Friday, February 12, 2010

The Naked Brain: activism minus science.

The winner of the 2010 TED gift is Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver. TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design and is a nonprofit foundation that features lectures and presentations by many of our species greatest minds. TED presentations focus on science, technology, and humanity. I love their site and have spent entire days watching people demonstrate cutting edge technology. I watched Bill Clinton give a very inspiring speech as he accepted his TED gift. The TED gift is a financial award that the winner can apply to their research or cause.
"I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity"

OK. This sounds great, right? Everyone wants families to cook more and everyone wants little kids to not be so fat, and everyone wants to be sustainable. Whew! I feel all warm and bubbly inside already.

But what does that actually mean?

Sustainable is the most loaded, overused term in the modern era(2nd only to 'fresh'). It should mean that what you do(grow, produce, manufacture) is used in such a way that the component parts that make up what you do are replenished at a rate that keeps pace with what you are doing.

Sustainable logging means that you plant trees to replace what you cut and more trees are ready to harvest before you run out of trees.

Sustainable manufacturing is a little more tricky: I think it's using sources of renewable energy to produce items that are made with recyclable materials.

Sustainable food should mean that, like trees, you are planting what you take. But then people say, 'Well, fertilizers can pollute, so it can't be sustainable if you use those.' Then other people say, 'Hey, this food is trucked 500 miles, so it isn't sustainable.'

It's such a loaded term and what I think people really think it should mean is this: Sustainable means I don't feel guilty anymore.

Jamie Oliver also says he wants to create a movement to educate children about food. His wish is for a movement. His goal is more activism. His wish isn't that children get educated about food, his wish is for a movement. That is fairly important.

Jamie Oliver is a brand. You can assign a value to him as an entity, based on ratings for cooking shows, endorsement deals, cookbook sales, etc. What a brand such as him really needs is a cause... a movement.

My original intent was to separate fact from fiction concerning his movement, but as I investigated, I noticed that there aren't really facts involved, so I will consider the actual idea and theme of his movement.

The title of this blog is a clickable link that goes to Oliver's site where you can see this all for yourself.

So here is what I get from his movement:
Nutritious School lunches using local, sustainable, real food.
Families that prepare meals at home.
Educating kids about food.
Fighting the scourge that is obesity [grrr!]

First off, I'm a little confused by the school lunch program to be honest. Is the goal to provide food since the kids are stuck there for 6-8 hours? Or is the goal to provide complete nutrition, as if the only food they get is at school? This makes a huge difference, by the way. If the idea is that this has to be enough food in case they aren't fed at all at home, then you need much more calorie dense and nutrient dense foods. If you're just providing food to as one meal out of several then you don't need as many calories and it can be just enough to satiate hunger without making the kid tired after lunch.

Jamie Oliver takes several shots at processed foods. The following is from his School Food Charter:
"Don’t just look for the USDA symbol. How many ingredients do you recognize? How many are adding nutritional value to the food? Remember, real food, cooked fresh, doesn’t need additives, preservatives, or anything artificial. Processed food is often full of these things."

Oh boy... First off, he equates the goodness of food with the number of ingredients. Then he makes a statement about real food being fresh(another loaded term) which means that processed foods aren't real. His line of logic then concludes with a statement demonizing preservatives. He's also playing on people's lack of education about food science. It would be impossible to make this arguments stick if people knew what the preservatives were for and that they really are harmless.

These are old, tired arguments from the food hysterics. Processed food is bad and it isn't real, and there are things in it we don't immediately understand, so that makes it bad. Preservatives are neither good nor bad. They're preservatives.

Processed food is real and uses the same methods you would use in the kitchen, just mechanized for mass production. Example: instant mashed potatoes.

What do you do when you make mashed potatoes? Peel and cut potatoes, boil potatoes to cook them, mash the potatoes, and mix in seasonings and cream.

What does a factory do to make mashed potatoes? Peel and cut potatoes, boil potatoes to cook them, mash the potatoes, and mix in seasonings and cream. They just go the additional step of drying the mashed potatoes and packaging the powder.

Do you test your mashed potatoes for micro organisms? Do you have others thoroughly inspect your kitchen for cleanliness and safety every day? No? The factory does.

I'm concerned that Jamie Oliver is simply taking old arguments that weren't based in science and is repackaging them to help sell his brand. After all, a family learning to cook, is going to need cookwear, and a cookbook or an instructional dvd. Mr. Oliver takes digs at processed foods, but look what he has on his site here:

Hmm.. That stuff looks familiar. Can't quite put my finger on it, but I feel like I've seen that before. I don't see how he has the time to cook all of this food at home and package it for sale. Surely, he doesn't use contract food manufacturers(private labels) to make a product line and put his name on it.

Hypocritical and completely tone-deaf.

He also advocates eating on plates and using metal utensils. Who's going to pay for this?
His plan would essentially turn school cafeterias into 3 star restaurants for children that eat there for a half hour and usually at around 10AM. You want proper table settings? Fine. You will also need to hire additional personelle and you'll need to buy a Hobart C-line dishwasher to accommodate the volume of dishes. You'll need more staff to work longer hours chopping, sauteing, simmering, and roasting food. These are real culinary skills, so you'll need to bump up the pay to attract the talent that can actually pull this off. You want local, raw ingredients? Then you need to contact local purveyors and get more deliveries, more often, and you will pay a premium for it.

