Reviewed by Laura Isaacman
In the 1970’s, the American Heart Association supported the use of trans fats over saturated fat. Today, trans fat is the fat to avoid. During that same time, the AHA admitted that they were unable to find a link between dietary cholesterol and heart attacks. In 1903, milk became the “prime suspect” for carrying typhoid and other diseases, and milk sales plummeted. But after World War One, the dairy industry convinced the USDA to encourage consumption of milk, and by 1921 “milk bars” were created so that businessmen could meet the recommended one-quart per day of milk. In 1907, Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff said that yogurt prolonged life by stopping “intestinal putrefaction,” which poisoned the body and caused old age. In 2004, Stonyfield Farm said the benefits from eating yogurt, including combating diarrhea, lowering cholesterol, and curing Crohn’s disease, were “widely held beliefs, not proven true.” In 2007, the USDA recalled 21.7 million pounds of frozen hamburgers that caused an outbreak of illness and kidney failure. The USDA responded to the crises by telling Americans that “the American meat supply is the safest in the world.” Several days later it was revealed that the USDA withheld knowledge of the tainted meat for eighteen days, to which an official then admitted: “There is room for improvement.”
What is going on here?
In his book Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein explains what’s going on here.
With an authoritative and precise writing style, the sections of Fear of Food repeatedly reveal the insane marketing and production of the American food industry, and the irresponsibility in government control and (lack of) involvement that allows the manipulative industry to flourish. Throughout the thoroughly researched book, Levenstein provides the history of germs, milk, the beef industry, vitamania, organic food, processed food, and fats to show the growth of a national eating disorder, and the media’s role in propagating a culture of fear surrounding food.
We discover secrets of the food industry, such as in 2002 when the government approved a method that allowed for Eldon Roth of Beef Products to “make ground beef out of the discarded fatty trimmings from slaughterhouses that had previously been used for pet food and oil” in order to create a “ground beef-like substance.” This “pink slime,” as one microbiologist describes the substance, is treated with ammonia gas to kill E. coli and salmonella, and shipped off to public schools, prisons, McDonalds, Burger King, and any other supplier looking to save a few bucks.
Earlier, in 1996, the USDA instituted a new inspection system, which allowed companies to check and approve the safety of the meat they produced, a job that has always belonged to a specific part of government called the USDA. This new, self-checking rule was a problem since it coincided with the industrialization of beef production, where cows are fed on corn rather than grass. When cows feed on corn, it produces a new acid in the stomach, one that allows E. coli 0157:H7 to breed and pass on through the cows’ manure. The problem was exacerbated with the use of feedlots, where cows are “often wallowing knee-deep in manure,” allowing for E.coli germs to “migrate back from the manure into [the cows] skins and stomachs.” Even though the USDA advises that hamburger meat be cooked until well-done, Levenstein writes that “one in four burgers that are brown in the middle are not hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria.”
However, this danger does not only affect meat eaters. Because the incredible amount of run-off, which is heavily composed of fecal matter, can (and has) run into neighboring corporate farms, E. coli outbreaks can (and have) contaminated our vegetables. One has to wonder who is running this circus.
In Fear of Food, we also learn how the American Heart Association put profits before health, when, in 1998, it removed the stipulation from its charter that prohibited product endorsements, and began handing out “Heart Guide” logos, which assured products were “American Heart Association Tested and Approved,” to just about any company that could afford the fee. One of these “Heart Guide” logos landed on a Big Rax roast beef sandwich, “whose thirty grams of fat were half of the AHA’s entire daily allowance for a woman.”
Levenstein also discusses the inanity of American food producers and consumers, in an attempt to save a few dollars. He travels through the twentieth century to discuss how desiccation, freezing and thawing, oxidation, and decomposition of our foods deplete and destroy their nutrients. He contrasts this destruction of nutrients with the surge of vitamania, in which people looked to pills to make up for the nutrients that should have come from organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And since we, the consumers, are glad to save a couple of bucks, we allow for and support the excessive use of partially hydrogenated products, the freezing, and the milling, because it keeps the cost of our food relatively low.
What we don’t connect, Levenstein highlights, is the amount of money we spend making up for these lost nutrients; we take vitamins to supplement the nutrients that have been tampered with and dissolved, medicines to lower the cholesterol from our super-sized portions of meat, and health insurance to cover the costs of cancer, obesity, and heart disease. We, as a culture, think nothing of prevention, make no link between consumption and illness, and rely less and less on our own distinctions between healthful and harmful.
We are a nation so easily swept into fads, and Levenstein warns that we had better get a hold of ourselves, take control of our diet and our lives before it’s too late. Fear of Food will give you just the push to do so.
The University of Chicago Press