Food for thought, not for eating

On one of those 3-D (dark, damp, dismal) mornings that make me suspect that January has 62, not 31 days, I went to the supermarket in search of fruit. “Celebrate Spanish Citrus!” commanded several posters, so I picked up a net of clementines and read the text on the wrapper. “Easy peelers, sweet and fragrant” it said, and went on, “The combination of the cool coastal breeze, the mountains and the long sunshine hours help to give the citrus its high level of juice and sweet taste.” Yes, yes, of course, sea and mountains and those intense colours and moods of Spain that I know and love – and here a 20-second reverie took me over, complete with nostalgia, the plangent sound of a guitar and the swirl of a passionate dance. Clearly, these clementines were the pure essence in edible form of all that was good and natural in that part of the world, so different from unhealthy, unnatural and polluted London.

So I bought them and at home read the last bit of text on the wrapper. That was a mistake. “Post Harvest Treatment: Imazalil, Pyrimethanil. Treated with wax E904, E914” it said, destroying my Iberian idyll of unspoilt nature and innocent clementines. Dammit – of course I know that there are thousands of chemicals, politely known as food cosmetics, in everything  we eat, unless it’s guaranteed organic produce. There are man-made colours, flavours and fragrances, replacing their natural equivalents destroyed during processing, plus  preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners, gelling agents and others (those “others” sound most scary) to reckon with; by comparison my clementines had got away lightly. Consumed year after year, decades after decade they are bound to affect us, yet no-one in power cries a halt to this industrial-scale mass poisoning of the public. And so we get sicker and sicker and more obese, costing more and more to the public purse (AKA your money and mine), just to keep us going. Yet already a good half century ago Sir Richard Doll, the foremost epidemiologist of his time and his colleague, Sir Richard Peto, demonstrated that for instance among the causes of cancer, poor diet ran neck and neck with tobacco. By now smoking has become a lesser evil, with the ravages of the modern diet growing steadily.

A few years ago a Europe-wide project set out to discover the causes of diminished male fertility, and found that the highest sperm count belonged to Danish organic farmers, namely to men free from any contact with agro-chemicals, those global bestsellers whose name ends in -cide, such as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and a few more. Did anybody draw a conclusion from that? If so, it has remained a closely guarded secret.

The average child is supposed to understand the link between cause and effect by the age of seven. Can it be that part of the mental age of our decision-makers hasn’t reached that milestone yet? Perish the thought.

Yet despite all this gloom and doom there is hope. Not just because of the growth of the organic sector and of the many small-scale initiatives that, added up, can make a difference, but – to me at least – because of a new development in some sectors of American psychiatry. A friend in California wrote to me about psychiatry’s latest addition to mental illness. It’s called orthorexia nervosa, defined as “a pathological obsession for (sic) biologically pure and healthy nutrition”, and those who suffer from it are “overly preoccupied with the nutritional makeup of what they eat.”  Well, that’s really good news. It means that we orthorexic nutcases are beginning to be seen as a threat, a menace to Big Food, who must be tamed by the manna dished out by Big Pharma. Perhaps we aren’t yet a serious menace, but it’s a beginning.

And now I shall concentrate on an easy to peel, sweet and fragrant clementine, hoping that the Imazalil and Pyrimethanil have not penetrated beyond the radiant golden peel.