February 2001, p 18

Future of Food cover Book Review: Food — real and illusory dangers

The Future of Food, Brian J Ford, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 0-500-28075-4, pp. 120, 6.95

While many in the West subject themselves to complicated dietary regimes to lose weight, many more in the third world achieve the same result much faster and surer with diarrhoea and intestinal worms. Assuming they have anything to eat at all, of course. We produce enough food for everyone on this planet, yet a third of its population starve.

We all need food. It cannot be but a political issue, a focus of misinformation and a source of superstition. The Future of Food, by Brian Ford, attempts to give a dispassionate account of a subject that inspires strong feelings on every side. And in dealing with a subject that attracts pseudoscientists, cranks and charlatans as no other, he tries to set out the science fairly and simply.

He succeeds. In the small scope of this book he manages to remind people of the basics without pointing out the obvious. Just as well, because food is an area where the obvious is often ignored. The book ranges from the role of fat, vitamins and fibres to overfishing and inflated claims for ‘health foods’.

It is very well-written and thoroughly researched. Aimed at the intelligent general reader, Mr Ford takes care to define his terms (“They often say that half the women in the Western world are on a diet. That’s misleading, for everyone is on a diet: it’s what we eat.”). As in any book by Brian Ford, there are enough asides to carry one through a season of dinner party conversations (did you know that there is an Indian dish of curried beef, n'hari, that pre-dates the elevation of the cow to a sacred animal?). His wide learning is evident without being obtrusive.

The Future of Food is part of the Prospects for Tomorrow series from Thames and Hudson, which means that Mr Ford has to look to the future. Again, he does this very well, with a thoughtful warning against concentrating on single strains of verotoxin-producing E. Coli while ignoring equally dangerous strains — such as E. Coli H11 — ‘waiting in the wings’. He points out that in the early 1990s only a few cattle in the western world were contaminated with verotoxin-producing  E. Coli (VTEC); now most of them carry it. VTEC have killed through hamburgers (1993) and pasteurised apple juice (1996).

Mr Ford also points out that whereas malnutrition is declining, dietary deficiencies are increasing — that is there is more to eat, but not a balance diet. In the 1990s, a quarter of the world’s population was anaemic, four per cent cretins through iodine deficiency. Every year, says Ford, half-a-million children become blind because of a lack of vitamin A. Yet iodine and vitamin A are cheap. Ford mentions that 55 per cent of our meals (here in the UK) are prepared outside our homes. Such food producers need to maintain high standards of hygiene — higher than the kitchens in which the meals will be re-heated and served. It would be interesting to know how many cases of food poisoning are unjustly blamed on take-aways that became inoculated, as it were, on arrival.

By Mark Burgess

Go to Future of Food web page.