3 March 2011: Let them eat cake (well me, actually).

At the risk of being controversial I am about to go and make a cake. I am well aware that this statement has insulted, shocked, perhaps even angered or maybe embarrassed someone, or indeed many. But more on that later…. Recently I have had cause to ponder why it is that food can stir up so much controversy. There are many topics that people can and do write, talk and speculate on but food is perhaps one of the most polarizing and divisive subjects – one that can cause a highly charged emotional response and can render even the most measured even passive individual into a passionate and defensive spokesperson…

I have a love of food, of nutrition and health and always aim to learn as much as I can.  I certainly don’t proclaim to have all the answers, but if I am able to assist by communicating any of this knowledge or by providing access to far greater wealth of knowledge (i.e. the truly smart people in this world) then that is fantastic. I do not see differing points of view on nutrition as reflective of a personality or representative of good (or bad) character.

I think there are a couple of points to be made about food, and more specifically nutrition:

We (as in the general collective of humanity) know a lot about food. However I believe that what we do NOT know is even greater. How can we? Sure scientific advancements and the breathtaking genius of mankind (and that is said completely without cynicism) have uncovered many mysteries about nutrition. We have a better and better understanding every day not only of food and its chemical components but also as to the how’s and why’s of their role and actions in the human body. Health is a booming industry and every day results of new studies and scientific analysis are being released. Many of these relate to food, nutrition and diet. This ever increasing bank of knowledge adds to what we already know, however often the results can seem to contradict or confuse what were previously accepted as established truths. There are multiple reasons for this. Some relate to the limitations of scientific studies and observations. Many studies will refer to the action of one or two nutrients or chemical compounds of food. But a nutrient is not a food. People do not eat nutrients. We eat food. And there is still so much about food and specifically the interaction of different foods with each other (remember the recommendation of variety?) that we as humans cannot yet understand. Scientists may be able to isolate many nutrients within a food and trace their actions and consequences – but that is missing a large part of the story. Another reason scientific studies related to nutrition can seem confusing is that humans are more than a grouping of cells. We are living, breathing, thinking (mostly), adaptive and reactive beings. And while science can make predictive assumptions, no scientific model can account for individuality.

Food is also far more than nutrition - more than the compounds that sustain our cells. Food plays to our emotions, memories, superstitions and habits. It is entwined with our religious, ethnic and family customs and beliefs. It provides joy and wonder, builds social frameworks and has the ability to reach beyond barriers of language through its similarities as well as its differences. It is the one common necessity that links every living being, past present and future. Food and its production, development and eating has shaped societies in more ways than you can imagine. It has been used as a weapon, as a treaty, as cause for exploration, expansion and technological advancements.………It is inseparable from issues relating to the environment, animal welfare, corporate conglomerations, food safety, food security and international policy. Nutrients have played little to no role - in all of these food is the star player. And all of these issues are emotionally charged.

It is little wonder then that food can cause such an emotional response when it can not actually be separated from emotion.

As knowledge on food, nutrients, health and other issues pertaining to food production continues to mount, so too do some vastly differing points of view on correct eating habits and dietary intake. Government backed guidelines have their own issues (consider the power of lobbying groups and you can only imagine). There are also extremely vocal supporters of differing dietary approaches. What they all have is common is passion and an undying faith that their approach is the best approach. I am a supporter of all of these. That is, I am a supporter of people not only having an opinion, but the fact that if they are so passionate about a certain approach then they are also paying close attention to what they are eating and also generally what else they are doing in relation to health. That is not to say that I agree with all approaches. That would obviously be an impossibility. All groups, whether of the high fat, low fat, vegan, caveman, Mediterranean, organic, grain free, low carb, or any number of other labels – all have scientific or research/observations of some kind that can be used to put together entirely persuasive arguments. What I am at a loss to understand though is just because you have a deep belief in something, does not necessarily give you the right to enforce this belief on anyone else. Particularly when it relates to a topic (food) on which there is so much yet to learn. There are intricacies in details, arguments on ethics, sourcing and sustainability….that can be debated and probably never resolved completely. There are some basics though as so effectively summed up in the quote from Marion Nestle “eat less; move more; eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and avoid too much junk food” Pretty simple really.  As for me? I believe in eating whole real foods. I believe in supporting local and sustainable food ventures. I do not believe that any one food is evil – it is more about consumption patterns and habits as a whole. I eat meat and I eat fish. As much as possible I try to source ethically farmed and produced products. I completely support and respect the choice of others to be vegetarian or vegan or indeed to follow any other dietary intake that does not harm or negatively effect others (and I know that for some that statement seems to contradict my position on eating animal products. I do think that most of us could eat less meat and could also take more of a responsibility for the environmental, sustainable and ethical issues that surround the production through self education and consumer action when shopping). At the same time I do not claim to have a perfect (what is that anyway?) diet all of the time. I travel, I shop, cook and eat in different environments – I do not always know the provenance, ingredients or nutritional breakdown of everything that I am eating. (By the way if you see me eating out or think you have ‘caught’ me eating a chocolate bar then you are mistaken. As I said I don’t think that any one food in isolation is bad – OK actually I do. Some items classed as foods are really just chemical experiments packaged with food labels. As in there is chocolate and there is chocolate. Or there are burgers and then there are burgers – ever made a grass fed beef burger with home grown lettuce, just picked tomatoes and local just baked organic bread rolls? Need I say it should not share the same name as some others.) I also believe that the consumer (that is us) wields a lot of power. If there are issues relating to food production, labeling, farming or any myriad of concerns that are easier to ignore than to act on, but that you believe strongly in then speak up.

