Health Class

As I asked in an early post, Not Obvious, just what is “health” (and all variants of the term) when it comes to food? The Fed Up documentary has people blathering about “healthy eating” and “healthy food,” but how well does the yack-yack matchup to the culinary reality, particularly as it pertains to stereotypes of fat and/or poor people?

Luckily for me, my local fish wrap, the Union-Tribune, has put up two recent posts – Is healthy dining just a fad? and The Dish: Serving up brunch and more – that put the confusion about health front and center.

The first column is one of a set of articles written up during and after the National Restaurant Association’s recent annual trade show held in Chicago. The focus is on food prepared and served at restaurants, from the fastest of fast food chains to the snobbiest of multi-starred gastronomic meccas. The gist of the article is that restaurants are slapping “healthy” food onto their menus like it’s going out of style, but they don’t think that their customers have a clue about what they’re ordering:

Greg Dollarhyde, CEO of Santa Monica-based Veggie Grill, said he wasn’t so sure four, five years ago whether gluten-free was destined to be just another L.A.-inspired health craze that would burn out.

“It’s growing and growing, maybe peaking at about 18 percent of the population (following a gluten-free diet),” he said. “But you have to listen to your guests, talk to them, you learn a lot.”

In truth, the number of people who are truly gluten-intolerant because of celiac disease represent only a tiny fraction of the population (about 1 percent), and even those who have banished gluten from their diets for health reasons seem to have little knowledge of what exactly gluten is. Witness the recent segment on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show in which he did man-on-the-street interviews with people who said they were committed to a gluten-free diet but when pressed couldn’t provide a definition of the substance.

Bay Area food industry consultant Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge, played a clip from the segment during his panel on food innovation.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there,” he said. “These are thoughtful people and even the ones who are eating it don’t know what it is.”

Here’s an anecdote about that very issue. A dear family friend used to work as a waiter at good quality local restaurants (and some shitty ones, too, but mostly good places). He said more than once he would have a customer interrogate him about whether there was gluten in the meal, “Because I can’t eat gluten,” while at the same time munching down on the contents of the bread basket. These are the diners who are allegedly savvy about their health and wanting good quality food, locally sourced, healthy and organic, blah, blah, blah, but they don’t understand that gluten is present in wheat products, like bread.

In truth, they are responding to media prompts and pseudoscience, without really understanding how what they read or listen to connects to what they order and eat. You know, the way the poor are constantly accused of failing to understand the badness of the crappy fast food they eat and how the poor dears need education? Failure to make those concrete connections sounds like a human issue, affecting people across the socioeconomic spectrum, not just those at the butt end of the economy.

The restauranteurs themselves don’t seem particularly concerned with the actual health of the products they serve, mostly because they are in the business of selling product, not health. If the customer is asking for the stuff, give it to them, even if it is disgusting, silly, or incorrectly understood. The aura of health is what matters, and catering to the customer’s self-image of being discerning gourmands trumps all else. The fact that it is relatively disjointed and clumsy (Eat Brussels sprouts for health! Even if they are fried in bacon grease, have carcinogenic char marks on them and are served doused in a maple syrup glaze. Which sounds scrumptious, btw…) is irrelevant when an eatery is trying to make sales.

Which brings up the one part of food culture that doesn’t get discussed that much, the cash nexus. All restaurants are in business to make money. The handful that are not are exceptions that prove the rule. If you can’t pay the bills, you can’t stay open. No one in the industry cooks healthy food to be cooking healthy food. A local chain that tried to do so, Daily’s, met a swift and unlamented end when its formally healthy (and spectacularly unappetizing) offerings were snubbed across the region. The article explicitly calls this fact out:

Restaurants shouldn’t be expanding their restaurant menus to include healthier options just because of some moral imperative, said Hank Cardello, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank. It’s also good for business.

Over a period of five years, the institute analyzed 21 restaurant chains — including Denny’s, McDonald’s, Olive Garden and Burger King — and found that at 17 of the chains, the lower-calorie menu items outperformed the higher-calorie options. Not only that but those companies that emphasized their lower-calorie offerings saw the highest same-store sales growth.

“The bottom line, if you ignore this, you give up market share,” he said.

So what can we take away from this? First, with reference to the whining by the food puritans that corporate entities need to offer more healthy options, restaurants, even huge chains, will gladly do so if their customers want to buy it. Second, with reference to the specific restaurants mentioned above, the big chains are well aware of the profitability of lower-calorie offerings, possibly more than local, boutique operations. Third, those big chains mentioned above are the usual suspects held up by all of the food tribes (puritans, paranoiacs, locovores, “foodies,” etc.) as doing horrible things to the population purely for the sake of profit. Hmm, seems that they’ll do good stuff, too, for that same incentive. Fourth, and this is a culture issue, those restaurants are those most likely to serve the (allegedly) least informed, least financially flexible and most health challenged sectors of the population. It seems that poor, fat people will buy lower-calorie food at a pretty good clip if it is on the menu. Finally, notice that “health” has been elided with “lower-calorie” – healthy food is redefined as low calorie food.

This is where the “healthy” eating crowd stops being so healthy when it also means they will have to give up their hyperpalatable food. Let’s move to the second article to show what I mean. It’s a standard column in the U-T, “The Dish,” and it highlights stuff happening out in the San Diego restaurant scene.

