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Buon Appetito

by on February 14, 2017

                           Buon Appetito

by Marco M. Pardi

“Self help books are like cookbooks; no home has just one”  Anon.

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All comments welcome.  To those readers who have been hesitant to comment or ask questions, please be assured you may do so freely. In recent days several new people have signed on as followers, enabling them to comment freely, and it is hoped they will. All previous posts are open for comment by clicking on “uncategorized”. Reader participation keeps this site vibrant. MMP

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In the early 1990’s I attended a meeting of a writers group.  At each meeting a writer would introduce a chapter from their developing book or article for critique by the group.  The writer that evening being from India, I was curious to hear an excerpt from her cookbook manuscript.

In the first few sentences she read she excoriated “chemicals” in food, making one claim after another.  When she finished I found myself responding more forcefully than is usual for me.  “What specific chemicals? In very real terms almost everything in the universe can be reduced to chemicals, even our bodies. What distinctions have you made among Lethal Dose, Sub-Lethal dose, Active ingredient – harmful or beneficial, and inactive ingredient such as filler/stabilizer? What are the specific effects attributable to each of these levels?” I was a bit more harsh than I normally am, but this person was simply parroting the “common wisdom” of the day: Chemicals=Bad.  I find myself reacting similarly to “germophobes”.

People who should know better seem unable to distinguish “germs” into appropriate categories such as beneficial bacteria, harmless bacteria, and pathogens.  For them I recommend the book: Human Wildlife by Dr. Robert Buckman, published 02.23.2003.  Its introduction states: “Your body has 100 trillion cells, but only 10 trillion are human. The rest belong to the bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites that live on or in us. Some of these tenants are actually beneficial, aiding in the digestion process, for example. The majority of them neither help nor hurt us, but simply coexist with us. A few species, however, from the cholera bacilli to tapeworms and lice, can be dangerous, and sometimes deadly.”

We would be unable to digest the food we are so concerned over were it not for the myriad of bacteria living in our gastro-intestinal tract.  Indeed, the signature gasses expelled after eating are the product of bacterial metabolism of that food. But as anyone who has been gut-shot knows, those bacteria become pathogens when released into other parts of the body.  At the same time, those bacteria, along with other defenses, render harmless copious amounts of other bacteria we ingest while eating.

In a dusty Moroccan village, treading among camel and donkey droppings, I entered a – literal – hole in the wall restaurant.  As the proprietor, chief cook and bottle washer,  took my order I requested bread with the meal. He stepped to a dim corner and retrieved a loaf from the floor, dusting it with his apron as he set it on the table. I’m here writing this. So please don’t howl the 5 second rule, or 3 second rule or some such stuff at me. Now I’m not suggesting we all take up eating of the floor, but I am asking for the application of a little biological wisdom.  Millennia before germ theory was understood a common sight at Roman horse races was the bettors wandering through the paddocks sampling (tasting) the horse droppings to assess which horses were healthy and which were drugged.  That practice would have been short lived had the bettors then staggered off and died. In the 1970’s the USDA , facing the reality of massive warehousing of food, declared that the average cereal box could contain up to five rodent hairs and three rat pellets. That crunchy flake you ate this morning?  Thought it was just burned?  Chances are you got your allotment of rat shit.

That same era saw the banning of various pesticides in U.S. agriculture.  So, what happened to the huge stocks of unsold pesticides? Were they safely destroyed?  No business survives by putting the public interest before its own.  The stuff was sold to countries that did not have the bans, and is used on agricultural products imported back into the U.S.  Of course, when there is need to sanction a country for some policy it is always possible to “discover” a violation which stops importation of its goods – “A cop can always find something for which to pull you over.”  Take the example of the suspension of imports from Chile after a grape was found to have cyanide residue. Cyanide occurs naturally in some fruits. But we will not know the reason it triggered such an economically devastating action against Chile.  Still, we do not ultimately know the long term effects these pesticides will have on humans. We only know that farm workers, with long and intensive exposure, do suffer health consequences. And, it appears the practice of washing fruits and vegetables is largely cosmetic since we cannot rinse them out from the inside.

