The Gluten Lie and Other Myths about What You Eat by Alan Levinovitz, Ph.D., originally published in 2015 by Regan Arts, now available in a variety of formats. (Book image and title are both affiliate links; if you click through to the Amazon page and buy the book there I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.)
I first became aware of this book because its author was featured on the Freakonomics Radio podcast, to which you should subscribe and faithfully listen. (And then you should read the Freakonomics book, Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.
Anyway, the author of this book, Alan Levinovitz, was interviewed not too long ago on the show, and since I’m a total fan of any author who wants to punch a hole in our society’s various food fads and manias, I made sure to get hold of his book.
The most interesting fact about Gluten Lie’s author is that he isn’t a scientist or nutritionist but a professor of religion, in particular ancient Chinese religion. You might think that he’s therefore unqualified to say anything about our modern food fads, but his background makes him uniquely qualified. This whole “grains are bad for you” hoop-dee-do goes in and out of fashion periodically, as do others. The funny thing is that these fads are actually a kind of religion: a way of living that will somehow make us pure. People pride themselves on buying low-salt or low-fat products, even though the modified (and some of us would say, adulterated) versions are no healthier than the normal ones (and sometimes worse).
I’ll just mention, for example, that low-sodium soy sauce makes up for the missing salt by putting in citric acid. (At least, that’s what my son says. I haven’t been able to verify his statement and have just spent quite awhile surfing the web to find out. One article says that the salt is replaced with “chemicals” but doesn’t say what those substances are. The Kikkoman website says that after fermentation of the soybeans around 40% of the salt is removed, but it doesn’t say how the salt is removed or what, if anything, is done to make up for the lost flavor. I have a sneaking suspicion that people tend to use more of the low-sodium stuff, thus negating any health benefit that might accrue.) And don’t get me started on abominations such as “fat-free half and half”! What a joke. In order to reproduce the creaminess of the real thing, companies add corn syrup and various thickeners to skim milk. (Plus a little cream, but not enough to go over the limit for calling something fat-free.) Just use the half and half, people!
Levinovitz starts out with a look at The Great MSG Scare, then goes into our current anti-gluten obsession before devoting a chapter each to fat, sugar and salt as food villains. While I have cut down on my own sugar consumption considerably I’m not a Sugar Nazi. I don’t think sugar causes all ills. (Just some of them.) I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it heartily, especially to those who have bought into some of these current food myths or who are dealing with those who have. Nobody wants to be told to “eat a variety of foods in moderation.” That advice is so boring! Remember my recent post in which I stated my principle that there’s an inverse relationship between the drama of a process and the magnitude of its results? It’s sure as shootin’ true here. We all want a magic pill, a sure-fire formula, something to brag about to our friends. (Apparently the Whole30 diet is tremendously popular among millennials; they have Facebook and other social media groups in which they share their experiences of going through 30 days of ridiculously restricted eating. It’s like a rite of passage. No, it is a rite of passage. I’m including a link to the website because I think it’s ethical to do so if I’m going to mention the idea, but please don’t get sucked into this fad! Just read it and laugh.)
You want to hear something really funny? Levinovitz totally scammed me with the last chapter of the book. I was listening to the audio version, and they didn’t include the annotated chapter in that format. I guess it would be pretty hard to do that. Here’s what he does: he gives his own version of a restrictive diet plan, which he calls the “unpacked” diet. That’s what I listened to. Then he unpacks the “unpacked” diet in the annotations. It’s a satire. I kept thinking as I listened that he’d fallen off the wagon, making fun of all these other ridiculous food fads and then coming up with one of his own. The premise of the unpacked diet is that plastics are making us sick; it’s the packaging, not the food. We’re supposed to go back to the days when produce came in crates, canned goods in Mason jars, and everything else in burlap sacks. How on earth could you do that? It would be impossible. You’d never be able to go into a grocery store again. Which is, of course, his point. Ridiculous restrictions serve only to drive us crazy and drive up our anxiety levels. Oh, and by the way—there’s almost always some kind of financial tie-in between fad diets and monetary considerations. Just take a look at any diet and health guru’s website and notice the cookbooks, supplements, foods, even coaching, that are available—for a fee. Nothing wrong with making an honest buck! But, whether these purveyors realize it or not, they’re selling snake oil, pure and simple. Oh, and “pure and simple” is the way we’re supposed to eat.
As I always say, read this book. Please. The sanity you save may be your own.