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[whitespace] Crying Wolf

Americans fed up with diet research

By Marina Wolf

THIS IS NEWS? Apparently it was to the researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who surveyed 1,751 adults on their eating habits and attitudes about nutritional guidelines. Hell, I would have taken 100 bucks and saved them the trouble and expense. Anybody who ever was a teenager could tell you that you push on people hard enough, they're going to turn around and do the opposite.

The researchers called the most rebellious of the eaters "nutrition skeptics," and attributed their attitudes to the confusion that surrounds much of nutrition and food science. Who wouldn't be confused? Even the scientists are confused. Sure, they call it "progress" or "advances in scientific understanding," but that's just so they won't be embarrassed when, six months down the road, somebody else comes up with contradictory research results. It all boils down to a seemingly never-ending series of public flip-flops and flimflammery that doesn't wind up doing a lot for public health or morale.

For example, did you know that saccharin is actually not a hazardous material? Although my local coffeehouse is still putting out Sweet and Low with that old-timey, alarmist fine print, any day now those pink packets should be lookin' a bit less crowded on the back, now that federal researchers have determined that saccharin is not a carcinogen.

Turns out that in order to develop cancer at lab-rat rates, you'd have to eat a mug of saccharin every day for a couple of years. Now, a teenage boy could do that at the drop of a double dare, but not even the most calorie-conscious coffee drinker would consider that level of intake. This seems like something that would be a fairly obvious element in a study protocol. News reports of the declassification of saccharin were almost giddy, which is odd, when you think about it. I mean, it's not as though the nation was holding its breath. (If you were, you can stop now and drink your damned diet soda without the paranoia.)

Or how about that whole margarine debacle? You've been scrupulously avoiding butter and eating that nasty fake stuff for years, and now it turns out that stick margarine can increase the risk of heart disease. Or how about Olestra? Now that is argument and rebuttal all rolled into one package of low-fat, high-flatulence potato chips.

FORGIVE ME if I sound a little cynical. Call me a "nutrition skeptic" and develop patronizing government programs to instruct me in really simple, one-syllable words about how fat is bad, fruit is good. Run, Jane, run. Run from fat. Here's a data point for you: I'm not stupid, and I'm not particularly frustrated by the nutrition pronouncements. I just ignore them and listen to what my body wants to eat.

Sometimes, when the announcements are really flying, I'll go into this snarly little "Futurama" fugue state of dystopic daydreams. In the future, the stuff that isn't high-fat will have been decalorified, vitaminized, bioengineered, or otherwise retrofitted to keep up with the latest in nutritional food science. It'll be a given that there are side effects for everything we eat, and then at last the labels will have to focus on real issues, things that we want to know in order to take an informed gamble.

Exactly what percentage of people developed flatulence while eating these chips? How many people would rather gnaw off their own limbs than eat this? How many food stylists were employed to make the picture on the label more appealing?

Warning: Objects within are grosser than they appear.

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From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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