Performance nutrition – that is fuel for optimal success in sport is yet another complexity. Often the goals of sports nutrition and that of nutrition for health and wellbeing do not appear to align. There is no sane nutritionist, dietitian or anyone else that would ever advocate as part of a general healthy every day diet that the average person consume several liters of sugary sports drink and suck down numerous gels, chews, beans etc (again predominantly sugar). And yet on race day (and in training) that is exactly what you will hear recommended and see many supremely fit and healthy individuals do. Does this race day departure mean that they need to be held accountable for an unhealthy diet? For consuming amounts of sugar well beyond that recommended? Or that sports nutritionists should be viewed as irresponsible? A little perspective I think.

What you eat is your choice. Or is it? Well yes. And no. What you eat is highly associated with numerous factors including those of economic, ethnic, educational and social background. It is easy to make judgments on people based on their diet or perceived food choices. But first consider whether it is indeed a choice. Then consider whether your judgments are based on a lack of understanding and whether your charged criticisms are being aimed in the right direction or if perhaps your energies could in fact be used more productively.

The passionate responses can, I believe, only be viewed as positive. If people are stimulated to consider what and why they eat the way they do then that can only be a good thing. Perhaps though our collective energy can be directed in constructive ways.

Back to the cake – and this is no ordinary cake. It is hugely fattening, with large amounts of butter and sugar and as I mentioned is also controversial. Lets take a look at the ingredients:

Chocolate – depending on where you stand here, this ingredient can be viewed as a lump of fat, sugar and deadly temptation. Yes it is. On the other hand I am going to say it also contains valuable anti-oxidants, can be satiating and is also a mood boosting food. Sadly it is not organic. There are no local organic producers, I do though save food miles by not getting any air freighted in. I didn’t mention though it contains A LOT of chocolate.

Eggs – “high in cholesterol!!!” – I can hear the shouting from here. Well maybe except that cholesterol in eggs is probably only an issue if you already have elevated cholesterol levels and otherwise saturated fat is more likely to be the problem. They are also local, organic and free range. Not vegan though so I will surely receive some correspondence there.

Sugar – yes sugar. The real thing. Despite the deafening tut tutting I will argue that it is again local (well Australian anyway) organic and raw. OK still not the greatest I agree.

Almond meal – hmmmmm. High in fat. Sigh. Yes it is high in fat – but good fats surely??!! And I must get bonus points from the gluten/wheat free advocates because there is no flour being added.

Vanilla – the real thing. Have to be honest though and admit I am not up to speed on the exact environmental, sustainability or any other potential labour or trade problems for this brand.

Cream – just a dash in the icing. I know cream is OK on some diets and in quite large quantities. On others it is a sin. Think I am on the fence.

And that it as far as ingredients go. Oh it will also be baked – and I know cooking foods also goes in the never never category for some so I loose yet more points. But I am making it myself so some points are redeemed by the lack of preservatives and flavors (OK fine there may be some in the non-organic chocolate and maybe even the cream as I could not get the unpasteurized version today) as well as again some saved food miles.

So. Not very healthy really. But it will taste damn good. And I don’t actually eat or advocate that cakes are eaten every day. But guess what? Its my birthday and not only will it be a sad day when no one is allowed to eat a little birthday cake, it will be a sad day when food is viewed as merely its chemical components. Food is the essence of life – giving joy in so many ways other than purely the ability to breathe, move and criticize.

Cake will be served – a welcome invite to anyone that wants to come and share a slice or two.