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In the pursuit of the perfect food

Most popular foods in India deserve the same warnings as alcohol and tobacco, but they are promoted as life itself

columns Updated: Jun 08, 2015 01:51 IST
Maggi controversy,diet,health

In a film by Aditya Chopra, a man tells a girl that she must not wear immodest clothes, and he drapes her shoulders with his jacket. She is wearing a mini skirt.

The disgrace of Maggi over its monosodium glutamate and lead content is as baffling as the scene. It is as though everybody is fine with the rest of Maggi. It is a food that has no protein, and is almost entirely made up of sodium, fat, and refined carbohydrates, which convert into blood sugar so quickly that they are, for all practical purposes, sugar. A few years ago the outrage over suspected pesticide content in cola drinks was as bizarre. People were worried about pesticide, as they should be of course, but not about drinking gallons of sugar.

Sugar operates in the same way as evil because it is. It is an allure that hides deep inside culture, and in the notions of love, celebration, freedom, sharing and being endearingly flawed. And in our fundamental right to mediocrity. The only time human beings question the virtues of perfection and excellence is when you take sugar away from them.

When they talk about their resolute love for food there is a hint of pride at their own valiant martyrdom as though they have chosen the joy of life and their sense of home over the vanity of beauty or the uniform modernity of health. The alarm over the thinness of models, always couched as a health concern, is in reality the contempt of the society of gluttons for those who may have given up the community drug.

Over a decade ago when I covered the Gujarat elections, I went to meet Shankersinh Vaghela, whom the Congress had picked to challenge the rising Narendra Modi. Vaghela, whose campaign slogan included ‘Dekho dekho kaun aaya, Modi tera baap aaya’, sat his paunch on his lap, and offered me a ladoo. I refused because I had had that thing in other homes. It was a professional mistake to refuse. He seemed disappointed, and he told me men were not men if they did not eat ladoos.

There was an unspoken view then that the theory of health was a western idea subordinate to ancient culture. In many places of the nation, including city homes, the view endures.

Anywhere in India it is common to see a mob of men milling outside a liquor shop to buy alcohol. One may imagine that families crowding supermarkets to buy grain are performing a more honourable task. The fact is they are addicts of sugar milling around a dealer. Most popular foods deserve the same warnings as alcohol and tobacco, but they are promoted as life itself.

A few months ago, a top executive of a food-and-beverage giant told me that she was in charge of the company’s “health food division”. I thought she was being humorous and even let out a proportionate laugh. She was impassive. The sugar water that the giant corporation claims are fruit juices are what it regards as ‘healthy’, and millions of its customers believe they are.

People talk a lot about fat, about its persistence, but there is nothing easier than losing excess weight because fat is logical. If you eat poorly and do not exercise you get fat and that is all there is to it. This is true for most people except a few who have adverse metabolic conditions.

But then what is eating well? Every now and then a new food religion is born and the clincher of its prophet would be that the diet is primeval. But why should a diet that belongs to a time when humans died at the age of 30 be revered at all?

There are many such religions, and the science of food is filled with contradictions. We often choose to believe in the research that lets us eat what we like. But even in the chaos of dietary science there is a general acceptance that grains, especially refined grains, are in the heart of the problem.

I once took a friend to Ramanayak Udipi in Mumbai for a meal on a plantain leaf. When the leaf arrived she prepared to eat it. I had to tell her that the leaf was the plate. There is wisdom in treating grain, too, as the plate and not the dish; as a disposable accessory meant to touch or hold the more nutritious foods, which are vegetables and meat.

Grains fill the belly and give a sense of having eaten. People who have abandoned grains have to eat a lot of healthier food, and eat often, just as atheists who have no recourse to pious actions have to do good to humanity to fulfil, the mysterious quota of righteousness.

Among the many who have gone in search of the perfect diet was the software engineer Rob Rhinehart. He came up with what he calls ‘Soylent’, which is a powder containing several nutrients that has to be mixed in water. There are people who have this several times a day and nothing else, transforming their lives and shapes. But some of them complain of a certain emptiness in their days. They realise that most of their past life was spent in foraging, cooking, heading out to dine, waiting for the food to arrive, dining, talking and waiting for the food to digest. Soylent took it all away.

Rhinehart says that Soylent is not the end of food. He imagines a world that would dispense with hunger by drinking the perfect diet, and on the rare occasions when people ate conventional foods they will enjoy them as a fabulous primeval experience.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People

The views expressed are personal

The writer tweets as @manujosephsan

First Published: Jun 07, 2015 22:18 IST