Alan Levinovitz is a professor of philosophy and religious studies and so it may be surprising that his latest book is about American diets. In The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat (deliberately provocative title, jeez!), he explores the myths and pseudoscience that much of our culture’s dietary understanding is based upon. He makes smart observations about the ways we use religious ideas and arguments to talk about food. And argues for a relationship with food that is less anxiety-ridden and fearful.
Once, at a farmers’ market, I asked a juice vendor whether her juice counted as “processed”—yet another vague, unscientific epithet that gets thrown around in discussions of food. After a moment of shock, she impressed upon me that processing fruit into juice doesn’t result in processed food. Only corporations, she insisted, were capable of making processed food. Not only that, but it wasn’t the processing that made something processed, so much as the presence of chemicals and additives.
Did the optional protein powder she offered count as a chemical additive, I pressed? A tan, gaunt customer interrupted us.
“It’s easy,” she said, staring at me intensely. “Processed food is evil.”
Processed food is evil. Natural food is good. These are religious mantras, the condensed version of simplistic fairy tales that divide up foods, and the world, according to moralistic binaries. Genuine nutritional science, like all science, rejects oversimplification. “Natural” and “processed” are not scientific categories, and neither is good nor evil. These terms should be employed by monks and gurus, not doctors and scientists. Yet it is precisely such categories, largely unquestioned, that determine most people’s supposedly scientific decisions about what and how to eat.
I first came across Levinovitz through an article in The Atlantic. It was one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while, and it made me want to read the whole argument. The book is great. Levinovitz really enjoys arguing, and it is always fun to read that kind of writing—he’s also very good at it. He cleverly traces past dietary “demons” like MSG and connects their rise and fall to the parts of our diet that have come under attack in recent years (specifically gluten, sugar, fat and salt). He does this as only a philosophy professor can, by challenging our ways of thinking and knowing. By presenting the overwhelming lack of evidence for any specific dietary recommendations. He challenges the media’s mostly irresponsible reporting on wildly conflicting studies that leave the general population distrustful of science. He also makes some pretty progressive recommendations for how to start changing our relationship with food—spoiler alert: eating in the fourth dimension!
The book has really changed the way I think about food and nutritional science. It has highlighted some of the ways in which I have been lazy in my own thinking. The self-congratulatory feeling I get when drinking a glass of red wine is probably not warranted.
I hope some of you have read the book and will want to discuss it in the comments. I would love to hear what you think. I am especially interested in how these trends are reflected in food media. I see this sort of pseudoscience creeping into more and more cookbooks and magazines.
So little evidence, so many myths…
Maria @ Sift & Whisk says:
May 13th, 2015 at 8:38 pm
Hmm, I hadn’t heard of this, but it sounds really interesting! I’m always a fan of anything that debunks commonly-held myths. Especially about food!
May 14th, 2015 at 5:52 am
So, now I’ve started my morning by reading The Atlantic Monthly article. The book title caught my attention as I’ve recently been reading that except for those with celiac, there’s an idea that people on the gluten free bandwagon actually have a problem with the additional yeast that’s necessary to manufacture bread quickly as opposed to a slow rise. Sounds logical.
I’ll buy the book for my bedtime reading. I’m not being sarcastic, as I actually enjoy reading thought provoking books in bed. Either that or baking books. : )
May 14th, 2015 at 7:49 am
Louise- We’re the same, I also read either a baking book or though-provoking book before bed. ; ) I think Levinovitz might have another explanation for the non-celiac response to gluten, but I’ll let you read about that.
May 14th, 2015 at 7:50 am
Looks great — and i’m hoping to snag a copy from Regan Arts – since we share office space and all :)
May 14th, 2015 at 7:56 am
Olga- Do it!
May 14th, 2015 at 10:39 am
I read a recent article online about the book which piqued my interest. I’ll have to get it. His critique of what’s happened with our culture of eating; the fear, the individual specificity of diet, the navel gazing, the control-freakishness and what that does to the simple daily necessity and joy of eating has not been written about enough and I’m so curious to get his take. Thank you for the post.
Chef and Steward says:
May 14th, 2015 at 10:41 am
As a food journalist based in the Middle East, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book! Sounds like a brilliant provocative read!
