A) Nutrition-Macro. This comprises fats (oils), carbohydrates (starches and sugars), ethyl alcohol and proteins. Some sugars and the alcohol can pass directly into the blood through the walls of the digestive system. The others are converted by the body into smaller molecules (digested) that can then pass into the blood also. They all are the sources of the energy we need to survive, as their carbon and hydrogen atoms combine with the oxygen we breathe to produce water (2H + O = H₂O) and carbon dioxide (C + 2O = CO₂).
The energy derived from these nutrients is approximately 9 kilocalories (Kcal)/gram for fats, 7 Kcal for alcohol, and 4 Kcal for the carbohydrates and proteins. It makes no difference if the fats and proteins are of animal or vegetable origin, but if they are mineral-based we can’t digest them.
When food is discussed online, the topic invariably turns to nutrition and health. Writers of these articles tell us what we should and should not be eating. Although health is a consideration in food selection, it is not the only factor. Allan Griff who described The Thirteen Preservations last month is back with his view of other reasons why we choose the foods we do. Allan and I would love your comments. You can send them directly to Allan at email@example.com or to the blog by leaving a comment in the box at the bottom of this page.
There is a difference among proteins, but not in their energy values. Proteins are combinations of different amino acids, molecules which have both an amino group (–NH2 or =NH) and an acid group (-COOH). There are about 20 of these compounds that we need, and about half of them can be synthesized by our bodies. The other half cannot, and must be derived from foods. Of these others, eggs, milk and other animal sources are closest to our needs, but there are many vegetable sources, too. Certain mixtures like rice and beans make up for each other’s deficiencies, so we see these combinations as staples in many cultures. This is all interesting and important, but for most of us who live in developed countries, the problems are more from eating too much than getting too little. Vegetarian diets are more likely to be based on Categories II (personal) and/or III (social), rather than on nutrient availability.
Note that the energy value of carbohydrates and proteins are about equal, despite the popular demonization of the former as “empty calories” and the devaluing term, “carbs.” Fruit sugar is not always seen the same as cane sugar, which – though also of plant origin – carries the stigma of “man-made,” refined, less valued than fruits, which seem more “natural,” and do carry more micronutrients along with their energy/calories.
I used to think that fruit sugars were preferable especially for people with high blood sugar, because fructose does not need insulin for its digestion, while cane and other sugars (including those derived from starches) do. That is correct, but at least half the sugar in most fruits is not fructose, and does need insulin to digest. Fructose got a bad name because it replaced cane sugar in some beverages, and negative health effects have been reported. Seldom is it mentioned that control of quantity is what matters most.
Proteins, on the other hand, are often over-valued (and over-eaten), especially when they are linked to animal sources and the images they convey, ranging from conveyors of strength (muscle to muscle) to wasters of energy and water. As noted above, there are plenty of vegetable sources of protein, but they don’t carry the same images. There is an analogy to the herbivore/carnivore division among animals (vegetables are what food eats: Garfield the Cat), and even among dinosaurs.
Fats and their liquid form of oils are also demonized, as they are related to being physically fat, which used to be a famine-resistant advantage but now is an unattractive health hazard. They are also a source of energy and need to be broken apart and metabolized. In other words, fats don’t just become body fat. Fats are also the source of the popular attitude toward fried foods (eating foods fried in oil will make you fat). Association of fried foods with lower-income people supports this negative image, but it’s how much that really counts, and absorption of oils when frying different foods varies greatly, from bread (high) to tofu (low).
Once the associations are overcome, fats and oils take their place as necessary nutrients, and frying also means sterilization and thus less risk of diseases from food handlers anywhere in the chain from farm to table.
Another aspect of fats and oils: saturated vs unsaturated (further divided into trans- vs cis- and mono- and poly-unsaturated). Saturated means the carbon chains have no double bonds (between a pair of carbons). The unsaturated have double bonds and are thus more reactive, generally perceived as a good thing, except that this reactivity also accounts for ease of spoilage by air oxidation (rancidity) which impairs flavor. Mono-unsaturated means only one double bond in the chain, while polyunsaturated means more than one. The poly is perceived as better than the mono, and mono better than saturated. These things are on package labels and choices may be based on these perceptions.
The trans-cis complicates the issue, as in the otherwise “good” double bonds (unsaturated), there are two ways certain groups of atoms can be arranged around the double bond, and the trans is believed to raise blood cholesterol and thus be heart-harmful. It so happens that the trans is typically a chemically altered product (addition of hydrogen to make oils solid and spreadable). The FDA has directed the food industry to stop making it and many products now say “no trans fat” on their labels to appeal to health-conscious consumers, but there are no restrictions on trans fats that occur naturally in the foods themselves. How much it really matters will be different for different people, but the association of trans with manufactured product has reinforced the popular image of trans = bad, hence the producers’ pride in announcing their absence on their labels.
