Terrors of the Table

Read Time:
2m 56sec


The Curious History of Nutrition.

By Walter Gratzer.
Oxford Univ. Press. 304 pp. $30

We are what we eat.


As readers of this exhaustive (and exhausting) historical survey must conclude, the science behind that simple proposition remains speculative and incomplete. Over the past two centuries, so many fine researchers were showered with honors and titles and awards for getting the science totally wrong. One hundred years from now, people will look back on our nutritional pieties and marvel: They thought red meat was bad for you? They forced themselves to drink soymilk?

Gratzer, an emeritus professor at Kings College, London, loves human folly. His other books, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty (2000) and The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes (2002), lead naturally to this volume, which follows the trail of mostly wrong ideas from the 18th century to the present, with a nod to the Greeks and Romans. Gratzer is justifiably fascinated by the cranks and crackpots who profited wildly from poisonous or useless elixirs, and by the earnest scientists who sacrificed their health and sanity—and the health and sanity of others—to better understand our nutritional needs. Take the 18th-century Italian abbot Lazzaro Spallanzani, who, for three days at a stretch, would hold tubes of minced meat and animals’ gastric juices under his armpits, to simulate digestion.

My favorite crackpot—American, naturally—was Horace Fletcher, the Great Masticator, who launched a fad that swept the United States and Europe at the turn of the 20th century: Chew each bite 32 times, he proclaimed, and you will enjoy perfect health. “Chewing parties became popular in fashionable circles,” writes Gratzer. “These ‘muncheons,’ in which the participants were enjoined to chew with their heads low over the plate so that the tongue could hang down, were often coordinated by a conductor, who timed the mastication of each mouthful and rang a bell or struck a gong when the moment came to swallow.” Among Fletcher’s followers was Henry James—no wonder he chewed over everything so endlessly in his prose.

Though Gratzer appears more interested in anecdotes than in theory, you can’t read this book without spotting a theme: We blame psychology and environment for everything, until science comes up with the real cause. Scurvy, blight of the 18th-century sailor, was attributed to low morale, bad air, and all kinds of other folderol, until it was finally proved to be a vitamin C deficiency. Gratzer’s chapter on scurvy is especially painful to read, because doctors came so close, so many times, to understanding the disease, only to be thrown off the trail by making one false move, such as boiling lemon juice so it would keep better on long voyages, which sapped it of vitamin C.

Though our scientific knowledge has grown, the human body remains a vastly complex machine, making us prey to all kinds of dietary come-ons, along with what Gratzer calls “the higher quackery” of the pharmaceutical industry. Do we need anti-cholesterol drugs? Are we getting fatter because of what we eat, or are we eating more because we’re getting fat from some other cause? Is too much salt bad? “People have such fear of food,” I heard Julia Child exclaim in a radio interview in 1992. Warning: This entertainingly scary book, especially the chapters on additives then and now, should make us all afraid.

—A. J. Loftin

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