It is pretty alarming the increase in intolerances in recent years. But there is a lot of gunk in a lot of foods, that is also true. Food is certainly one of the most marketed consumer goods so of course there is a lot of hype in support of whoever has something to sell :)
Claire Zulkey says:
May 14th, 2015 at 11:47 am
There has been an ongoing wave of pushback against the “bad’ terminology we blindly accept when it comes to food (“chemicals,” “toxins,” etc) and I am a fan of all of it. I’m going to send this to my father who claims that you can lose weight by eliminated “processed” food but refuses to give up his 2-3 cocktails a night. Uhh, okay, sure, blame the processed food.
May 14th, 2015 at 12:34 pm
I would be interested to read this book. As a registered dietitian (RD), I come across and hear myths about how we “should” or “shouldn’t” eat on a daily basis. I agree that people have gotten rather anxious about food in general, and it doesn’t need to be this way. As for “lack of” scientific evidence, I find there is plenty and you just have to know where to look. The local news station touting the curing power of blueberries or acai is probably going to blow up a single, small study rather than many collective ones. Kind of pushes people away from getting a really good perspective when we have all of these black and white sayings/beliefs about food.
May 15th, 2015 at 9:08 am
Thank you for posting this! I have a PhD in food science and can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been cornered at parties and given a verbal lashing (“But food and science shouldn’t go together– it’s wrong!”). The current belief system about dietary intake and backlash against science has made it incredibly difficult to have rational, logical conversations.
May 15th, 2015 at 11:47 am
No one eats scientifically. We eat instinctively and, if we are so lucky, evaluatively–meaning we attach what we know about the food in front of us to our value system and then choose to eat (or not) accordingly. Nutrition science is a very useful source for “what we know” about the food in front of us. But it can’t make the decision for us about whether or not to eat. Values always have to be attached to knowledge before we can act on it. Those values may be very hidden, but they’re always there. It’s true, some of us have a very strong value associated with eating that says something like, “I prioritize eating things that nutrition science has found are optimal for human health” (and a corresponding negative version for “unhealthy” foods). But of course most of us have strong values associated with eating that have nothing whatsoever to do with nutrition science, such as religious values, eco-conservation values, values related to self-esteem and familial bonds, etc.
That being said, what’s interesting to me in the anecdote you related from Levinovitz’s book (and in your mini-anecdote about congratulating yourself for drinking red wine) isn’t what these stories say about food pseudoscience, but rather what they say (a) about the ways we re-interpret legitimate nutrition science as “proof” of the validity of our strong food beliefs that have nothing to do with nutrition (religion, family, etc.); and (b) the hidden eating-values these stories reveal (spiritual adherence to all things “natural” in the first story and a commitment to eating what scientists tell you to in the second). In short, I’m not sure the interesting problem is food pseudoscience. The more interesting problem is the organizing myth of late-modern life: “If it’s scientific, it’s good.” That link between “scientific” and “good,” I have found, is not straightforward and is often poorly examined.
Thanks for these articles, Tim; they’re always so good and so smart.
May 15th, 2015 at 12:26 pm
Thanks for posting! I have to get this. Not quite the same topic, but Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes is a great read. He basically argues that most diets and the US Food Pyramid are based on faulty science and industry lobbying. He recommends a high-fat diet for serious weight loss, among other things.
I think it was the Daily Show that did a a great piece interviewing people who were gluten free, but hardly any could describe what gluten was–or why it might be bad.
May 15th, 2015 at 4:52 pm
I’m not so sure, Lynda. That doesn’t ring true to me. I’m not sure what eating scientifically means. But I think the current thinking is that science=bad. The movement toward “how our grandparents ate” and the fear of “processed” food and anti-GMOs and paleo and anti-vaccination, it all seems anti-science. Also, the constant stream of conflicting studies which lead people to believe that “scientists don’t know what they’re talking about!” I don’t think the problem is the science itself (and I hope I didn’t imply that), but the way we (and more importantly the media) are reporting and responding to it. Also the inherent flaws/challenges in nutritional science, which make it very difficult to determine causation. Also, I definitely got the belief that red wine was good for me from the science. But I like your thoughts…maybe we are just interested in different things here…
Amanda Waddell says:
May 18th, 2015 at 3:32 pm
I had not heard of this book, but will certainly be checking it out. It’s a scary world of gross generalizations and cross-connections out there, with lots of muddying and hyper-vigilance going on in between.
