A mystery on every plate

December 27, 1993|By Betty Fussell

IF WE are what we eat," as some wit has asked, "what the hell are we?"

And how do we find out?

How hard both questions are to answer is dramatized by the government's recent confession that its bible of food composition, the Department of Agriculture's Handbook 8, is "flawed and unreliable."

For a century, the department has been in charge of national nutrition, as it was defined by the science of chemistry in the 1890s. To ask why it should head all our food information, education and assistance programs, from school lunches to food stamps, explains why nutrition, in the midst of a national food and health crisis, remains the government's orphaned child.

The word nutrition comes from the Latin "to suckle," and for centuries the nourishing and nurturing of families in sickness and in health was woman's work. But a century and a half ago, when America industrialized its food chain, it turned farms into factories, food into commodities, nurturers into "domestic scientists" or "home economists" and babies who were suckled into bottle-fed ones.

At the turn of the century, government, science, industry and technology changed not only what we ate but also how we thought about it. Food was reduced to those physical properties that could be analyzed and synthesized chemically. Chemistry turned corn, our national staff of life, into an industrial raw material equivalent to petroleum. It dictated how we grew our crops, what we fed our animals and how we processed, preserved and distributed all our foods. America led the world in creating a new chain of nutritionally equivalent synthetic foods.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration first met an astronaut's nutritional needs by assembling in a plastic bag the chemical equivalent of an entree, two side dishes, a dessert and a beverage, which the astronaut was to knead for three minutes and squeeze into his mouth.

With a century of continual change at each link in the food chain and with so many vested interests at stake, it's small wonder that nutritive information continues to be assembled by a hodgepodge of conflicting interests, who then dissemble. As bureaucracies have multiplied, accountability has diminished.

The lack of coordination among the department agencies involved in nutrition is ludicrous. More than 60 million lives each year are affected by government food programs, including 25 million schoolchildren and 27 million people on food stamps. Yet 13 years after the Agriculture Department issued dietary guidelines on fat, sodium and sugar, virtually no schools conform to them and few welfare recipients follow them.

The medical establishment, focusing on pathology and chemical treatment by drugs, has long equated diet with what's put on hospital trays.

Even today, when five of America's major health problems -- heart, liver, cancer, diabetes and cerebrovascular diseases -- have been proved to be related to diet, just 23 percent of American medical schools require a course in nutrition, and many offer none.

We need new collaborations like the one devised by Dr. Steven Zeisel at the University of North Carolina, where he has linked the School of Medicine with the School of Public Health to form a shared nutrition department, the country's first, and to develop a pilot program, "Nutrition in Medicine," for medical schools.

Medicine needs to move with speed toward the goal of prevention. In the debate over health reform, watchdog agencies like the Center for Science in the Public Interest point out that surgery is far costlier than proper diet and that Americans spend $17 billion a year on bypass operations alone.

Mike Espy is the first agriculture secretary in memory to call for reform and make nutrition "a priority mission." In recruiting Ellen Haas, formerly head of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, to be assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services, and in proposing to elevate that position to undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services, he has put his money where his mouth is. As Ms. Haas says, Mr. Espy has "a bold new plan to reinvent a bureaucracy which has remained largely unchanged since it was founded by Abraham Lincoln."

The government should finance long-term nutrition research and education. While the Agriculture Department's budget for analyzing the 5,000 foods in Handbook 8 is $200,000 a year, Kellogg spends $28 million a year to promote a single product, Pop Tarts.

We have to acknowledge that what anyone puts in the ground, on a plant, in an animal or in a processed food -- pesticide, radiation, hormone or excessive additive -- eventually affects communal health.

The food industry must take responsibility for the consequences of the blitz of TV ads it aims at children, recognize that a junk food diet affects health adversely and promote a healthy diet for kids. Health, like the environment, is everybody's business.

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