Through decades of wandering the planet for various reasons I’ve eaten animals including reptiles, rodents, and a great many other species.  The three times I was hospitalized with bleeding diarrhea resulted from eating at U.S. Air Force mess halls. But I recall reading in 1968 a paper published by environmental scientists at the graduate school I was entering.  It basically said they could not understand how people who ate seafood caught in the Mississippi river-Gulf of Mexico delta could survive the levels of pesticides, fertilizers and heavy metals washing down the nation’s central sewer, the Mississippi river. Of course, some elements have been removed but others have increased. “Care for a side of oil with that?”

I spent the first half of the 1990s as part of the Hemispheric Cholera Eradication effort supported by the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.  Although I was working for another agency, I went along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central and South America with a young CDC physician from New York City.  As we were slipping along in the slime at a South American port city seafood market she gazed at the wire mesh bales holding dead and dying crabs and said, “Thank God for fire.” Indeed. Yet, people flock to the sushi craze, including raw fish despite the frequent findings of live parasites in the sushi.

In so many ways the United States is a nation of flash fads. Whether it’s fashion, toys – remember the Tickle Me Dildo craze? – or diets and food we lurch from one craze to the next.  From pomegranate juice to pomegranate flavored condoms this fad is still with us.  And now we have “All Natural”, “Organic”, “Gluten Free”,  “GMO Free”, and “Antibiotic Free”.

If natural means unaltered by Man, we would have a hard time identifying any food source untouched by Man.  Fat samples from animals in the Arctic routinely yield pesticides, including DDT. Fish throughout our oceans yield copious amounts of micro-plastics in their bodies. Our pollution of the planet and all life thereon is utterly comprehensive and nonselective.

The term organic will soon be meaningless. The Freedom Caucus, an ironically named band of Republicans who seek to impose only their ideas of right and wrong on everyone, is now greatly empowered by the recent elections and already moving to dismantle any regulatory oversight for the use of the term Organic.  But frankly, why should I be concerned if my hair shampoo is not organic?

I actually know people who seem otherwise functional but are thoroughly in a panic over the possibility of gluten in any of their foodstuffs.  If you have not been tested for gluten intolerance the avoidance of gluten can cost you big time both financially and health wise. But industry thrives on our misinformed beliefs.

I do have concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (food) but not because I fear my farmed salmon carries the genes for gecko testicles.  I read of the struggles small farmers are having when their fields are overblown with pollens from nearby industrialized farms using GMO seeds. There have been cases of lawsuits brought against these small farms for unauthorized use of the GMOs when in fact they are the victims. The reality of massive GMO distribution renders the claim GMO Free moot.

It has been estimated that over 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals. The rationale is mitigation of the diseases so easily spread in cramped and confined populations.  The downside is the development of antibiotic resistant zoonotic diseases which can become epidemic overnight, bird flu being just one example.

But perhaps most criminal of all is the disposal of millions of tons of produce each year simply because it is deemed cosmetically unacceptable or past its “sell by” date. Much of the displeasing looking produce never reaches the grocery stores. But homeless people know to congregate near grocery store dumpsters for the simple reason that they know sell by dates are more for marketing and profit than for health. And there is nothing wrong with produce that does not match the glossy ideals in the store advertisements.

For decades we have faced the reality of an underfunded USDA and FDA, leaving us with a food inspection system which is nominal at best and – really – laughable were it not for the thousands of food related deaths each year.  The recent ascension of the oligarch class to the seats of supreme power in the United States already foretells the demise of the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning more pollutants in every form can become standard in our diet.  It also means serious budgetary cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to the Food and Drug Administration as the tax base is reduced through huge tax breaks for the top 1% of the population.

I eat at restaurants fairly frequently.  While at CDC I learned to never order “today’s special”.  Attending a lunch at a swank French restaurant with the Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch I watched as several of them disregarded their own advice and ordered the special, smothered in a highly seasoned sauce.  Why the sauce? To cover the decomposition of the entree.  Everyone who ordered it got very sick, some missing as much as three weeks of work. I always have a salad, although knowing the chance of E. coli and other pathogens on poorly washed vegetables.

Eating safely is partly a matter of wisdom and largely a matter of trust: trust in the production and packaging of the food, the storage and preparation of the food, and the ability of countless numbers of bacteria in my gut to absorb the punches as I slug down one bolus after another of material that once was “out there” and is now “in here”.  The odd behavior of plucking something from the environment, opening an aperture in my face and shoving it in is something I will likely continue doing.  But at least it will not be a thoughtless act.

Isaiah 22:13, ‘Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.’