B) Nutrition-Micro This category includes the minerals and compounds (vitamins) that we need, and usually get from foods. Supplements are cheap and widely used, either as named (A, B complex, C, D, E, K) or in natural form, notably fish oils.
C) Non-Nutritive Most important of these is water, taken in beverages and water-bearing foods like vegetables, fruits and meats. Green-leaf vegetables have few calories, but they are nevertheless angelized as “good for you,” because of dietary fiber and micronutrients. Nutrition still needs energy (calorie) sources which most vegetables don’t provide.
This reason includes sensory (anything relates to perception by the senses such as flavor, texture, odor, appearance), and may be genetic or have origins in associations made in childhood or even later.
Fear of the unknown is important, and responsible for much food waste. Is a food “bad” for you if it’s beyond the date on the package? Does some mold on a few berries justify tossing the whole box? Response may be partly financial, partly tradition (what would Mom do?) and partly awareness of pathogens heightened by Covid-19. Tasting or smelling “funny” is a turnoff, often a throwaway, and sometimes justified.
Years ago I worked in a kitchen that served 80 for lunch in a cold climate. We always had a hot soup choice. The cook put into that soup whatever was not used the day before, added flavorings, and may or may not have known that boiling sterilizes most things. No-one complained, we were grateful for the warmth, and perhaps lucky that we were young and resistant.
Contact with fingers is also a personal influence, maybe related to Freud’s anal/oral theories, and where people fall on the messy-tidy continuum.
Family experience counts a lot. Most of us learn what food is and is not at family tables, especially at ages 3-12. After then, some of us turn deliberately independent and reject familial foods as part of the needed separation from parents. (We may go back later, especially after we have our own children.)
Associations may be image-based: real men don’t eat quiche, rich people eat caviar or drink vintage wines, that’s what they ate in the old country (reject or long for), or that’s what they eat here. They thus reinforce positive or negative identifications with specific groups.
Some associations come from nutritional images such as organic, natural or healthy, which may be based on reality but are seldom quantified, thus any marginal benefits to health can be magnified (and sanctified). They may carry with them the implication of higher cost, hence higher social status to the people who can afford them. This has led to the success of the Whole Foods chain, as well as the popularity of Michael Pollan’s books, which may be nutritionally OK, but seem to ignore the time and money stresses that affect many people, perhaps the majority of Americans.
Also, those people who don’t shop at Whole Foods or eat organic come to believe that maybe they should but can’t afford it, so they take up the image without the action, leading to generalized beliefs of “what’s good for you.” As unquantified and unindividualized, it is easy to believe that the more of what’s good for you, the better. The result has been a glorification (angelizing) of vegetables, especially green ones, even though it’s not the “green” but the “veg” that we need. (Unfair to cauliflower.)
It has become a major concern of mine to understand why people are so predisposed to angelize these factors (organic, natural) as healthy, as well as degradability and recycling in the management of our wastes. There are pros and cons to all of them, but the angelizers don’t want to discuss them, lest they shatter the images they need.
Organic usually refers to the absence of synthetics (chemicals} in growing foods, such as fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides for plants. The line is fuzzy: is it “organic” if we put lime in a soil (it’s a chemical) and does it matter if the lime is made by heating the natural rock limestone? And if heating is processing and processing is bad, then is cooking anything bad?
This concern may be extended to the genetic modification of plants (GMO) which is a favorite fear of those who see big corporations as poisoning our people in a blind rush toward greater profit. This is not the place to discuss the biological dangers (or lack of them), nor the political motivations, but I want to separate the two, and also note that big corporations may mean lower prices to consumers in a competitive world. Further, healthier people mean longer lives and thus more consumption of goods and services, with related jobs, and need for more medical care and more money for social security payments and the medical care for these longer-lived citizens.
Natural is a different but related concept, and implies that anything synthetic is somehow bad for us, even evil. In extreme, it drives the anti-vaccination proponents, and is easily rebutted by pointing out such natural yet harmful things as lead compounds, toxic mushrooms and plants, the fugu fish, and countless pathogenic bacteria and viruses – but never mind, the naturalists have their minds made up; don’t bother them with facts.
Reasons for their stubborn adherence to such naturalism are not so obvious, even to them. Natural is repetitive and usually predictable; a fugu is always poisonous and can be avoided; an added chemical is something extra and often can’t even be avoided. There is hidden creationism at work here, too, and fear of science itself, as it must deny magic (the early-learned and needed belief in the impossible).
