Years ago, I interviewed Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, for a National Review article about his group’s highly publicized reports decrying the delicious dangers lurking in popular restaurant dishes. “I like my vegetables and rice as much as somebody likes their steak and French fries,” he told me. “No, you don’t,” I thought. The cadaverous Jacobson, who looks like he is conducting a life extension experiment involving extreme calorie restriction, routinely reduces the dining experience to numbers indicating nutritional assets and liabilities, treating pleasure as, at best, an afterthought.
To some extent, Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food (Harper-Collins), errs in the opposite direction. Glassner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, is no fatty, but his frequent references to memorable gustatory treats —including “sautéed Moulard duck foie gras with pickled white nectarines, onions, and arugula” at the French Laundry, “tasting menus” prepared by star chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, and a “deeply chocolate fondant with a vanilla and toasted almond ice cream” served at an organic food fair—started to get on my nerves after a while. Still, his acute attack on culinary correctness demonstrates that his heart is in the right place: smack dab in the middle of his taste buds.
“Some of us see eating as something we get to do, a privilege and source of joy,” Glassner writes. “Others view eating as something they have to do.” He is referring to New York Times health columnist Jane Brody, but the same description applies to Jacobson (who gets his share of criticism elsewhere in the book) and every other nutrition nag who rigidly assigns foods to recommended and prohibited categories. Glassner understands that any food can be made to seem good or bad depending on which features one chooses to emphasize, and that a dish’s merits cannot be fully captured by a table listing vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, fats, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar.
Glassner is not oblivious to health concerns, but he points out when they are exaggerated or mistaken (as you would expect from the author of The Culture of Fear, a 1999 book that debunked such bugaboos as road rage, Internet addiction, and school violence). He correctly notes that the science linking eating to health is fuzzier than know-it-alls such as Brody and Jacobson like to admit, especially when it comes to “debatable claims about the lethality of fatness.” He reviews the U.S. government’s embarrassing retreat from the assertion that weighing too much kills hundreds of thousands of Americans each year and presses Walter Willett, a widely quoted Harvard nutritionist, for evidence to back up his claim that extra pounds cause heart disease. “As near as I can tell,” Glassner writes after reviewing the relevant literature, “not a single published study demonstrates that heart disease among the overweight and moderately obese results from their heft rather than from other factors that contribute to both obesity and heart disease.” He is similarly skeptical of conventional explanations for rising weight trends in the U.S., noting that “the explosion of the fast-food industry predated the upsurge in obesity.”
Glassner’s refusal to blame McDonald’s for making us fat is of a piece with his general willingness to critically examine common complaints about food manufacturers and restaurant chains, such as the charge that they foist unhealthy products on malleable consumers, tricking us into eating what’s bad for us. Glassner —who, judging from his references to economic inequality, labor relations, and environmentalism, is a pretty conventional left-liberal—was initially sympathetic to this critique. He was surprised to discover that food companies “seek out consumers’ views about every aspect of their products” and “really do believe in providing people with more rather than fewer options.”
Not that all those options are equally worthwhile. Glassner finds little to recommend in “functional foods” such as vitamin-fortified water and gender-specific bread or in conspicuous good-for-you ingredients such as oat bran and soy. He also questions the assumption that “fresh” and “natural” foods are superior to products that do not bear those adjectives. He notes that “frozen and canned fruits and vegetables tend to be at least as nutritious as their fresh counterparts” and shows “how surreal the distinction between artificial and natural can be.” Under Food and Drug Administration rules, for example, chemically similar or identical ingredients may be assigned to different categories because one is derived from wood or petroleum (officially “artificial,” although both sources are about as natural as things get) while the other is derived from a source that was edible in its original form.
Glassner understands that food companies are responding to consumer demand (and obeying regulatory requirements) when they draw these distinctions, and he acknowledges that food buyers generally get what they pay for, even if it’s only a good feeling. “Most food products,” he writes, “have true added value, though not necessarily the ones touted in advertisements.” He is not impressed by claims that organic products are safer than their conventional counterparts, for instance, but he sees value in “supporting better circumstances for the men, women, children, and farm animals that produce our food.”
Still, Glassner resists turning every meal choice into a moral statement or political act, and he is quick to question all forms of food snobbery, including his own. His openness to innovation and diversity is especially clear in his illuminating discussion of what makes restaurant food “authentic” and whether it should matter. (Short answers: It’s not clear and no.) Glassner sees value in the fresh, locally grown diet championed by the food writer Michael Pollan, and he sees value in frozen TV dinners. He waxes lyrical about meals prepared by world-class chefs but also cherishes favorite dishes in cheap, obscure ethnic eateries (although he questions the contrarian food adventurer’s equation of obscurity with quality). He even recognizes the remarkable value of fast food: “Where else, for a few bucks, can a person of modest means get the complete, tripartite American meal (meat, potatoes, and vegetable), in a clean setting, with toys and diversions for the kids thrown in at no extra charge?”
In short, Glassner appreciates food in all its amazing variety and is not willing to deny what his palate tells him for the sake of fashion or ideology. As a guide to what’s worth eating, I’d take him over Michael Jacobson any day.
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.