the nouvelle cuisine in France, for example. You eat small quantities, in Chinese cuisine as well, and you have these delicacies in Japan. It’s all about tiny bits. So one way of controlling appetite is by saying to yourself, ‘I’ll only allow myself one hamburger.’ The other way, the upper class way, which then trickles down, is to consider certain things delicacies of which we eat very little. In most cases, it is about controlling the impulse because our impulse is to eat. We are hardwired for that.
I think I’m finally getting a sense of why Romans considered peacock tongues a delicacy.
In my book, I have some examples of the Ottoman cuisine, where they served cooked animals with live birds in their bellies. It is all part of this ritual on impulses. 20 years ago, we didn’t eat as much. Food wasn’t as available and we were not in a condition to eat all the time. There were no places where you could buy food all the time, you were at school or at work or studying. You had long days, with only intermittent moments of eating. Now people are working at home, they are working while they are moving. There’s food everywhere. Railway stations have become food stations.
Yes, we’ve met here at Euston station, and there’s restaurants all over the place. I take it for granted and don’t notice anymore, but you’re absolutely right, it wasn’t like this 20 years ago.
For me, the main shock was when I came back to the Netherlands about 8 years ago. My office, at the time, was near the equivalent of your Bond Street and I could see people eating on the street. People were eating all the time – all the time.
Where had you just come from ?
That time, I came from Italy. Italy was just starting that fast food culture too, though not as much. But a lot of my travelling has been to countries where food is scarce. Although the most obese country in the world is Mexico. That’s also where you see fast food catching on quickly. The fast food in itself is not bad, but if you only have fast food and then also this rapid change to not moving at all… Teenagers used to play outside. They used to help their fathers building a shed. There was much more physical movement. Nowadays children move less. Their muscles are less strong, so their bones are less strong, and they have more accidents. There are more accidents breaking bones at schools during physical education than before.
This book is extremely interesting. It’s very, very nice to read, if you have the time. I chose it for two reasons. One is that the concerns about sugar are far older than we think today. Nowadays everybody is talking about sugar being ‘the new smoking.’ The other is that it’s another lens, the lens of one product, which is complimentary to the other books. I really put some thinking into these books.
So Mintz looks at sugar. We know sugar, even the Babylonians knew sugar. Sugar cane, and somewhat later sugar beet, are among the oldest domesticated crops. However, everything changed in the aftermath of Charles Mann’s Columbian Exchange because then, for the first time, there was room for plantations of sugar cane, and the slave trade made cheap labour available in great climates to grow sugar cane. This meant that the price of sugar from sugar cane came down rapidly and made sugar suddenly available.
Sugar is so interesting because it is a chemical compound that only plants can make. We can change it, but our bodies cannot make it. So we are completely dependant on plants. Even the sugar that is in honey—which was the only source of sweetness in the Middle Ages—comes from plants. It’s not the bees making the sweetness. What happened in the 17th-18th century is that sugar became cheap, and what really led to the dissemination of sugar was the advent, at the same time, of coffee, tea, and, to some extent, cocoa. Here you have drinks that start to replace the barleys and the beer, which was the normal drink in the late Middle Ages. You had a drink, suddenly, that was available to the lower classes, which was made palatable with sugar. The idea of not having sugar in your tea is quite a recent idea. Sugar was an extremely important and cheap source of calories.
People who want to ban sugar do not realise that for many parts of the world, sugar is still an important source of calories, and it is one of the cheapest sources that we have. Yes, a lot of sugar is bad for you, and a lot of sugar, and a lot of food, including sweetened food, leads to obesity and insulin resistance. But originally, sugar was quite essential. England’s Industrial Revolution wouldn’t have been the same without sugar because the poorer classes wouldn’t have had enough energy.
The other thing about this vehement opposition to sugar today is that it disregards completely that even babies in the womb, before they’re born, already like sweetness. When the mother drinks or eats something very sweet, that comes to the baby through the placenta, and you can see babies reacting. There’s no way we are going do away with sugar.
“There are lots of misconceptions. And because it has taken on such moral connotations, it has become very difficult to even talk about GM.”
