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Anthropological View

An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

Thinking About Food

Part One



Last week's final article in the rather extended series on South Pacific kava and the way the 'West' has seemingly gone about refusing its benefits brought us to finally look at some of the 'Western world's' real major health problems (in looking at the US) - alcohol, tobacco, lifestyles and … obesity. Where the US leads, it seems that Western Europe may unfortunately follow, and that may sadly lead large numbers of young Europeans to a rather bloated existence and possible premature health problems. I am not talking here about drug abuse, or anything like that, I suppose I am talking about what might be termed 'food abuse' - either abusing food or being abused by it. Again, here I am not talking about fresh, good, normal clean farm produce, 'home food': I am talking about the massive fast food companies that supply what so many people call 'Junk Food', rightly or wrongly. As these companies can sometimes be rather 'overzealous' in protecting their image (anyone who has seen the fascinating two-hour documentary film "McLibel' - made, I think, by the superbly-named 'One-Off Productions' film company - will possibly guess what I'm getting at), I will not name them in this article, but just refer to them as Big Food. Most people in the US and Western Europe would probably know what is meant by that term, although one must admit that most of Eivissa/Ibiza's rural peasant population would not, in spite of the fact that Big Food representatives opened branches of their famous food/restaurant chains, to great publicity, in Vila (Ibiza town) several years ago. There was, of course, much local debate as to whether the island really needed such a massive injection of extra calories, but things came to pass as they did. World travellers may know that in Byron Bay, the 'Ibiza of the South Pacific' (Ibiza's counterpart down on the easternmost point of Australia), and the Big Food representatives are - at least so far - prohibited from opening outlets. Residents of the San Antonio area here on Eivissa/Ibiza may well remember the 7,000 signatures of local residents (in an area of only 13,000 residents) on a petition to the 'batlle' (Mayor) last summer pleading for stricter control of tourism hooliganism, drug dealing and rubbish problems during the tourism season. Photographs taken early one morning during the height of the tourism season in San Antonio to go with this petition highlighted the major refuse problems in the town - and it was noted that a significantly high percentage of the rubbish consisted of food and beverage containers/wrappings from San Antonio's Big Food (and Smaller Food!) retailers.

We pointed out last week the problems of obesity in the US and noted that in April the 'US tax authority'/officially recognized obesity as a 'disease', thereby allowing 'obesity sufferers' to claim medical benefits. This 'tax authority' is the famous IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, an institution that seems to be feared by many Americans - some call it a 'state within a state'. Well, whatever the case, the IRS here seems to have made a move with profound implications. Its April decision, which can link weight loss with tax reductions, seems to have opened the door for a possible long-running battle between certain public health groups and the Big Food producers that some accuse of being responsible for the massive rise in the number of obese persons in the US within recent decades. Although a non-energetic lifestyle may certainly assist in this growth (some say 60% of the adult US population are now overweight), there are thought to be other factors involved in the 300% increase in child obesity there in the last three decades. Some point the finger at Big Food (and Big Drinks). The recent IRS decision is critical and it is beginning to be said in some sectors in the US this month that the fight against 'Big Food/Big Drinks' may become as hot as the struggles in the 1990s against the big tobacco companies. What begins in the US could possibly spread to Western Europe.

Of course, anyone who has visited the US realizes that restaurants and fast food outlets serve much bigger helpings than is normal in Europe. But there does seem to be something slightly different about the quality of much of the food in the US (I'm not necessarily talking about 'Big Food' here) for those used to diets in Europe. Much US foods seem so processed that, exaggeration accepted, in closing ones eyes whilst eating one might jokingly say it is sometimes difficult to tell the taste/texture difference between a steak and a lettuce. At another level, one of the US's 'gifts to the world', Big Food/Big Drinks, seems to have suddenly and rather recently fallen out of favour in its own homeland. One of the first major publications available to the public that may have begun this change in opinion, or reflected it, was Naomi Klein's biting analysis "No Logo", published in 2000, that dealt with the new fad of brand names (in clothes, sports gear, computers, food, drinks, etc) and the implications of a state of affairs where these products are often now all seen as 'fashion accessories'. The name - logo - is more important than the actual product and the quality of the product is sometimes rather irrelevant, at least to the 'uneducated-educated' masses. So-called 'Junk Food' and certain soft drinks (no names, but you can guess) are advertised in such a way to be seen as part of a certain lifestyle, what is actually in them is almost irrelevant.

Over the last decade in the US, Big Food and Big Drinks have moved into the education arena, by moving into school cafeterias and school restaurants, by creating sponsorship deals with many schools, colleges and universities and by (in certain instances) trying to promote a concept whereby 'such-and-such a school is a such-and-such food/drink supporter'. This may eventually prove to have been these 'industries' biggest mistake, by finally arousing the concern and ire of parents. Texas and California (the biggest states in the US) are at this moment preparing to consider the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Bill and are believed also to be considering the banning of certain snacks and soft drinks from school cafeterias. A spokesman for the American Obesity Association has indicated that one is now seeing the problem of obesity changing from being purely an individual concern to one of policy. What has made this possible is the recent IRS decision. As the now massive marketing of such types of food to children of school age in the US seems to have reached a 'critical mass', health associations and the general public seem to have finally woken up to the fact that this trend may be the most important single factor in the future health of the nation. The IRS decision has given the public a tool with which to fight back which may eventually negate the influence that Big Food/Big Drinks are said to have in Washington.

Many people seem to forget that, in spite of all our modern trappings - clothes, cars, computers, etc - we are, as humans, still 'tribal peoples' with slightly more material possessions than those living in the jungles and mountains of, say, Papua New Guinea. Our bodily requirements are still those of our ancestors of, say, 40,000 years ago. Our dietary needs have not changed - but maybe the quantity or quality of our food has. In almost all of the nearly 100 different traditionally-oriented societies (‘tribes' some might call them) that I have had the honour of visiting, working with or living with around the world since the 1960s there is a rather interesting nutritional factor that stands out: in almost none of them does animal protein/fats make up more than 15% of the normal diet. Very few of them consume much of what we call 'sugar'. Salt intake is very low. Some societies I know had almost no salt at all - one using a salt substitute from a tree. Of course some of these diets could do with a bit of expansion and variation, but not to the extent of, e.g., certain sectors of the US (or, to a lesser extent, Western Europe) where animal proteins/fats are sometimes said to reach levels as high as 40% of diet, and where sweetening and salt additives rise to levels that would be unheard of in most of the world's societies. The human body is probably not actually constructed to be able to cope in the long term with such massive levels of these types of ‘nutrients'; it is much too rich a mixture. It's a bit like having an old red Cady mobylette, the one so popular with Ibizencan peasants: these almost never break down (one of the reasons they are no longer made!) and are 'works of art'. Made to run perfectly almost forever on a mixture of petrol and 2% oil, everyone knows what happens if you start increasing the percentage of oil mixed in. 'Richer' is not necessarily 'better': the machine will chug along but gradually begin to cough and sputter and then just gradually comes to a grinding halt. Could certain types of foods do the same to US and Western European youth? Maybe. Possibly. Probably. OK for a snack, but not for a regular diet, some say. Have I been careful enough in this article? I hope so.

Kirk W Huffman