Friday, 3 May 2013

The new American revolution

If it's true that we are what we eat, does the same apply to nations? In other words, if a nation's dietary habits start changing, does that tell us something about the nation itself?

Perhaps I should explain, since food is not a subject I often write about. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal this week, the US is currently experiencing a booming demand for -- wait for it -- hummus.

This strikes me as interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I eat tonnes of the stuff myself, in the perhaps mistaken belief that as my snack of choice, it is less likely to clog up my arteries or further expand my waistline than, for example, cheese.

Second, I associate hummus with the Middle East, especially Lebanon, although I know that as soon as I say that, I enrage millions of Israelis who jealously regard it as their own national dish. And there's not much that comes from the Middle East these days that Americans welcome into their homes or refridgerators.

(Here's something I didn't know: apparently, one reason why hummus is so popular in Israel is that it's made from ingredients that under Jewish dietary laws can be eaten with both meat and dairy products. Which is, of course, extremely useful.)

Now, I know the US well enough to know that not every American exists solely on a diet of burgers, fries, pizzas and giant buckets of sugar-laden carbonated beverages. On the other hand, many do, so if they're turning to dainty little dips of hummus as their lunch of choice, well, what should we make of it? (And here's something else I didn't know: one of America's biggest hummus makers is half-owned by Pepsi Cola. Hmm …)

So here are some numbers, courtesy of that same article in the Wall Street Journal. Last year's US harvest of chickpeas, the main ingredient in hummus, totalled a record 332 million pounds, up by more than 50 per cent from 2011. This year, American farmers are expected to plant a record 214,300 acres of chickpeas, five times as much as a decade ago, to meet demand not only from domestic consumers but also from Spain, Turkey and Pakistan.

And how's this for yet another intriguing fact? In Virginia, state officials are encouraging local farmers to plant chickpeas to take the place of tobacco, for which the market has shrunk dramatically due to falling cigarette sales. So it seems Americans are now dipping instead of puffing.

Ah, if only. In fact, those impressive-looking figures start to look a lot less impressive as soon as you compare them with other foodstuffs. Meat, for example? US consumption last year: 52 billion pounds, equal to about 270 pounds per person. That's the highest rate of meat consumption per person on earth, with the one exception of Luxembourg -- and I have no idea how much hummus Luxembourgers eat.

But I am not to be deflected from my vision of America as an emerging nation of hummus-dippers. For surely such a nation would be a gentler nation, more understanding of others, more tolerant of cultural and dietary diversity. Could a nation of hummus-lovers also be a nation of gun-lovers? Surely not.

And even if there is still a long way to go before the falafel takes the place of the burger in American dietary mythology, in the words of the old Chinese saying: "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step." So I can dream.

As Martin Luther King would never have said, and I mean no disrespect when I parody him: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by what they put on their plates.

"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring … we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last … to eat hummus."

1 comment:

Gaye Berry said...

Nicely written article.
The contents remind me of the recent information put out of the Mental Health Foundation for which I include this link:

Diet, be it poor or healthy, can so alter the nature of one’s DNA that those changes can be passed on to the progeny. While this much has been speculated for years, researchers in two independent studies have found ways in which this likely is happening.

The findings, which involve epigenetics, may help explain the increased genetic risk that children face compared to their parents for diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

The punch line is that your poor dietary habits may be dooming your progeny, despite how healthy they will try to eat.

Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression from outside forces. Different from a mutation, epigenetic changes lie not in the DNA itself but rather in its surroundings — the enzymes and other chemicals that orchestrate how a DNA molecule unwinds its various sections to make proteins or even new cells.

Recent studies have shown how nutrition dramatically alters the health and appearance of otherwise identical mice. A group led by Randy Jirtle of Duke University demonstrated how mouse clones implanted as embryos in separate mothers will have radical differences in fur color, weight, and risk for chronic diseases depending on what that mother was fed during pregnancy.

That is, the nutrients or lack of thereof changed the DNA environment in such a way that the identical DNA in these mouse clones expressed itself in very different ways.

Of mice and humans

Building upon this Duke University work, a new study led by Torsten Plösch of University of Groningen, The Netherlands, delineated the numerous ways in which nutrition alters the epigenome of many animals, including adult humans. The paper has been submitted to the journal Biochimie with lead author Josep C. Jiménez-Chillarón of the Paediatric Hospital Sant Joan de Deu, in Spain.

The researchers said that the diet of human adults induces changes in all cells — even sperm and egg cells — and that these changes can be passed on to offspring.