“You look amazing – are you banting?”
In the 1860s there was only one diet, and it was the Banting. Conceived of by a corpulent English undertaker and coffin-maker called William Banting – who was clearly well positioned to observe the consequences of over-indulgence – it became the first popular diet.
Banting advocated reduced consumption of starchy and sugary carbohydrates and up to six ounces of meat a day – but no pork, as it was thought to contain carbs – all washed down with two or three glasses of good claret.
Since Banting’s time, the number of popular diets has skyrocketed. There have been any number of miracle foods, weight-loss tricks and single-ingredient solutions but how many of these have actually changed the way we eat? This is one of the questions that will be addressed at the BBC Future’s World Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney in November.
WHY ARE THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF ‘GOOD’ AND ‘BAD’ FOOD ALWAYS CHANGING?
It’s fundamental to the nature of science that nothing is ever ‘proved’, and the same goes for dietary science. What is demonised as being bad for us one year can be redeemed the next with new research and new understanding.
Remember when eggs were considered the dietary work of the devil because of their cholesterol content? Then in 1995, a study showed that even eating two eggs a day didn’t have any negative effects on the risk factors for heart disease. Eggs also contain lots of other good stuff, like protein, vitamins and minerals, so now they’re very much back on the menu.
Butter also copped flak in the 1980s because of panic about cholesterol and saturated fat, and its popularity plummeted in favour of margarines. Then everyone started getting worried about man-made trans-fats in margarines, which have since been largely removed.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A SUPERFOOD?
It would be great if we could eat whatever we liked, then fix all the resulting problems with a handful of blueberries or walnuts. But our fixation with superfoods completely misses the point of healthy eating, says Rosemary Stanton, who will be speaking at BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit.
“The super foods fad is yet another sign of the never-ending search for a magic bullet to solve problems,” she says. “Such thinking, that ignores the multi-factorial nature of diet-related health problems, is probably the greatest myth.”
The UK National Health Service agrees. In 2011 it produced a whole report debunking the idea of a miracle food, and pointing out that the best approach is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
WHAT ABOUT SO-CALLED ‘FORTIFIED FOODS’ AND NUTRACEUTICALS?
Ever since we got it into our heads that certain nutrients were ‘good’ for us, the food industry has been working to produce foods that give us an extra boost of those nutrients. It might be bread fortified with folic acid or niacin, table salt with iodine, and margarine with added plant sterols or vitamin D. These foods tiptoe a fine line between a food and a medicine, and the addition of nutrients can mean the manufacturer is able to make health claims about the benefits of their product, which they can’t necessarily make about something that isn’t processed.
Stanton views this as simply a profitable distraction from the real healthy foods: fresh produce.
Oddly enough, 19th Century French chemist Marcellin Berthelot is credited with the idea of artificial food, which led to predictions of a future era of chemical food. In one article published in 1896, the author took Berthelot’s ideas to the extreme, arguing that the nutrients of a steak could just as easily be absorbed in a tiny tablet, as “the pleasures of the table have ages on end been absorbing too much of the time and inclination of man and woman”.
WHAT ELSE IS IN OUR GASTRONOMIC FUTURE?
Fans of science fiction will be familiar with the 1973 dystopian film Soylent Green, in which the population is nourished by processed food rations, including the mysterious ‘Soylent Green’. The climax of the film reveals the true ingredient (spoiler alert): people. In spite of its sinister origins – or perhaps in homage to them – Soylent is now available as an engineered product that is supposed to contain all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients our bodies need, in a snack bar or drink. Although quite what is achieved by doing away with the pleasures of a crunchy apple, medium-rare steak, fresh slice of bread or strong cheddar is not clear from the marketing.
Another science fiction classic, Logan’s Run, hints that all future food will come from the sea rather than from land. While the oceans already supply 16% of our total protein intake, there has long been interest in cultivating some less obvious nutrient sources from the marine environment, such as algae.
Spirulina – a type of algae – is already a staple of the health food supplement set, but interest in the wider world of sea greens is growing, with research suggesting microalgae is loaded with the right kinds of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Some are suggesting that algae would offer a much less environmentally-damaging alternative to crops.
Margaret Atwood’s science fiction novel Oryx and Crake painted an unappetising vision of the future of meat, including engineered living chicken parts called ChickieNobs. But given the environmental impact of our love of a meat-heavy diet, it’s no wonder that people are exploring the prospect of engineered, lab-grown meat.
But the prospect of tabletised algae, vats of cultured meat substitute or liquefied meal substitutes, all intended to supply us with the essential nutrients for life, might prompt some to question whether a life dependent on these was actually worth living.