HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Food is the New Enemy

The strawberries beckon. So do the fields of tomatoes. The ripe peaches hang heavy from the trees. Summer offers up a cornucopia. But we hesitate. “Do I dare to eat a peach?” We approach the feast gingerly.

Poor J. Alfred Prufrock was stymied by existential angst at the human condition. T S. Eliot lived in a simpler era.

We Americans are not bedeviled by angst. Instead, we fear our food. We eat not lustily but carefully, alert to the dangers in fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, snacks. We munch a lot, but cautiously.

We fear pesticides sprayed into the air, lingering on the produce. A century ago, we had purer food, but less of it. Today we bask in a four-season abundance. But pesticides are responsible. My pesticide-wary friends grow vegetables in their backyards, to assure a bounty of organic produce. But city soil may well contain decades-old deposits of lead. So even these organic farmers still munch cautiously.

We fear the dizzying concoctions of hormones and antibiotics fed into our animals. Beef is cheap and plentiful, but loaded with the chemicals that let cows grow fatter and fatter as they crowd into pens, waiting for sanitized slaughter overseen by sometimes unsanitary workers. The affluent among us research the provenance of meat, as it were a painting: what did the animals ingest? where did they roam? what diseases did they have? who killed them? how?

With seafood, we navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Do we choose fish caught in the ocean, even though that ocean may have mercury? Are some species more likely to ingest mercury? Are some waters purer than others? Or do we search out farm-fed fish –cheaper, more plentiful. But, like beef, farm-fed fish ingests food to make them grow quickly. Tilapia, ubiquitous in supermarkets, is what it eats: corn and soybeans, mostly.

As far as processed foods, labels list their chemicals. Without chemicals the foods couldn’t sit on shelves for months at a time, yet the chemicals sound frightful. We know that transfats, whatever they are, are bad, bad, bad. Even as we devour a goodly per capita amount of chips, nachos, and crackers, we know that we are getting fatter, maybe sicker, because of them. And even supposedly good stuff, like tofu, tempeh, and seitan, come preserved, with their own chemical pedigrees.

Disturbingly, all vegetables – the purest-grown – are not necessarily good for us. Consider potatoes, green peas, corn and lima beans. For years, parents urged children to eat them.

But are they vegetables? If not, what are they? If so, are they bad vegetables – a new oxymoron? The US Department of Agriculture wants to curtail them in school lunches. (Jennifer Levitz and Betsy McKay, Wall Street Journal, May 17). The USDA has already banned potatoes from “allowable” foods in its nutrition program for low-income mothers and children. The potato industry now defends the spud as a “gateway” to other vegetables, like broccoli, even though potatoes have nutrients. All this refers only to the white potato. The sweet potato, from a different botanical family, is good for us.

So are nuts, unless you are allergic, which a lot of children are. But protein-laden nuts carry calories. So if you are trying to slim down, you should eat sparingly. And maybe you shouldn’t salt them.

With salt, the wisdom has wavered. For centuries people considered salt essential. Read Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, to trace humans’ reliance on the mineral. But we moderns discovered the dangers lurking not just in shakers, but in preserved and canned foods.

Bacon, soups, peanut butter, beans – all contain sodium, which, we were told, would spike blood pressure. A mini-industry of salt-substitutes took culinary hold. Recently, experts have questioned the taboo: maybe salt doesn’t wreak havoc on our bodies. Maybe we can sprinkle it on our potatoes, though maybe we shouldn’t be eating potatoes.

Our great-grandparents would marvel at our timidity. We prowl the aisles of mega-supermarkets. We visit farmers’ markets. We eat in restaurants. Yet we hesitate. We worry.

We need a reprieve.

Eat that peach.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1/15, 2011

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