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Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 23.11.2011

Food posters from the past.

The Key Sandwich Personalities survey.

How to make sushi.

Beer and butchers in the United States.

A short introduction to the bunny chow.

A retrospective of Sainsbury’s own label food packaging. (Ok, so most of it is food packaging.)

What should you do with invasive plants? Eat them.

The toast sandwich. (Thanks, Melissa!)

A brief history of that most bizarre of American culinary traditions, the sweet potato and marshmallow casserole.

Mark Bittman waxes lyrical on brown rice.

Liverpool opens its first dry bar.

More than three quarters of the honey sold in the United States doesn’t contain…honey.

How to make your own bitters.

Shark fin soup may be removed from menues permanently.

Michael Pollan’s Food Rules has been re-issued, now with beautiful illustrations. (Thanks Ester!)

Eating a traditional Mongolian feast.

Are apps making recipe books obsolete? (With thanks to Dan Kemp.)

A Christmas pudding survives the South African War.

Ultra-processed food.

Harvesting brown sugar in Mauritius.

White Food

Public service announcement: The National Assembly is due to vote on the Protection of State Information Bill on Tuesday, 22 November. Please wear black to show your opposition to the Bill, and join the Right2Know Campaign’s protests against this Draconian piece of legislation. (If you’d like to know more about the Secrecy Bill, check out this post I wrote for FeministsSA.)

One of my favourite places in London is Exmouth Market. It was about a five-minute walk from my amazing hall of residence in Bloomsbury, and its street food – some of the best in the UK, apparently – made a pleasingly delicious lunch from time to time. Its book shop, Clerkenwell Tales, is also excellent.

I think, though, that Exmouth Market is best known as the sometime home of Brindisa, the Spanish delicatessen which is also based in Borough Market, and Moro, the restaurant which more-or-less introduced the cooking of Spain, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean to Britain. Having cooked from the first Moro recipe book, and having read a great deal about its founders, Sam and Sam Clark, I was curious about the restaurant itself, but I never went further than a detailed perusal of its menu: the place was simply far too pricey for my student budget.

Like so many of the young chefs who led the revolution in Britain’s eating habits during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this includes Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Clarks had worked at the River Cafe. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the restaurant was never intended to be more than a canteen for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the famous architectural firm run by Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers. But it evolved into something more: into the first restaurant in Britain to emphasise the heavily regionalised and seasonal nature of Italian cuisine. The River Cafe imported Ligurian olive oil, cavolo nero, and Pecorino Romano to replicate the cooking of Italy in London.

It could be terribly precious and seemed to confuse eating ‘authentic’ Italian cuisine with some kind of food-based morality. The River Cafe recipe books exuded the restaurant’s self-righteousness, as Julian Barnes explains:

When the first River Cafe Cook Book came out – the blue one – it drew high praise followed by a certain raillery. Some felt they were having a lifestyle package thrust at them; some felt the emphasis on just this kind of olive oil and just those kinds of lentils was a little discouraging. As James Fenton put it in the Independent at the time: ‘I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can’t say I’ve actually cooked anything from it. More, what I’m doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards.’

As many pointed out, the food served by the River Cafe, Moro, and others, is, essentially, peasant food. There is something deeply – and amusingly – ironic about the lefty middle classes (and the River Cafe had a deserved association with the rise of New Labour) paying through the nose to eat bread and cabbage soup, a range of cheap cuts of meat, and polenta.

Polenta is a staple of northern Italy and for all its association with the sophisticated eating of the 1990s, it’s really only cornmeal – or maize– or mielie meal, as we’d call it in South Africa. Partly because of the endless variety of the maize plant, cornmeal comes in both yellow and white and can be ground as finely or as coarsely as tastes demand. In fact, the difference between the yellow, medium-ground cornmeal used to produce polenta or the finer-textured yellow flour for cornbread from the American south, and the fine, white cornmeal favoured for mielie pap in South Africa is minimal.

