Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Is our modern way of eating killing us and our sociability?

By Paul Levy  /  The Guardian

The next section, based on water and cooking vessels, finds that “the marriage of plant and animal foods in a liquid medium” is preferable to cooking either food over direct fire. Most European cultures use a patiently chopped, heated and stirred vegetable mixture, such as a mirepoix or soffritto, always including members of the onion family, and Pollan explores the chemistry of these, as well as their adaptive value. It’s another step in our evolution, as onions, garlic and spices “contain powerful antimicrobial components that survive cooking” and provide some protection against the harmful bacteria found on meat.

At a time when our own government is realizing that the solution to our growing problems of obesity and nutritional disorder is teaching schoolchildren to cook, reducing our dependency on bad-for-us industrial food preparation, Pollan talks to economists who have discovered “a new human behavior called ‘secondary eating,’” or eating while doing another task. A study has found that Americans spend 78 minutes a day in secondary eating and drinking, more time than they give to meals (or “primary eating”). The increase in obesity is linked to food preparation outside the home.

One basic food usually prepared outside our homes is bread, which developed when somebody’s primitive porridge trapped some air and rose. This was, of course, a process of fermentation; so there is a small cheat involved in also examining fermentation in Pollan’s final section devoted to Earth. His personal quest is to develop a whole-grain loaf with the texture of a mostly white loaf.

Pollan has made his reputation by being bold. In the last section of Cooked though, he proposes something radical. Having done an impressive amount of research, he speculates on the growing resistance of micro-organisms to antibiotics, on our western diet rich in fats and carbohydrates, and on “exactly what about this diet makes it so lethal.” Summing up 12 specific examples, from irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety attacks, which respond to probiotics, he speculates whether “most if not all the important chronic diseases may have a similar etiology. Though none has yet dared use such an ambitious term, several scientists across several disciplines appear to be working toward what looks very much like a Grand Unified Theory of Diet and Chronic Disease.”

This general theory of disease turns on inflammation and the role of the human microbiota in it. Anyone who, like me, has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or any of its immune-system-disorder relatives, will be as startled as I was to read these pages. Pollan’s prophetic track record makes it possible that you will be hearing a lot more about this soon.

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