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Here’s Something to Chew On

In a new book, USC sociology professor Barry Glassner dishes about the American diet, dispels long-held myths and delves into dining choices.

Here’s Something to Chew On
Barry Glassner has added a new word to the old adage, “You are what you eat.” After five years of research into the food consumption habits of our nation, the professor of sociology in USC College said Americans have twisted that saying into “You are what you don’t eat.”

That’s because Americans fall sway to nearly every myth about food imaginable, Glassner said, and our picky behavior has led us to select foods and restaurant experiences that underscore our own romantic image of food – often at the expense of common sense.

In his new book, “The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong” (Ecco/HarperCollins, January), Glassner confronts the culinary and nutritional beliefs that have become the dogma of American food culture.

With thorough research involving the review of several thousand studies and interviews with a range of authorities, he debunks obesity theories and gets to the heart of the commercial, cultural and socioeconomic factors that are behind everything from why we glorify certain foods and demonize others to what your dining choices say about who you are.

“If I eat at The French Laundry in Napa or Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills, that projects an image of what I think about food as well as my status,” said Glassner, the USC executive vice provost. “Or, if I subscribe to and search out an obscure restaurant that serves sugar-fried squid in Monterey Park, that projects another image entirely.”

Just as knowing where to get the most authentic foods projects an image, so does shunning certain foods or eating others such as organic or “natural” foods, Glassner said.

“People believe that natural means safer, better or purer, but these foods are often just as processed,” he said. “And natural isn’t always a good thing. ‘Natural’ invokes thoughts of a benevolent Mother Nature – but Mother Nature is responsible for fires, earthquakes and floods too.”

For Glassner, many Americans have fallen under the sway of killjoys who preach what he calls “the gospel of naught,” the view that the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks.

“The less sugar, salt, fat, calories, carbs, preservatives, additives or other suspect stuff, the better the meal,” is their thinking, he said.

But relying on scientific studies that are the backbone of much of this gospel can lead the faithful into murky territory, when upon closer examination these studies are proven to be faulty, contradictory or in some cases outright bogus.

Even the governmental dietary guidelines that shape the healthful American diet are an amalgam that results from a compromise among its creators – a group of people with differing opinions and agendas. It’s neither pure nor based on definitive scientific studies and when taken as “gospel” is difficult to follow, he noted.

What’s more, Glassner finds that this joyless view of food may just be one of the factors behind the obesity epidemic. There are clearer links, he contends, to the rise in obesity with the proliferation of anti-smoking campaigns, chronic stress and the most ironic culprit of all – avoidance of foods we’ve been told will make us fat or sick.

“A great deal of evidence points in that direction," Glassner said, citing a group of Harvard and Stanford researchers who observed that, for many people, “dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain.”

In the end, enjoyment of food must be part of the picture. “A piece of baked fish with a side of broccoli has its place when you’re looking for something light, but don’t tell a Tex Mex devotee that it beats a great carne asada burrito,” he said.