Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scares, trends and history

Many people assume I get all my books for free because of my profession. I imagine that if such a statement was true, I would be debt-free. My personal book collection has cost me much over the years, although it was all worth it.

However, I do get one sort of perk. Many of my colleagues are on various award committees for assorted Library Associations, as well as reviewers for national publications. As such, they do get a lot of material to review. And by "a lot" I mean boxes and boxes, sometimes several a month. And my colleagues often find those who might be interested in specific subject who could offer a specialist review. Or, other times, they have have extra copies they give away. And naturally this past year or so, they've been throwing food, diet and nutrition books my way:

So....binge eat in heels?

OK, OK, not that one, but I think I could give that fine review. No, instead I was offered Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein. And I need to give a review here on this blog, because I heartily recommend this book.

It's a slim volume, and an easy read, but also a nicely cited history of various aspects of food "scares", issues and the intertwining of both government, scientific and popular influence on consumer choices. Chapters cover different issues such as vitamins, beef, milk, fat and so on. Levenstein is a food historian and, to me, the mark of good piece of historical reading is the eagerness to flit through the end notes and bibliography to see just where the author found his citations. And this book delivers!

It's fascinating as well to see some of the nascent attempts at food science and public health in our country. And it drives home another one of my usual tropes about the female oriented dietitian/librarian professions. Much of this book addresses the push of governments and food companies towards the main food purchaser: women. And it was women who were beginning to become involved in Home Economics and Family Science, from which it seems Dietetics rose as a profession. Early librarianship was often referred to as Library Economy, based on providing children with proper educational and popular reading material. 

Hmmm...large corporate sponsors working through "women's professions" to market a message about food purchasing and educational material...sure, that doesn't happen anymore!

There was a lot of these "not so new facts" in the books. That old nugget about yogurt-eater in Eastern Europe lived for over 100 years, is actually even older than I thought. It goes back to the first years of the 20th Century, as it was thought that it could combat the "autointoxication" we suffered from in our waste filled intestines.

One of the medical experts who tried to alleviate autointoxication was UK physician Sir William Arbuthnot-Lane. His solution for chronic constipation was to remove the colon. He also wrote books such as this one:

I really hope she's not wearing that to the colon removal....tacky tacky.

The big takeaway for me (aside from the now large list of primary sources and references I have on my "to read" list), is the amazing permeability of how both the general public and the scientific world views healthy eating and nutrition. The take we have on "slow food" from the "old days" seems pretty ridiculous when you see that a century ago they thought fresh fruit was not as nutritious as canned, prepared fruit. And that additives have been fought about for longer than we've been alive.

We're not in a new era of dieting and food appreciation. We're just continuing on in a long line of trends that tend to repeat. And in the end is probably all is just about moderation in what we do eat.

So, the next time someone you know is declaring a specific "new way of eating," I recommend you give them a copy of this book. That new way may not be so very new and it probably will be debunked soon enough.


Levenstein, H. A. (2012). Fear of food: A history of why we worry about what we eat. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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