US science vs. Indian tradition: Cultural reality tells us that one man’s poison is another man’s feast.
People in the US must know more about food than people of any other country. After all, they eat more of it than anyone else, far more than they need to survive and stay fit. They also produce the highest number of nutritional experts and the best paid. US media are the most attentive in the world to stories about what people should and shouldn’t eat. And of course, some enterprising experts go so far as to tell their compatriots what they must eat, even exclusively or in excess, before actually selling it to them.
Karin Michels is a scientist from Germany. She is an epidemiologist, not even a nutritional expert, at Harvard University who has decided to warn the people (we may ask ourselves which people?) of the dangers of coconut oil. This has caused the equivalent of a diplomatic incident between the US and India. As reported by The Washington Post, “after Michels called coconut oil ‘pure poison’ and ‘one of the worst foods you can eat,’ India decided to fire back.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A substance that attacks and may possibly destroy the metabolism of people who make different nutritional choices than the speaker
The question of “which people Michels is warning” merits reflection. Is it all of humanity? Americans? Or her German compatriots? The logic of the situation would tell us that her audience is in the West and more likely the US.
American experts are very confident that when they make public pronouncements, they will produce a number of positive effects (at least for themselves). They know for a start that the media will cover it. Their reputation as an authority will be enhanced and, in the very best cases, permit them to invent and brand “health” products, making them rich and famous (the American dream). They will even have the moral impression that they have helped humanity, which can only boost their self-esteem. Not forgetting that there is a good chance of getting proposals from enterprises or lobbies in the agro-industry pleased with their message (because of the fear it creates of competing products). That could be the key to future research funding.
The Times of India informs us that Michels is an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Those familiar with the US university system know that an adjunct professor has no tenure and represents the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Her sudden media fame may ensure the advancement of her career in the US (though not in India).
The Washington Post provides some context to clarify this typically American story: “Starting in 2011, coconut oil went from a little-known item in health food stores to a ‘superfood’ that inspired its own craze in the United States, hailed for an array of unproven health benefits.” This was a perfect opportunity for a scientist such as Michels to step in and guide a people misled by yet another health food fad. Because Michels is an epidemiologist rather than a nutritionist, she had to evoke “poison” rather than a mere augmented risk to make the kind of stir that would project her into the spotlight.
A recent study shows that the US is less healthy than any other developed country. As everyone knows — thanks to the never-ending debate about health care reform — the US also has the worst health care system among rich nations. The articles that report on this unenviable statistic often fail to identify the deeper cultural reasons for this problem, the first of which is Americans’ curious relationship with food itself, alternatively appreciated for its superficial taste and its chemical qualities, rarely for its cultural and historical roots.
Taste of course is relative. In most other cultures (excepting perhaps England), taste is cultivated around traditional practices of growing, combining ingredients and cooking different types of dishes. In the US, taste is industrially and then commercially programmed. It evolves according to the rules of the overall economy: the organization of maximum consumption.
India failed to appreciate Michels’ warning. India’s horticulture commissioner, B.N. Srinivasa Murthy, termed it “unsubstantiated and inconsiderate.” Celebrity Indian nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar raised an important cultural point: “Making a food into a hero and then a villain is a tried and tested strategy of the food and weight loss industry. The latest controversy is on coconut. The golden rule though is — if it has been consumed in your region for ages and has multiple and varied uses, its a superfood.”
But how can the experience of countless generations of Keralans contradict scientific evidence focused on isolated ingredients? The point of US nutritional science, as relayed by the media, appears to be to demonstrate the folly of holistic systems and even other people’s traditions by reducing everything to a list of ingredients and simplistic laws of cause and effect. In the minds of the typical American, food exists on only two levels: composition and taste, or the assembled reality of processed foodstuffs and the list of chemicals that make foods attractive to consumers.
Cultural poisons exist. And the obsession with food fads and the pseudo-science that accompanies them should be classified as one.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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