So the bottom line is that, when it comes to individual food intake, it is about moderation and diversity and being part of a healthy pattern rather than focusing on individual food stuffs. And when it comes to society, we have to start learning to trust our food system because it has brought us healthier and cheaper foods than ever before. We have these excesses here and there, but trade and factory foods, when they are part of a healthy diet, are a blessing because a thousand years ago, you and I—apart from the fact that we would probably already be dead—would be spending 8 to 10 hours a day just trying to get our food. And we would still experience shortages! So the fact that others produce our food in such abundance, at such low prices, is what makes us free to sit here…
One final thing I wanted to ask you about is genetically modified food. Criticisms of GM and/or Monsanto is something I constantly see posted on Facebook. It’s something people feel very strongly about.
I have a whole chapter on this in my book and I tried very hard to give a measured statement there.
Yes. I have to say that reading your book and looking through that chapter, I was very drawn to the way you try to look at some of these issues in a dispassionate way.
I do know a lot about genetics, and where I work today, in Wageningen, we have some of the best plant and animal geneticists in the world. I’m pretty sure of what I say in the book because it is so important that we get the facts right. You know, with food, or genetic modification, or sugar, it’s like with everything: you can use a knife to kill a man, or you can use it to delicately carve a beautiful wooden statue. Or to cut up food to feed your child. The things we develop always have different uses, and it is the context of usage that determines what it is.
Are you saying GM is alright?
No, I wouldn’t say that. That’s a generalisation, and I don’t think generalisations are right. A lot of the confusion comes from generalisations. It is not right or wrong for a start. That’s those moral categories again. We should look at risks, and at objective and purpose. So, is the technique of changing the genome of a plant or an animal in itself acceptable? Well, if you look at it from an evolutionary point of view, yes, it is. You and I, as human beings, wouldn’t exist otherwise. Our genome consists of bits and pieces of bacterial genome. So, in itself, the process of introducing strange genes into another genome is a natural evolutionary process. From that perspective, GM is something that is part of the evolution.
The difference, of course, is that we do it and we do it with a certain purpose. As I explain in the book, the tragedy is that Monsanto started this with all the wrong things around it. It was for large-scale agriculture, for herbicide resistance, it was feed for animals. It was associated also with tractors and killing forests and so on. That was all wrong.
“I think, or at least hope, that 10-15 years from now, organic and non-organic will converge.”
But if you look, now, at some of the applications, say for example, in Hawaii. Hawaii depends a lot on papaya production. Papayas had been wiped out by Papaya Ringspot Virus and there was no solution. They introduced a gene that helps the plant to resist this particular virus, and now there is papaya production again.
So it depends on the purpose, and it depends also on who has access to the technology. But the science in itself is not right or wrong.
There are lots of misconceptions. And because it has taken on such moral connotations, it has become very difficult to even talk about GM. That’s one of the real tragedies, I think. Europe is becoming extremely conservative, and the rest of the world is going ahead. My fear, as a scientist, is that we won’t know what it’s all about because we’ve lost all the scientists who work on it, and we are not allowed to work on it ourselves. There’s a lot to be said on the subject of GM. It is one of the examples of extreme confusion.
The pros and cons of organic is something else you address in your book. You write, “Organic is not necessarily better than nature, humans, or animals.”
And the problem with organic is that the end product—say an organic apple—is not chemically different from a non-organic apple. So all the claims about it being more healthy are very difficult to substantiate. Also, if you do organic, it means using more land. That, in itself, is a problem because you won’t have land for other things, particularly for nature. Also, you don’t particularly want to have low yields in countries where there are food shortages. You want to use fertilisers because some soils are just too poor to produce anything.I think, or at least hope, that 10-15 years from now, organic and non-organic will converge. The best practices nowadays in modern agriculture—in the UK, or in the Netherlands, or in France—are really very low on chemicals, so in the comparison between organic and non-organic, you have to be very careful what you’re comparing. There are no absolute truths.
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Louise O. Fresco is a food and agricultural scientist and president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. She is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize.
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