Western industrial civilisation is eating itself stupid. Cookery programs bloat the television schedules, cookbooks fill the bookshop windows, and celebrity chefs hawk their own branded ranges in the supermarkets. The average Briton now spends five hours a week watching TV food programs, and only four hours a week cooking. It is an age of virtual eating.
Worse, the products of modern food media routinely promise to reveal the secrets not just of cooking but of the good life, of happiness itself. Tom Kerridge’s Dopamine Diet is a “stay-happy way to lose weight”; Fearne Cotton will show you how to “cook happy cook healthy”; Tom’s Daily Plan will result in a “happier, healthier you”, and many cookbooks and nutrition guides are named in explicitly religious terms, from Patrick Holford’s The Optimum Nutrition Bible to The Detox Kitchen Bible. Chefs and food writers are the spiritual gurus of the age.
But to imagine that eating can nourish the spirit looks like a category mistake. That, after all, is why the early church counted gluttony – defined as excessive interest in food – as a sin. Thomas Aquinas agreed with Pope Gregory that gluttony can be committed in five different ways, among which are seeking more “sumptuous foods” or wanting foods that are “prepared more meticulously”. In this sense, our world is rampant with normalised gluttony. Indeed, not to be a glutton is now taken as a sign of lack of culture.
Perhaps we are not so ethically troubled by this. Harder to dismiss, however, is the fact that so much of the most popular modern food writing may be actively harmful to its consumers. Instead of the term ‘foodie’ for a food-obsessive, I prefer to use ‘foodist’ – a word that, not coincidentally, was used in the late 19th century for hucksters selling fad diets. Much of the popular food literature today, too, is based on dangerous nonsense masquerading as scientific truth.
The current bestselling genre of ‘clean eating’, for example, offers pseudo-medical expertise about how to avoid ‘toxins’ and ‘junk’, and eat only those foods that engender ‘wellness’ or enable you to ‘get the glow’. All bread is junk, some of these experts claim, while peanut butter will give you cancer. (The term ‘clean eating’ was used a century ago by Horace Fletcher, who promoted ‘scientific chewing’ as a means to lose weight and preserve health.) A key term in the modern rhetorical armoury of ‘clean eating’ is ‘detox’, as in the aforementioned The Detox Kitchen Bible. But ridding the body of harmful substances is the job of the kidneys and liver, the correct functioning of which, according to the British Dietetic Association, will not be improved by changing anything in one’s diet.
Another popular ‘clean eating’ book, Natasha Corrett’s Honestly Healthy Cleanse, promises health and happiness if you follow a strictly alkaline diet. This is inspired by the work of Robert Young, an American nutrition writer who composed The pH Miracle: Balance Your Diet, Reclaim Your Health. Young’s astonishing promise, as stated to Dr Giles Yeo in a recent BBC Horizon documentary, is that, “all sickness and disease can be prevented by managing the delicate pH balance of the fluids of the body” – which is certainly revolutionary if true.
Mr Young believes that red blood cells turn into bacteria if the pH balance of the blood is disturbed. He thus hews to a long-refuted theory of the epidemiology of disease, owed to the 19th-century French physician Antoine Béchamp, who claimed that all sickness arose from within the body. His great rival, Louis Pasteur, showed otherwise with the germ theory. Natasha Corrett, however, apparently believes that Robert Young’s revived version of Béchamp is true, and is rejected by the medical establishment only because “giant pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t be able to make any money out of doctors prescribing vegetables”. In this she illustrates the anti-expert conspiracy thinking that not only leads millions to eat diets that are, according to dieticians and experts in eating disorders, potentially harmful, but also that encourages many people today to believe the Earth is flat, or to reject as fake news anything published by the ‘mainstream media’.
The medical and spiritual promises of the modern food media are immensely consoling and understandably attractive: after all, they assure the customer that, in an uncertain world, she can control her own fate through what she eats. This might be accounted a happy delusion were it not for the negative implication – if you get sad, or ill, then it must be your own fault. Implicit in all the modern literature on health and happiness through food is a stark individualism, an attack on solidarity with one’s fellow citizens. And that is a recipe for disaster.