Monday, 9 February 2015


“Only the educated are free.” - Epictetus

I am reading a book called “Terrors of the Table” by Walter Gratzer, at the moment. It documents the struggle to find the vital nutritive ingredients of a balanced diet, and in the process exposes the fads and quackery that have always waylaid the unwary and the foolish when they attempt to eat a “healthy” diet. Terrible nutritional illnesses such as scurvy, rickets and beriberi are described and Gratzer tells how these diseases stalked the poor in the West even into the 20th century, and remain perennial in poorer parts of the world today. Disorders afflicting the developed world in epidemic proportions (especially diabetes and obesity) are discussed. A theme running through the book is that despite our extensive knowledge of nutrition there are still many who would fall for fads and fancy diets - some dangerous, others just plain stupid.

The chapters on the discovery of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals need in the diet in minute doses) proved to be absorbing reading. Gratzer unravels information about one nutrient at a time, and provides evidence and arguments that are of a type familiar to the reader. A major conceptual barrier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the challenge to conventional wisdom of the argument that the absence of an essential factor, rather than the presence of a noxious agent, could cause disease.

There are throughout the book examples of the addition of toxic substances to pharmaceutical preparations and foods. These additives were included in the sincere belief that there would be a benefit. There is a background for the emergence later of the regulation of foods and drugs, though this aspect of the history of nutrition is not featured in the book. The author presents his own view of the harm, both ancient and modern, caused by food processing and a food industry motivated by profit. Unfortunately, the author fails to present the positive side of food preservation, year-round availability of what had once been a seasonal food supply and the benefits of modern methods of food preservation (e.g. freezing), which are better for our health than pickling, salting and smoking food.

It is the final two chapters that present the “terrors of the table”, but it is these two chapters that are the weakest and mostly coloured by the author’s own prejudices and with arguments that are not well supported by hard evidence. What is labelled as “terror” tends to be poorly documented, selection-biased sensationalism, rather than objective history. What is evident is that the apparent strength of evidence and the validity of rationalisations are in the eye of the beholder, and whatever prejudice-coloured glasses he or she chooses to wear.

The 12-page appendix, titled “The Hard Science”, adds little useful information. The brief discussion of metabolism is so oversimplified and incomplete as to be misleading. The discussion might encourage a naive reader to believe some of the rationales of weight-control diets that the author criticises in previous chapters of the book.

The book is full of colourful personalities from medical history and it highlights the brilliant flashes of insight as well as the sadly mistaken leaps of logic in the centuries-long effort to understand how the body uses food. There are interesting anecdotes from the history of nutrition and has some curious portraits of the scientists who helped or hindered our understanding of diet and digestion. An interesting book, but it should be read with a grain of salt, or perhaps a very good pinch or two of it.

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