Palatable pleasures

It’s a health paradox: just when people began turning to low-fat diets, there began a corresponding increase in obesity. The connection alarmed Dun Gifford, founder of Oldways Preservation Trust in Boston: ‘Fat provides sensations of satiety; without fat, the feelings of fullness do not kick in and so people just keep on eating.’

Gifford founded Oldways in 1988 to campaign against fast food and to promote healthy eating. He was the keynote speaker at a food summit in Adelaide in October, a gathering that included some of the world’s leading television chefs and food writers.

The meeting concluded with about 100 participants signing the Declaration of Adelaide (see panel), a six-point communiqué urging changes across the food supply chain, in government policy and in food education. Whether it has any legs is yet to be seen, but at the very least it represents a determined effort to highlight some of the important issues surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of food.

Gifford wrote the declaration and was backed by fellow panelists, including food writer and chef Stephanie Alexander, food producer Maggie Beer, British television chef Antonio Carluccio and the Canadian author of Last Chance to Eat, Gina Mallet.
The summit was held in conjunction with the Tasting Australia festival and is likely to become a regular event. Gifford says the prevailing wisdom when he founded the trust was that ‘techno-foods were our food future’.

‘This techno-food locomotive was rumbling powerfully down the tracks in the late 1980s, and touted as the salvation of our crowded planet and its billions of hungry mouths. For compound reasons, this terrified me; techno-foods seemed dangerous. I decided to challenge it, and organised Oldways as a non-profit organisation to do so.’

Described by Newsweek magazine as ‘a food-issues think tank’, Oldways embarked on several campaigns, one of the first being the issue of low-fat diets promoted by nutritionists in the early 1990s.

‘We pointed out that the world’s two healthiest populations—Mediterraneans and Okinawans—eat high-fat diets, the former based on olive oil, the latter on fish.’ Oldways drew on scientific research to come up with the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, now widely embraced as the ‘gold standard’ of healthy eating.

In the mid-1990s, Oldways challenged a US government crackdown on alcohol, ‘first, by pointing out that high-level science universally recognises the health benefits of moderate amounts of alcohol; and second, by publicising the additional, but then little known, positive health benefits of polyphenols and other phyto-nutrients in wine’.

In 2002, Oldways began a campaign to encourage Americans to eat more wholegrains, setting up a Whole Grains Council that now has more than 100 members, from industry giants to artisan producers.

Two years ago, it challenged what Gifford calls the ‘low-carb tsunami’. ‘We adopted “Pasta Fights Back” as this campaign’s theme, and focused on “the pasta meal”. After all, no one eats just pasta; everyone dresses it with tomatoes, olive oil, meat, fish or vegetables, and often has a glass or two of wine with it. Nutritionists know that the olive oil, vegetables, meat or fish, cheese, and wine slow down digestion, and describe this pasta meal as “perfectly balanced”. These are powerful reasons to eat pasta meals, and the news that pasta meals had impressive nutrition-science support was a large relief to the eating public.’
Oldways is now challenging campaigns that demonise sugar. ‘Sugars are the current food demon … following in the footsteps of fats and carbs,’ Gifford says. They are a traditional food, a key element of healthy eating and something that humans crave even as babies.

Oldways has called this new educational program Managing Sweetness, its theory being that eating is a behaviour, and that ‘managing’ all behaviours is a key to successful living.
‘Most of our successful Oldways campaigns are based on the behaviour theory principle of “management, not banishment”. A great many well-intentioned and well-funded nutrition and dietary programs have failed because they are either prohibitionist or directive. We know what happened when we got scolded as children. The programs that work well are permissive. We stress the “pleasure principle” and the pleasures of the table. People don’t eat nutrition, they eat food.’

This last point is one that Stephanie Alexander has been making for years. She related a story about her experience at an organic expo. ‘Not one speaker spoke about flavour or taste, juiciness, aroma or conviviality. They spoke about health and everything else. The food served during the expo was boring, bland and lacking in excitement or sensory appeal. If pleasurable food education was introduced in our schools, we might see an appreciation of flavour.’
Food writer Cherry Ripe says that in the past 50 years, people have ‘witnessed the greatest palate change in history’ with a proliferation of bland, homogenised products. ‘Pork doesn’t taste like pig any more. When did you have a chicken that tastes like chicken? We’re losing palate memory. My supermarket had white apricots; why not eat a cucumber?’

Perhaps Australians can consider themselves lucky that we have not yet reached the point they have in England, where a big supermarket chain put a sticker on its tomatoes declaring they were ‘grown for flavour’. This amused Irish television chef Paul Rankin: ‘I said, “Wow, what were they grown for before?”’