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9 Comments
  1. Thank goodness it looks like the government is going to do away will all those pesky regulations and possibly the EPA and FDA all together. Business can self govern and will look out for the good of people. After reading Warren Buffet has a McDonald’s sausage biscuit or Egg McMuffin and a coke every single day of his life for the past 56 years I question all the beliefs I have about healthy eating.

  2. Thanks, Mary. As the old saying goes, Trust your gut.

  3. Mike Stamm permalink

    I suspect you’re preaching to the choir, unfortunately. My wife sometimes refers to me as an uncouth slob because my standards of food hygiene are not as high as hers; however, I am not the one who gets sick. And I’ve long suspected that the whole “organic”/”gluten-free”/”non-GMO” crazes are just that, as well as being socially engineered opportunities for exploiters to make some extra money while doing little or nothing different from the norm. 95% of the time I refuse to eat at any of the big fast food chains, but that’s mostly because of their large-scale exploitive business practices (see FAST FOOD NATION) and only in small part because of the healthiness, or lack thereof, of their products.

    • Thanks, Mike. My wife is a retired Senior Microbiologist. I get grief frequently. Yes, I agree marketing has really refined its message. Can’t wait for the next fad to hit. Any ideas?

  4. I may not have the widest of palates, but I have always prided myself on my willingness to eat whatever the local “economy” had to offer. I’ve eaten from food carts everywhere I go, and while I may not always know exactly what the food is, it has rarely failed to be delicious. It never occurred to me to be afraid of germs; if the locals can eat it, so can I.

    In Italy, I picked berries from a roadside, drank water from a pipe, and bought all my produce from local stores; visiting the weekly “mercado” was one of my favorite things to do. The eggs I bought directly from a farmer were so fresh that they were still warm, and had straw and excrement on them from the floor where they were laid. We had friends there who drove to the base at Brindisi to bring back their water in containers; I pitied them the experiences they were missing because they were afraid to truly live in such a wonderful place.

    You don’t build up antibodies by living a sterile life. I always believed that a child needs to eat a little dirt if they want to be healthy; the neighbor kids who had the cleanest house were the ones who were sick all the time. There are limits, but reasonable care will usually suffice.

    • Well said, Rose. I felt the same way about eating locally. But I was also aware of endemic parasitic conditions and simply exercised judgement, as I’m sure you did. Pediatricians do recommend that children play in dirt, with the understanding they will ingest some. At the same time, it is necessary to remember that botulism spores do not spontaneously arise on bent cans (an old myth) but in fact can be found in dirt in many areas of the world. In fact, at CDC I was surprised to learn that one of the main vectors for botulism poisoning is the skin of poorly washed potatoes. Cooking does not affect the spores at all. They must be thoroughly washed off.

      In Italy I was always told the “reach rule”: if a water source, such as a pipe, is within reach the water is safe to drink. Never had a problem. But I would never do that in much of Latin America.

  5. Ray Z Rivers permalink

    Nice summary of whether our food safe to eat, though he precautionary principle dictates that we minimize our exposure to everything put into food which is not food – as for example preservatives and vitamins.

    And that notion that living dirty is healthier than living clean has its limits. Recall that pilot in Catch 22 who kept crashing his plane as preparation for the day he actually would get shot down and have to crash. Exposing children to childhood diseases in the belief that it makes them tougher requires careful consideration in that regard.

    • I don’t mean to imply that children should eat dirt with a spoon (although my brother did; strange kid), but neither do we have to worry about every little speck of dust which manages to enter our systems. As for diseases, while I remember the notion of letting siblings suffer together, I think it a far better idea to prevent all exposure (with the exception of inoculations) entirely.

    • Thanks, Ray. I agree we need to read the labels on food whenever possible. Many feel this is why companies write ingredients in ways which baffle most consumers; if they really knew what they were ingesting they might think twice. One main reason I can’t ingest alcoholic drinks is the preservatives put in to retard fermentation (nitrites/nitrates in wine and urethane in distilled liquor). About 10 minutes after a sip of wine or liquor I come down with symptoms of the worst flu you could ever have. My father’s mountain lodge was bordered by a lodge owned by one of Italy’s largest wine producers. He regularly gave my father casks of wine which had not yet had preservatives added. While it was excellent, the other main reason for not drinking kicked in: I reject anything which alters my perceptions and judgement. Some say I’m “uptight”; I say I’m just fine.

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