As a cookbook editor, I see it first hand. We’re actually working on a book right now about a woman who quit veganism and endeared and INSANE amount of backlash for her decision. The foreword is written by a doctor who coined the phrase “orthorexia,” or an extreme obsession with only eating healthy food to a point wherein it becomes dangerous (e.g., cleanse after cleanse after cleanse). Sadly, this type of eating/living seems be becoming a form of identity for a lot of people, or at least a badge of honor.
Thank you for posting.
May 18th, 2015 at 9:07 pm
As a professor of philosophy and religious studies, is Mr. Levinovitz qualified to speak on whether avoiding certain types of foods is more or less healthy for us? I agree with his opinion about the zealous pursuit, by whatever measure, of dietary perfection, and I am interested in reading his book. However, there actually may be some modern dietary options that would be best to avoid completely.
May 19th, 2015 at 10:23 pm
I don’t understand the anti-anti-gluten backlash. Who cares what other people eat? Unless they’re annoying about it, and then that’s a person to person issue and should be addressed as such. I feel like bread or pasta sometimes give me symptoms similar to an allergy attack, and I’m certain that sugar makes me feel groggy. Could I be wrong about both of those reactions? Maybe. But who cares. If it helps me be more in touch with what and how I eat, great. I recently started a 30 day no-sugar kick. It’s a little wacky, sure (no beans? Come on.), but I’m thinking really clearly about what I eat, which is refreshing, and my body feels better. Similarly, a dear friend is a pain management doctor. He says that, regularly, patients come in with pain throughout their bodies that they can’t explain. They give up gluten and it goes away. Are his patients making it up, or responding to a placebo effect? Maybe. But, again, if they feel better, who cares? Likewise, I thought that Daily Show clip was really mean spirited. If an anti-gluten diet is working for someone, and s/he has no idea what it is, how is that my business? it just seems like another way to ridicule people, and I feel like we don’t need much help in that area.
May 21st, 2015 at 7:48 am
I have not heard of this book, but it sounds like it discusses a lot of issues I have with many ‘food movements’ generally. So much to say, so much that would better be said over coffee than in a blog comment :) Signed, your favorite MPH fake-food-blogger who has access to PubMed
May 21st, 2015 at 8:16 pm
Ooo- I love it you button pusher, you.
But the myths.
We all repeat one myth or another to get through our lives.
I don’t know.
May 22nd, 2015 at 4:33 pm
YES! I think about this topic constantly. I love how Levinovitz brings up the topic of honey, sugar, and corn syrup. I have come to a head with this topic on several occasions, however Whole Foods tends to be the main culprit. As a frequent sampler at Whole Foods, I sometimes have to restrain myself when the “gf, all natural, green” product sales rep announces to me that the sample I am trying has “no sugar” and is sweetened instead with honey, as if that makes the product infinitely healthier! But, what I think is so interesting, is how food corporations have seemed to caught on to what Levinovitz is saying and largely why the are so successful, they cater not to our scientific beliefs, but our greatest fears and hopes.
As a nutriton educator and recent MPHer, I think that it is paramount that we start to use frameworks like Levinovitz’s to help us understand 1) why people eat the way that they do and 2) why it can be so easy for people to latch on to “program diets” or food movements and why it is actually quite hard for people to permanently change their eating habits.
On another note, I highly recommend taking a look at Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics.
May 29th, 2015 at 10:30 pm
This sounds really intriguing, I”ll have to read it. Since I haven’t read it, I don’t feel like I can comment on the book itself, only on the conversation around it. I’ve been having an issue lately with a lot of rhetoric around “anti-science” movements vs. “scientifically proven” anything. It seems to me that there is a lot of vitriol aimed at anyone who questions the science. I don’t think being against GMOs or processed food has anything to do with being against science, I think it has to do with questioning the science that is being done and the lack of convincing answers. As someone who reads studies as a part of my job, I can tell you there are lots of studies out there that are extremely poor quality but that can be pointed to as science that backs up any position. Science as I understand it has to do with asking questions (a hypothesis) and finding ways to disprove those questions. We should always ask questions, and I like that this book seems to be asking us to question our beliefs around some beliefs that are held as scientific truths. I don’t know that I want to eat scientifically. Like Samantha, I think there should be room to eat in a way that makes us happy and comfortable. And if that isn’t hurting or annoying anyone else, what’s the harm in letting them?