The committees recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually reduce consumption of meat — was replaced by artful compromise: Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake. A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to eat less of a particular food has been deep-sixed; dont look for it ever again in any official. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless — and politically unconnected — substance that may or may not lurk in them called saturated fat.
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At the end of the 19th century, british doctors were puzzled by the fact that Chinese laborers in the malay states were dying of a disease called beriberi, which didnt seem to afflict Tamils or native malays. The mystery was solved when someone pointed out that the Chinese ate polished, or white, rice, while the others ate rice that hadnt been mechanically milled. A few years later, casimir Funk, a polish chemist, discovered the essential nutrient in rice husks that protected against beriberi and called it a vitamine, the first micronutrient. Brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and though certain sectors of the population began to eat by its expert lights, it really wasnt until late in the 20th century that nutrients managed to push food aside in the popular imagination. No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and — a senate select Committee on Nutrition, headed by george Mcgovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document. The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since world War ii, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted. Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, hayavadana engulfed the committee, and Senator Mcgovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his south dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat.
From foods to nutrients, it was in the 1980s that food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by nutrients, which are not the same thing. Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles — things like eggs or breakfast cereal or cookies — claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new terms like fiber and and saturated fat rose to large-type prominence. More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases. Nutrients themselves had been around, as a concept, since the early 19th century, when the English doctor and chemist William Prout identified what came to be called the macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates. It was thought that that was pretty much all there was going on in food, until doctors noticed that an adequate supply of the big three did not necessarily keep people feasibility nourished.
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