People’s preferences for yellow or white cornmeal are, then, culturally determined. A recent article published by the magnificent Mail and Guardian explores South Africa’s taste for whiter, finer maize meal:

In the poorest communities a bag of maize meal is often the only way of satisfying a family’s hunger, and the cost factor plays a role too. An 80kg bag of maize meal is about R400: on a 500g portion a person a day, an extended family of 10 people would consume an 80kg bag in about 16 days. The daily total consumption of maize meal in South Africa is about 10 000 tonnes.

But these maize-meal consumers demand a product that is white – stripped of roughage and nutrients – and manufacturers have remodelled their businesses to serve this demand.

South Africa’s best-selling brand of maize meal is White Star, produced by Pioneer Foods. White Star is whiter and finer than other brands. Premier Foods and Tiger Brands, the country’s other two big producers of maize meal, have also invested in technology which produces this whiter maize meal.

In the pursuit of whiteness, the big millers began installing new-generation degerminators about a decade ago. In the grinding process, the degerminator extracts the greyish germ of the maize, which contains oil and other nutrients. The more of the germ extracted, the whiter and blander the end product.

Maize meal that has the least germ extracted is called ‘unsifted’; moving up the scale it becomes ‘sifted’, ‘special’ and ‘super’. Unsifted and sifted maize-meal products have been discontinued by the bigger millers. ‘Super’ is generally defined by millers as having less than 1% oil and it almost exclusively consists of the starchy endosperm. Degerminators were originally expensive technology used only by large mills, but today even relatively small maize millers have them.

The latest development in the quest for greater whiteness is colour-sorting machines, which examine every grain of maize and remove any discoloured (non-white) grain. …

A manager at Premier Foods’ Kroonstad mill, the largest in the world, said there might nevertheless still be some discoloured specks in the final product, which happened when the seed was white on the outside but had discolouration within.

Removing the germ from the maize meal means that it tastes blander and has a longer shelf life (the germ contains oil which goes off quickly). It also means that the meal is considerably less nutritious – even though South African millers do fortify maize meal and wheat flour with vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, as well as niacin, folic acid, iron, and zinc. And what happens to the discarded germ? It goes into cattle feed, rendering animal feed more nutritious than human food.

This demand for white food is neither particular to South Africa – there is a similar trend in Mexico, for instance – nor is it a recent phenomenon. Historically, food that is white – white bread, white sugar, white rice, or white maize meal – is more expensive to produce because it needs to be processed in order to rid it of those impurities or elements which cause it to be darker in colour. white food is associated with wealth and luxury.

The coming of industrialised food production caused an increase in the scale of the adulteration of food to make it go further or seem more appealing. As a result of this, whiteness was associated increasingly with purity. Ironically, though, food producers used poisonous additives like caustic lime to make bread and other products whiter.

The production of food in factories also reduced its price, and this was particularly noticeable for highly processed products like white sugar and white flour. Now produced on a mass scale, even the very poor could afford to drink white sugar in their tea. Indeed, white bread and sugar came to be seen as ‘affordable luxuries’ from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were comforting, ‘special’ items which could make an already meagre diet seem more luxurious. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

In the same way, in the midst of rising food prices and a stagnating job market, South Africa’s poor buy white, fine maize meal.

However, there does seem to be a surprising shift in bread sales, as lower-income consumers appear to be buying more brown bread – as opposed to the white bread they usually favour. This, though, is probably due to the fact that brown bread costs less because it’s exempted from value-added tax. This is a change caused by necessity rather than a new set of ideas around white or brown bread.

As Orwell makes the point, it’s the association of comfort with particular kinds of food which renders them more attractive – even if a diet rich in white sugar and white bread is not at all healthy. A combination of education, affluence, and a new set of values which associate unprocessed, ‘whole’ food – wholegrain bread, whole wheat flour, brown or wild rice, and sticky brown sugar – cause the middle classes to favour products which are overwhelmingly more nutritious.

It is infinitely strange that former peasant food – like polenta – should be sold at a premium to the middle classes at restaurants, while those who are poor prefer white maize because of an association with luxury and wealth. If we are to encourage more people to eat better, it’s clear that we need to lower the prices of ‘whole’ foods. But changing people’s buying habits is related more to a set of cultural assumptions about whiteness than to cost or even knowledge about their nutritional value.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937).

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Rise of the Giant Food Processors,’ Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 30-87.

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.