Packaged foods and beverages, size and design are also influencers. Some are personal: what’s on the kids’ cereal box, label appeal, nutritional information, prepackaged = cleaner = safer, recipes, color and shape; and some are financial: flexible packaging and larger sizes = lower costs, an appeal of Costco and the 2-liter PET plastic bottle.
Last and not least among the personal factors is convenience, often related to speed. Some things can be eaten/drunk while doing other things, like watching television, being a passenger or even a driver in a car, and that’s why we have drive-thru eateries and popcorn in movies. The single-serve PET water bottle provides such convenience, and thus makes it easier to avoid the sugar-filled beverages that are at once so attractive and so unhealthy to those who already get enough calories.
Some foods are easy to eat, such as cookies. Many people always feel rushed, often for good reason (several jobs, several children, other things on their mind), and they will choose what can be eaten fast and cleanly.
There is a counter-behavior that rejects fast food as the province of the uneducated, those who must have their pleasure NOW, and can’t or don’t make the time to slowly savor their nourishment. I relate it also to an ethic of independence, which minimizes cooperation and thus makes individuals scramble just to survive. “Action is noble, dependence is weak.” This in turn derives from the increasing unpredictability of the future, so people can now be assured that whatever the future will bring, it won’t be the same as now.
A “slow food movement” was started in Italy in 1986, as a protest against a McDonald’s opening in the middle of Rome, and has spread worldwide, now with a political agenda including local farming, environmental protection, and opposition to multinational agricultural corporations. In effect, it is saying “slow down change, it’s getting too hard to adapt.” This may be OK for those that can afford it (time, money) but not to the ones in a hurry.
III: Social. This category includes choices derived from the groups one already belongs to, or aspires to belong to. Most obvious of these are religion-based food choices, which often have their roots in the cohesion needed for group survival by controlling social interaction with outsiders, especially intermarriage.
Sometimes, what I described above as personal is also social. We get values from others, and agreement shows that “I belong” as with the religion-based food choices and restrictions. Food behavior reinforces belonging and vice versa. This is especially relevant with conversions and assimilations, where a person wants to be accepted by the new group as one of them. So we eat like them, at least in public and in visible private.
Other examples of social-based choices are the desire to conform to a new relationship (marriage, a new job, a new country). It isn’t only immigrants; plenty of American-born people change cultures when they leave home, or start work, or for any reason move into a new circle, which may value diversity as a principle but still have its own food culture.
In my case, I live among plastiphobes. My relatives and friends don’t say much because they know I am a scientist and believe plastics are not toxic and are far more beneficial than harmful to the environment and our health, but I know what they are thinking and believing. There are plenty of other things to talk about where we agree. But if I follow my interest in WHY they disagree, I get avoidance and squirming, so I usually don’t bother, as I won’t get my answers and only annoy the people I’m talking with.
IV: Financial. This could be a subcategory of personal, but is so important that it deserves a category of its own. Financial constraints are often group-linked – e.g., a family, where several people are in the same economic “pot,” or an institution, which would include school cafeterias and the military, that must balance costs with satisfying the personal desires of the consumers.
Food choices in restaurants are connected with the financial as well as the other categories, as restaurants have images which affect who patronizes which ones. It works many ways: some people will choose an expensive restaurant to feel richer or to impress a guest or in the belief that the food tastes better or is safer, while others will choose what they believe to be cheaper, either denying the differences or ignoring them, maybe feeling better about their thrifty behavior or maybe ashamed they needed to do that. Still others will go to a high-cost place and choose the lowest-cost meals, or vice versa. Sometimes the action is a rejection of certain restaurants because of their image, rather than a positive preference.
The same applies to market purchases. Supermarkets have house brands which cost less; some people buy because to them there isn’t any significant difference, some can’t tell the differences or decide it doesn’t matter, and some prefer the house brands because they are cheaper and even if they can afford the costlier ones. There is personal comfort in thrift – a cheerio saved is a cheerio earned. Taste and choice follow price. That’s what sales and loss leaders do – encourage a purchase because of the perception that the lower price is temporary. Smart shoppers may buy and eat what’s on sale, and for some of these, the lower the cost the better it tastes.
V: Hunger. When people are hungry enough, they will eat anything they think will keep them alive. However, images and traditions may still be important, as shown by the example of the Irish potato famine in 1846, when diseases claimed the potato crops but the British government blocked the sale of cheap corn from the USA, as there weren’t enough milling facilities (needed for corn but not potatoes). More recently, the history of conflicts, especially in overpopulated areas, can give more examples.
On a less desperate level, people who feel hunger at any moment may still be quite selective as to what and where they eat. The brain rather than the physical need is the “manager” here. Some say they eat to avoid feeling hungry, and some can be so involved in what they are doing that they can go for a very long time without food.
Next week: Living in a post-pandemic world