Not only does Mr. Oliver not consult food science and nutrition experts on his plans, but check out the people on his must see list.
He lists Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, the movies Food Inc. and Two Angry Moms, and The Centre For Science In The Public Interest (not really science).

What I gather from all of this is that Jamie Oliver is at the very least, misguided about food issues and falls into the same trap many other well intentioned, misinformed folks fall into. More than that, Jamie Oliver is more concerned about his brand than children, evidenced by his TED gift acceptance speech where he states that his wish was for a movement...not for specific changes. This gift coincides perfectly with his new ABC series Food Revolution and compliments his books, dvd's, cookware, and yes, even his line of processed foods.

Can we please return to science and reason as a means to shape policy?


  1. "It's such a loaded term and what I think people really think it should mean is this: Sustainable means I don't feel guilty anymore."

    Spot on. If perception is reality, you have nailed it. Corporate 'greenwashing' or blowing green smoke falls into this, IMO.


    "Preservatives are neither good nor bad. They're preservatives." is a statement you can't make. Pick a side. If they aren't 'good' or 'bad', then why use them? Why hesitate to support their efficacy? If they fulfil their intended purpose (to preserve food) then that's good, right?

    Personally, I like Jamie Oliver's latest 'movement' toward healthier food, grown locally. But I still enjoyed your thoughtful article all the same. Thanks for an interesting read.

  2. Thank You Sam. Theres big money to be made kissing up to the "local Organic movement. Jamie Oliver's cashing in.

  3. The growth in the organic segment, is ironically, unsustainable. The more people that start to demand this, means more farmers growing organic which means more competition and lower prices. Great for the consumer, but the farmer will start to see that he/she isn't making what they were on the crops and either need to figure out how to increase yields w/out increasing labor, raise prices w/out losing customers, or they'll go under. Local and Organic are great for a farmer looking for a niche market and extra profitablilty if they're willing to work harder for it, but they must realize that the log phase in the product cycle will be ending soon. These movements are incredibly averse to science and technology, so there isn't very many cheap ways to increase yields. You either have to grow in greenhouses or farm more land(which takes time to be able to be considered organic).

  4. I would encourage folks to go watch the video before reading Sam's rant. Why do I call it a rant? Because he has a real problem with people who like fresh real food, you know from the garden. I am not sure why. It seems really simple to me. I love being able to walk out my door and pick my dinner. I try to make that pleasure available to more people.

    Watch the video and then respond. Because Sam, you seem to love TED until one of their world class people talks about what you do for a living. How is he different from you? Besides being self employed and world renowned and clearly a pretty caring person and making a great living teaching people how to cook...a lost art. You right though he's not the first person to come up with the idea that having a set of easy to make meals is a great tool kit for any person to eat well and save money. Hundreds of "Good Housekeeping" magazines gave out this info for decades... sadly almost every recipe they published called for a can of Campbell's soup though.

    Like I asked before why do commodity farmers grow their own kitchen gardens? Because it is economical and it tastes great...

    Feed your children what you want. I don't want my kids to eat highly processed crap that is in the schools SOLELY because it is cheap and commodity interests and bean counters dominate both the food pyramid and the school lunch menus of US schools. People who think like me are not going away and insulting us will not tamp down our love of good food.

    Obesity has gone from 11% in the early 90s to 26% percent in 2008. I am sure you don't think that's OK. Where do you put the blame. For folks that didn't see the video here's two highlights

    1- the part where a room full of kids cannot ID ONE VEGETABLE.

    2. the part where a families processed diet is put on a table in a pile before them..the mom of course breaks down because she is obese and the pile of garbage in front of her is truly disgusting - it may be calories, but it's not real food.

    You like to talk about science. Is medicine science? Most doctors worth their salt will tell you that a diet made of whole grains, tons of fruit and veg and low in high sugar high carb processed food is THE most important component of health second only to 30 minutes of excercise a day. Soda is not real food and eating high sugar high processed food does not give you the energy you need to do 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise.

    Check the stats on how many 14 year olds can run a mile in under 12 minutes...20 year stats are pretty scary.

    Also your definitions of sustainability are problematic. And you are right - the word has been bastardized not to mean what it actually means. You can thank multinational corporations for that.

    A pine farm is not the same thing as an old growth forest. That old growth system provided untold wealth in the form of ecosystem services, such as sequestering massive carbon, a bed of extreme biodiversity protection from soil erosion among only a few things that it returned for being allowed to remain old growth. Thankfully some economists are starting to understand this.

    Planting trees for instance on top of a plateau where a mountain used to be is not 'restoration.' You cannot replace 10000 years worth of ecosystem 'development' with a tree farm. They are not equivalent.

    I don't mean this to sound like a lecture..I'm not good at sprinkling sugar all over my thoughts. I am just talking out loud. If we were in the same room we'd share a pint or three and I am sure find a lot of common ground.
    This is why the net kind of sucks.


Put your comment here, kind sir/madame. Try to cite sources when stating facts and refrain from off topic comments or hateful/nasty rhetoric.