The focus of the column this time is that there are new breakfast and brunch offerings at various restaurants that look really good. The column is topped by a photo of bread pudding french toast from ACME Southern Kitchen, a very hot and happening new place in the SD East Village area. It looks like a thick slice of, well, bread pudding, topped with whipped cream and hard sauce, and accented with a (that’s singular, one, uno) sliced strawberry for fresh fruit. I would so inhale this dish. But the average price of a brunch dish at this restaurant is over $10 , not counting a beverage, tax and tip. It’s not an economical place to eat if you are of middling or lower income. There is no price listed on this french toast as of yet – the menu is very new – but I expect that it will be somewhere between $9.95 and $11.00.

The other part of this dish, and the rest of the brunch menu for this restaurant, is how “unhealthy” it is. It is loaded with sugar, salt and fat. Toss in a cup of coffee for the caffeine and you’ll cover all four basic food groups that appeal to me. This kind of cooking is standard in restaurants that cater to self-professed “foodies” and other people who simply like to eat good tasting stuff and who can afford to pay for the experience. Food at these establishments is (or claims to be) top quality, and that means cooked with significant amounts of cooking oil, a lot of seasonings, especially salt, and accompanied by sauces, marinades, dips, spreads and emulsions that usually have some fairly significant amount of  sweetener in them. The serving sizes are generous, aimed at the large appetite of a large man. The use of organic ingredients, the presence of a few slices of baby squash and a couple of leaves of lettuce, the assurance that the meat is “local” does not change the overall nutritional analysis of the meal.

In short, and in perfect accord with the results of the food survey I wrote up yesterday, food served in American eateries is uniformly large in portion size, high in calories, high in salt and sweeteners, and very appealing to the people who go there to purchase the meals. The main difference is the snobbishness of the decor and the size of the bill. The fervent belief that the food consumed in fancier places with bigger price tags is healthier than the food eaten at the places where poor fat people hang out is a fantasy.

Oh, and fat people eat at the “healthy” places, too. I should know. Those are the kinds of restaurants I go to when I go out, and I’m fat. I’m not kidding when I say that I would love to chow down on ACME’s bread pudding french toast, though, because I’m a cheap-ass skinflint, I’m probably going to forgo the trek downtown and study the picture until I figure out how to make it at home. Bread pudding is not hard to do, and do well, in your own kitchen.

This is a disordered way of eating, not so much because we shouldn’t eat scrumptious things as because we have a two-tired way of evaluating food and the people who consume it. For lower income, lower social status eaters, healthy is low-calorie, low-consumption, hypopalatable and required. For upper incomes, healthy is ostentatiously presented, denatured (yet “organic”), hyperpalatable, visually pretty versions of low-end food, with no guilt trip but a high price tag. The connection between them is the desire of the restauranteur to make a profit. It has very little to do with the way in which the different tiers of consumers, the derided poor and the admired well-heeled eat and how their consumption affects their individual health.

When we’re talking about health, if we’re to actually assist people in maintaining it, class needs to be dismissed.


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Posted in Culture, Economics, Food, Health
4 comments on “Health Class
  1. quixote says:

    The gluten thing is getting totally out of hand. A couple of days ago there was a piece in the LATimes talking about people who want “gluten-free sunscreen.” I laughed so much my stomach still hurts.


    • anglachelg says:

      Hi quixote,

      Yeah, it’s the current version of the low/non-fat craze of the early 90s, except with even less medically sound underpinnings. People who have celiac disease have nothing but my sympathy because this is a real, nasty, debilitating, life-threatening condition that requires them to be on the lookout for a substance that shows up in the weirdest places. I would not wish this on anyone.

      However, the cultural phenomenon of “gluten intolerance” is mysteriously concentrated in unrelated upper-middle class white women, never having been seen there before the noughties and nicely aligning with historical eating disorders of that socioeconomic class.

      Gluten free sunscreen? Heh. The weird part is I can believe that gluten as a thickening/conditioning agent is present in sunscreen. Not understanding that slathering it on your skin will have no effect on your intestinal tract (unless you lick it off, but if you do that, I think there other more damaging substances in the lotion to worry about…) kind of sums up Teh Stoopid where food fads are concerned. (I can hear the shrieks of outrage now – But I’ll ABSORB IT THROUGH MY SKIN!!!!! – and all the bad pseudoscience that will be marshaled to “prove” how gluten is undermining health and Western civilization.)

      Fads are fads and people are going to flock to them, then drop them for the next one.



  2. quixote says:

    Yeah. I can just hear them saying it, too. 🙂 If anyone absorbs a protein that size through their skin, they’re probably dead. Gluten sensitivity would be the least of their problems.

    I was on a shopping trip this afternoon for obscure ingredients for a biggish dinner we’re having, and wound up in Whole Foods. I thought of you when I saw their candy aisle. Except it’s not called that. It’s bulk organic foods. “Yoghurt”-coated almonds, chocolate raisin clusters, dried candied peaches, puffed rice with dark chocolate nuggets. And so on. About a hundred different things. I could just feel it shouting, “Fruit! Whole grains! In bulk! Old-timey scoop! Healthy!” What a giggle.


    • anglachelg says:

      A recent report indicates that people who have been diagnosed as gluten sensitive /intolerant may be reacting to a kind of carbohydrate found in wheat, fructan, which is similar to fructose (fruit), lactose (milk) and galactans (legumes), each of which has already been shown to give a certain portion of the population digestion problems. So, it’s not a protein, but a carbohydrate, and is in the same family as other irritating carbohydrates. The upshot is that wheat as such may still be a problem, but in the way that fruit, milk and legumes can be problematic for certain people. Hopefully good science will win out over bad, but I’m not holding my breath.

      If the WHO has its way, those organic food bins/candy aisle items at Whole Foods will need to go bye-bye because of all the added sugars. Yet somehow I doubt that Whole Foods will remove or put warning labels on its popular treats.

      Gah, food police.



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