Food Fears

Published on: 11:42AM Mar 12, 2009

The recent outbreak of salmonella-infected peanuts, plus the pathogenic problems affecting vegetables and raw milk, are well-documented signs of a flawed food safety system.  Congress is working to fix it, for better or worse.


The other well-documented recent phenomenon regarding food safety is the focus – some would term it an obsession – with ingesting only the “right” kinds of food.  This has little to do with avoiding pathogens, and everything to do with keeping up with the Jones’s in the pursuit of politically correct food.


We’ve all seen the buzzwords lately:  not only does it have to be “slow,” “organic,” and “locally”- and “sustainably”-produced, but it also has to come from “humane” “family farms.”  Now obviously those actually involved in both food production and processing know there’s not a thimble’s worth of difference in the vast majority of foods containing such labels, but that doesn’t stop people from obsessing about it.


I was therefore intrigued by this recent article by the New York Times, which unquestionably is the biggest media mouthpiece for the natural-organic-local-anything but usual food movement.  The Times gives plenty of space for people like Michael Pollan and Nina Planck to offer their new gospels according to alt-food.


But at least, in this most recent article, the NYT raised the reasonable question about whether this obsessive focus with politically-correct foods is actually harming the people it’s most intended to help:  children.  Read these passages:


“Many doctors, dietitians and eating disorder specialists worry that some parents are becoming overzealous, even obsessive, in efforts to engender good eating habits in children. With the best of intentions, these parents may be creating an unhealthy aura around food.


“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety in these kids,” said Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They go to birthday parties, and if it’s not a granola cake they feel like they can’t eat it. The culture has led both them and their parents to take the public health messages to an extreme.”


I love the fact that a doctor has actually coined a phrase for the pursuit of politically-correct food:


Dr. Steven Bratman of Denver has come up with a term to describe people obsessed with health food: orthorexia. Orthorexic patients, he says, are fixated on “righteous eating” (the word stems from the Greek word ortho, meaning straight and correct).



I do not defend people who continually and only shovel garbage into their mouths, or even worse, offer it to their children.  My 5 and 7 year-old kids understand that there are healthy foods, and then there are treats that are not necessarily healthy, and the former have to be consumed first before any consideration of the latter is on the table.


That said, my wife (who also has extensive experience with food safety issues) and I don’t obsess over the political cause du jour in the kitchen.  There are times when the kids have Happy Meals.  My son will have cupcakes at his birthday party this week (homemade, actually, but without a single organic ingredient and covered with plenty of sugary chocolate frosting, along with Iron Man logos).  They also eat more vegetables than any other kids I know, and love fresh fruit (we shared a mango the other night that was a feast for the taste buds.  It most certainly was not local in any sense of the word, seeing as how there are no mango trees that I’ve ever seen in the U.S.).


The point being, to counter what Mae West once said (“too much of a good thing is wonderful”), too much fanatical focus on the orthodoxy of food production, to the point of orthorexia, is a sad illustration of the dire need some have to control their bodies, and those of their kids.  It’s a neurosis that can be passed to our offspring if we let it, and in many way is a far greater food pathogen than any germ in our meals.