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The Food, the Fear, the Facts

People in the United States are awfully messed up about food — so thinks Barry Glassner, University of Southern California sociology professor and author of "The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know About Food Is Wrong." We imbue certain ingredients with an almost magical power to heal — when, that is, we're not fearing them as poisons we must strip from our diet.

Glassner is a scholar of worry: His 1999 book, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things," examined a medley of items that panic Americans, out of proportion, he says, to their risk: poisoned Halloween candy, airplane crashes, exotic infections such as SARS.

On a recent lunch break, Glassner slowly relished beef tacos and fried plantains and talked about his latest book.

What made you want to write this book?

When I finished "The Culture of Fear," I realized I hadn't covered one huge area — the fear Americans have of more or less everything that's for sale to eat. I'm also really interested in food. ... What concerns me is folks who are restricting themselves unnecessarily and missing out on pleasures of the table.

Such as worrying about saturated fat, refined carbohydrates or processed food?

There are people who select any, or several, of those. And I think there are a lot of people, especially in this country, who subscribe to what I came to call the gospel of naught — this curious notion that the worth of a food lies in what it lacks rather than what it contains — be it less fat, fewer carbs or fewer preservatives. I think that's a formula for eliminating a lot of pleasure.

Are you arguing that people should just eat what they want?

I certainly think people should have a healthy diet. In no way am I arguing that people with particular health problems don't need to maintain the diet that their doctors recommend. I'm talking about the general population. A lot of people restrict what they eat because they get obsessed with whatever the hot diet book is, or whatever foodstuff is demonized or worshipped this month.

Let's have some examples.

So we had this period where you found oat bran in everything — there was even beer with oat bran. Now, you can find omega-3 fatty acids in all kinds of things. I just saw it in pet food. We go from one to another of these things.

But shouldn't we pay attention to nutrition studies?

I think there are excellent studies, and I think we'd be crazy to not take good research about our diet seriously. At the same time, many studies get a lot more attention than they deserve. The general public often takes a study as something very decisive that goes way beyond what is actually found.

What's your own philosophy of eating?

My motto is: Enjoy what you eat, eat in moderation, eat a diverse diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and everything will be fine. Following a healthy diet for most people who don't have special medical conditions is not really much more complicated than that. What we leave out in this culture is the enjoyment part. Enjoyment of a meal is important psychologically and emotionally — and also important physiologically. There's research showing that.

Do you have an example?

One of my favorite studies gave Thai and Swedish women foods that they liked and foods that they disliked or weren't familiar with. When women ate foods that they liked, their absorption of iron was greater.

What do you think of putting nutrition labels in restaurants?

I think it's great. I am a scholar, so I think the more information the better. People can choose to read it and use it as they please.

You don't seem to believe that fast-food eateries are bad.

I neither praise nor demonize fast food. I find it curious that so many people seem to see it as the devil incarnate and the cause of every problem in the world.

What about the link between fast food and obesity?

Fast food is often blamed for that. I looked at the timeline and it doesn't work. The fast-food industry took off in the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, the signs outside McDonalds already read, "2 billion hamburgers sold." The obesity rates didn't start shooting up until the 1980s and 1990s. Fast-food operations may have something to do with weight gain, but they can't be the principal explanation.

Does the obesity epidemic concern you?

Yes. I'm not among those who argue that obesity is not a health danger. But there's a big difference between obesity and being slightly over what is designated "normal weight." The evidence for serious health detriments from being in the slightly overweight category, from the research I've seen, is very limited.

What do you think about the current move to ban trans fats from restaurants?

I think it's fine if a city wants to ban trans fats. Will it improve the health of the population? To a modest extent. Will it help as much as other things that could be done, like providing better, fresher foods to populations that have a hard time getting those? Absolutely not.

And then: What are people going to be eating instead?

Do you have food fears yourself or things you don't eat? I have a bad reaction to chickpeas, so I don't eat those.

What do you want people to take away from your book?

I want people to see that there are so many wonderful possibilities of how to eat. There are all these great cuisines, chefs and ingredients out there. To limit yourself unnecessarily is really to deprive yourselves of some of the great pleasures available.

The Food, the Fear, the Facts