A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Media and Misdirection in Food Reporting

Why do mainstream media cover food issues all wrong?

More than ever, people are fixated on food's long-term effects. Whether you focus on the health benefits of certain foods--bran, olive oil, fatty acids--or the dangers of others--trans fats, BPAs, refined sugar--or even if you don't particularly care, you'd have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the increasingly heated obsession with the links between diet and health.

Last weekend, The New York Times published a profile of a rich 85-year-old man who's trying to beat the ultimate odds and live well past 100. Now, the Times has a funny relationship to food journalism: on the one hand, they've done an admirable job of supporting the movement to improve the safety and sustainability of the American food supply, while also exposing the detrimental effects of lobbyists and other special interests on U.S. food policy. But when it comes to promoting healthy eating, the Times often falls into the same trap as many middle and upper class Americans, failing to distinguish between "healthy" and disordered eating (and exercising) practices.

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Whether it's publishing articles about low-calorie "longevity" diets, reporting on a 500-calorie diet supplemented by human growth hormone injections on its front page, or letting its health columnist extol an exercise regime so extreme it left her with stress fractures and other injuries, the Times obviously isn't concerned about the small but significant group of people who stand to be harmed (or harm themselves) after reading such things. It did publish an article last year about a mother's anguishing loss of her daughter to an eating disorder...in its "Styles" section. When the subject of food is divorced from its political components, which the Times handles with consummate skill, it becomes a slippery subject, and the paper tends to focus more on emotions and quirky personalities than on real people and their real-life issues.

So it's not at all surprising that the Times chose to focus recently on this eccentric character, David Murdock, who succeeded--against steep odds--in becoming a very rich man. He's bested every obstacle he's encountered in his lifetime, it seems, except one: death. After losing a beloved wife to cancer in her forties (and a son to an accident shortly thereafter), Murdock became obsessed with the link between diet and health, and decided that--clichés be damned--he would set his sights on immortality. Well, perhaps not immortality, but something akin to it: living to 125.

From his banana peel smoothies (these haunt me--yuck) and dark chocolate health cookies to funding rigorous laboratory testing of foods and their nutrients, Murdock is living proof that driven people with immense resources believe they can unlock the secret of eternal life. It's an age-old archetype, but the Times reporter seemed more piqued by the quasi-scientific details of his diet than in what this drive to immortality reveals about his character--or about our national character, for that matter. Instead of focusing on improving society's access to healthier foods, or attempting to untangle the stranglehold special interests and commerce have on our food habits, we get to read instead about a megalomaniacal individual using his money to try and help himself conquer death. How depressing--and how wrong.

 

What I cooked this Week:

  • Buttery Polenta with Olive-Oil Fried Eggs and Garlicky Broccoli Rabe (Melissa Clark's In the KItchen With a Good Appetite)
  • Polenta-Crusted Chicken with Steamed Broccoli (this time without the escarole and balsamic sauce, though that's delicious too)
  • Golden-Eyed Beans with Herbs (Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian)
  • Wheat Berries with Chickpeas and Winter Squash (New York Times)

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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