Killer Food

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



Some of
the action stems from an expanded concept of The Neighborhood Pharmacy into
a modified supermarket selling milk to nuts to fans to sniffers, Prozac and
medicated smears. Some reason also must be the implacable growth in medical
expenditure and drug costs, hand in hand with the increasing number of codgers
who require expensive treatment as their own internal systems grow frail and
fail. And who needs the neighborhood druggist when online services provide drugs
by mail, by the gross or the gallon? After barely half a year of operation,
Drugstore.com has nearly 430,000 customer accounts. Spacious ads everywhere
from U.S. News & World Report to the E train generated no less than
$716,000,000 in sales for the allergy drug Claritin. Even more convenient for
pill-poppers, there is now talk of a service that allows people to order prescriptions
by phone or e-mail from physicians in cyberspace who will never see them personally.


But perhaps
something else is involved in this physical expression of the citizenry’s
concern for health. Perhaps this reveals people neither feel cared-for well
by current medical practice nor that any elements in the system can and will
respond to patients’ concerns for what are, after all, their only lives.
It is almost as if there is in commercial practice and in public communication
some reflection of turbulent private fear of mortality confronted without skilled
and caring communal help. The response even in the Congress, which permitted
managed care to develop in the first place, suggests that there is inadequate
care, and what care there is is perceived to be mismanaged.


And there
is a flood of media medical attention to a cavalcade of medical issues. For
example, October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and there were countless
stories of "survivors" who are–actually–people who were
unfortunately sick and had fortunately effective treatment and are now well.
Major newspapers run costly advertisements, even whole sections, supporting
celebrity-leavened campaigns against this disease or that, while endless charity
events collect $1000 per plate of expensive protein in pursuit of funds to challenge
illness. And in an extraordinary contribution to Saturday night highlife, Channel
13 in New York announced several weeks ago Stories of Lupus: "A
documentary on the effects of the disease on men and women in eight cities leads
off five hours of documentaries on endometriosis, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart
disease, and lung cancer."


Something’s
up. It appears large numbers of people turn to self- medication–there are
more "nutriceuticals" bought in the USA than pharmaceuticals; 46 percent
of the U.S. population takes one or more herbal or similar remedies, such as
St. John’s wort (whatever the side effects–this neo-panacea causes
extension and disruption of the normal effects of anesthesia). Countless individuals
self-administer a cocktail of substances conferring putative immortality, ranging
from vitamins to oat bran to cranberry juice to black tea (or is it green?)
to no carbohydrates to no protein to no sugar to no salt to a great deal or
none of Whatever. Like marbles on a tippy table, consumers with their ears cocked
to this week’s announcements of experts flow from butter to margarine back
to butter to Olestra to canola oil to no oil to foamy soups to a diet exclusively
of tofu by the dumpster. People making dinner parties have to be alert to the
danger of serving perilous sacrilegious food to guests–some of whom may
actually accompany their acceptance of the invitation with the list of substances
they will not eat lest they die right there at the table, after the plump rumpsteak
with flowing Roquefort sauce.


A man newly
arrived from Malaysia was planning his first American dinner party and wondered
if he could serve chicken livers with fried rice. Chicken livers–those
cholesterol pellets! He received immediate and stern food-taboo advice, and
his social career was rescued in the nick of time. He would have become notorious
as the neighborhood artery poisoner, and perhaps would have had to register
with the authorities. Guests would have scorned him out on the way home and
smiled gracefully at the ineptitude of this immigrant and his food folly. To
guard against just such dire dining emergencies, some advanced specialists in
committed self-medication will bring their own food in humble plastic containers
purchased from Rite Aid (aisle six, housewares): "Don’t fuss, I’ll
be fine, it’s no bother, just warm it please. Not in the microwave if you
don’t mind. You know, the real oven."


Americans
have now sustained for years an extermination model of food. The concept is
food kills us, not keeps us alive and healthy. And this is true, to the extent
we overeat like swine, eat the wrong things from restaurant plates half a square
yard big, and more of us grow more obese by the meal. As part of normal education,
neither boys nor girls learn how to cook, and hence as adults are increasingly
unable to feed themselves with even minimal skill. It appears only some 16 percent
of the food Americans eat they prepare for themselves from fresh ingredients.
This means that the great bulk of their consumption is of foods prepared by
marketing specialists who know all too well the commercial advantages of using
generously those all-time favorites salt, sugar and lots of animal fat. This
is a gross medical insult, since our cardiovascular systems evolved before we
learned about 10,000 years ago how to make butter and cheese and consume caged
animals with up to 38 percent animal fat (instead of athletic ones, such as
venison and wildfowl, with three percent).


This is
part of the reason that cardiovascular disease is the most costly one that afflicts
elderly people. Over time, the body can’t handle the volume of fat it is
expected to push through the bloodstream, which is why millions of people take
the statins and other drugs that mitigate the effects of diet. Which also of
course explains the national obsession with diets in magazines (sold at checkout
counters of course) and nonstop television hucksters in pastel leotards promising
bellies as flat as pool tables if you just buy their systems and their mechanisms.


And this
is to say nothing about the Next Big Thing in the extermination model of food
department: the campaign against so-called genetically modified food. This was
one understandable consequence of the mad cow scare in Europe, but it has been
generalized politically, especially in France and Germany–and with special
muddle in England, where political hostility to American symbols such as McDonald’s
(which no one is compelled to patronize–it’s a choice) has been successfully
merged with concern about new seeds that are genetically manipulated and the
foods they generate. Of course, all of agricultural development has depended
on manipulation of the original stock of nature. As anyone who has studied traditional
agriculture in poor countries can attest, traditional ways of growing things
may be highly costly in terms of labor and the environment. Slash and burn agriculture
comes to mind, in which huge tracts of land are willfully burned (creating vast
air pollution) to create conditions for new agriculture or eradicate the side-products
of old.


Even dreaded
pesticides permit farmers to grow crops that can survive without deploying the
natural carcinogens plants themselves produce to defend themselves against their
enemies. The fact is that Nature did not set up its grocery list solely to provide
human beings with cheap and tasty food. Centuries of skillful agricultural experiment
and experience have enabled fewer farmers to feed more consumers with more good
food than any time in history. For nearly all people obsessing about their bodies
and their food, just eating less would be more healthful than eating
differently.


This is
not to say that there are no virtues in organic and ecologically adroit agriculture,
or that there isn’t a direct esthetic benefit in fruits and vegetables
grown in charming and familiar environments. While there has as yet been no
substantial evidence of harmfulness of the now-suspect foods, it is understandable
if people trust meadows more than factories. Nevertheless, it is also necessary
to ask if the current turmoil about food is another element in a troubled relationship
people have to their own health and the systems that are supposed to provide
it.


And a poignant
thought that may underlie this also comes to mind: Since science and technology
are so capable of controlling so much, how come people still die? What’s
going wrong?


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