The mood of those at the summit was not entirely pessimistic. British food writer Jill Norman reminded the audience that ‘in the 1960s, people predicted we’d all live on pills’ by now, but this had not eventuated. ‘We will not succumb to the idea that we can live on pills.’

British television chef Sophie Grigson says she veers between incredible optimism and negativism, but believes that consumers have too much choice. ‘I do wonder whether perhaps choice is the root of all evil. You might find 20 brands of pre-packaged lettuce in your supermarket. It’s a deceptive choice because a lot of them are produced by a handful of companies. This increase of choice takes the level of taste down and down and we lose what we were getting in the first place. The other thing with so much choice is that people are terrified by it.’

Jörg Imberger, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Western Australia, says food has become an experience rather than a need: ‘We’ve changed what used to be a simple concept of need [for food and water] and changed it into a whole experience.
‘All our needs are being packaged into marketable entities. Even water is now a tradeable entity. It’s generally accepted now that pleasure is a need. We expect products to be value-priced so we can have more products and therefore more experience.’

Adelaide food writer and historian Barbara Santich told the summit that Australians are spending 14 per cent of their income on food—more than the Americans, who spend nine per cent, but less than the French and the Italians, who spend 16–18 per cent. Australians want their food cheap, she says, an attitude supported by governments who see food in commercial terms.

‘A classic example is seafood: the best goes overseas to people who will pay for it, and the shortfall here is made up of cheaper inferior seafood brought in. Governments tout our wonderful produce… it’s unfair when we can never get to try it. [A desirable food culture] can only be created by an awareness and appreciation of Australian foods.’

Professor Imberger points to a disconnection between what people eat and the society that produces it. ‘[With global warming] there’ll be no ice caps, the sea level [will] rise, Australia will not have any beaches left, rainfall patterns are changing [but] few people connect these with their own life. Fewer even think of the more obscure correlations.’

He believes agriculture needs to be restructured. ‘In Australia, we produce food for 100 million people. Why do we feel the need to feed all these extra people?’ Taking into account all the hidden social costs of communities producing the food, not to mention the amount of water used to prop up ‘this wholly unsustainable industry’, he says Australians are subsidising the export of food.

‘Space is a commodity that we can now market as an experience,’ he says; perhaps eco-holidays could be organised to remote parts of Australia to improve tourism earnings. ‘It would make more sense than marginal farming. The tourism industry accounts for 4.5 per cent of GDP; the food industry accounts for 2 per cent. The biodiversity of Australia is worth far more [than producing more food].’

Dun Gifford has devised a compass to steer Oldways on its course. ‘North’ is science, combining cutting-edge nutrition science with the knowledge that our genes are designed to thrive on traditional foods. ‘East’ is pleasure, ‘south’ is education and ‘west’ is earth, ‘because without arable land, without clean fresh water, without healthy oceans, and without unfoul air, we will have neither enough food nor drink, and ultimately be without life itself.’

He says that through the prism of this compass, ‘we are far off our course today, and actually losing ground on our way to a secure food future.’ Some would argue that we have already lost our way, and he wouldn’t necessarily argue the point.

‘But I think that if we begin to think differently, and then act determinedly, we can get the Good Ship Food Future back on course,’ he says. ‘We can dream about sustainable agriculture, better distribution [of food], classes for schoolchildren on nutrition and healthier eating. We can dream about it, and if we make a declaration, we could make it happen.’

Christine Salins is a Canberra freelance writer.

Declaration of Adelaide on the Future of Food

1. Access to safe, wholesome food in adequate quantities is a basic human right, and governments must accord high priority to giving force and effect to this right.

2. Public food policies and programs, such as in schools and hospitals, should be encouraged to include fresh, local, minimally processed and seasonal foods.

3. Promoting sustainable agricultural practices and preserving cultural and biological diversity are essential for the health of the planet and its inhabitants. To this end, governments should support sustainable, small-scale agriculture on the fringes of large population centres, and protect other threatened farmland.

4. Food producers should be appropriately rewarded for adopting and maintaining practices conducive to long-term sustainability.

5. It is essential that children learn at an early age about food production, flavour, food preparation and food culture; and about the impact of their food choices upon their well-being and that of the environment. All schools have a responsibility in this.

6. Governments need to adopt the precautionary principle in respect to new technologies associated with food.

 

Recent articles by Christine Salins.

Tastes of the Orient

 

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