High Priests of Nutritional Correctness

23 Jun 2003

At regular intervals through the year the media treat us to ritual incantations about food.
Each season has its predictable script. For Christmas and New Year we witness a torrent of words describing sumptuous eating, advice on what to cook—panettone and spumante wherever you look. We then have to punish ourselves for all that overindulgence when Epiphany comes and be told how to lose all that excess weight. Easter is a release from the restraints of Lent, a joyful celebration of the arrival of spring. Once again we have a big feed and receive the usual exhortations from the newspapers and television.

As summer approaches, draconian measures have to be taken, so we will look our best in our swimming gear. Dietary regimes are all the rage and verge on the ridiculous. Then the hot weather comes and we are subjected to a barrage of how important it is to eat fruit and vegetables, vegetables and fruit, light meals, don’t eat much, drink a lot, drink all the time, drink a lot of water. And who goes to all the trouble of giving us such valuable advice? Gaggles of experts, professors and doctors, all flocking to appear on television and eager to have their moment of fame.

We are treated as a passive audience, expected to follow the dictates of the priests and their pronouncements of nutritional correctness as though it were a question of faith and possible atonement. Taking a pleasure in eating obviously continues to be seen as a transgression, something sinful and seductive.

The Italian Minister of Health, Girolamo Sirchia, keeps lecturing us on how badly we eat and how increasing obesity is a national disease. We have an interest in his strictures, given our concerns for food quality, and we are well aware that gastronomic pleasure does not mean overeating but proper moderation. But above all, food quality depends on the raw materials available.

Looking at it from this perspective, it would be a big step forward if we had sound agricultural practices that did not succumb to the temptations of high productivity at the expense of the organoleptic quality of food. The world is full of people lamenting that food is no longer as good as it used to be; not from a gourmet point of view but simply from what we remember and consider food should be like. Vegetables have no taste, fruit is bland, and so on. But there is a taboo subject that is not mentioned: very few people talk about additives, pesticides, post-harvest treatments or raw materials that have suffered due to industrial methods. With all due respect to Dr Sirchia, if we want to talk about bad diet it is true that there is a significant percentage of cases which are due to poor eating habits, but it is equally true that there is another significant proportion of cases which are due to the rubbish we are forced to eat. The reasons for this are well known—a lack of proper food education, irresponsible and low quality production practices, and a lack of alternatives to imposed standardisation of taste. Doctor Sirchia should dedicate as much attention to this second set of responsibilities as to the present focus of his reprimands, but obviously, it is a taboo question.

Variety, quality and moderation are fine qualities whether it is Christmas or Easter, whether it is cold or warm; pleasure and respect for food seasonality are a good rule for everyone. You certainly do not enhance your quality of life and health from indulging in a food binge, but you also have to be aware that the present approach to food production is pretty borderline in its effects on consumer health and safety. This is not some sort of fixation—it is the truth. Nobody seems to realise how valuable the old patterns of life were or how important seasonality is. What should we eat in this hot weather? Well, what the land provides as a result, selecting good quality and not eating too much.
It seems that you can’t eat meat in summer, and here I am dreaming of a fresh tasty carpaccio of Piemontese beef. Our high priests of nutrition advise us to have a lot of water, fruit and vegetables to get the right protein, the right number of calories, low fats, the right amount of lipids. I am sorry that I cannot repeat their telegenic scientific pronouncements, maybe because they are completely incomprehensible for the average person. I have a feeling that Mass in Latin was easier to understand!

First printed in La Stampa on16/06/2003

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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