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…