"The Medium is the Message" from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man - Marshall McLuhan (1960)
You might ask, "What does McLuhan’s aphorism have to do with food?” Can food be a medium and does it contain a message? We are used to thinking of food as simply carbohydrate, protein, and fat and we ask ourselves questions such as: “Am I getting enough carbs, am I getting too much fat, and how many calories are all of these contributing?” In other words we think food is just energy. This is now known to be false. It is only within the last 10 years or so that scientists have discovered that food is not just calories, carbohydrate, fat and protein but that it also contains a message. Food contains vital information for our cells. It's like a language. But as McLuhan suggested we pay attention really only to the obvious, to what we see in the foreground -- in this case calories -- and we lose what's in the background – the rest of the information. Food is information in the same way that the words on this page are information that hopefully you take in and digest. Now you would probably agree that it is difficult for you to get the full impact of the words that you are reading right now because in a certain way you are only receiving one channel of information -- words on the page do not convey tonality, timbre, volume or inflection, visual clues and body language. In the same way we loose certain information from food when we consume processed food because much of the information contained in the nutrients has been lost. How is food information? We are now discovering that food is information because as it is broken down in the gut and absorbed into our system, those small molecules not only produce energy, but also bind to our cells’ surfaces in certain ways that convey messages to our genes. These messages can turn on or turn off certain genes in the cell nucleus -- and those messages cause the genes to make certain proteins that in turn create more messages to turn on or turn off immunity, inflammation, hormones, and other cellular signals. It's a dynamic ongoing process of information exchange that occurs between what we eat, the breakdown products, and the messages that get transmitted to our genes. While McLuhan saw telephones, radio and television as the ‘media’, in this case the medium is food, and the message, unfortunately, has been lost! Our food manufacturers’ especially have only paid attention to the calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat issues. Not only that, but they have paid attention to those matters only in their own egocentric fashion – in the form of “…let's make food tasty and not necessarily nutritious”. That sells more food, but the information that we get from that food is the wrong kind of information. The balance of nature has been upset by the runaway forces of profit and sales. Food manufacturers have stripped our food of important information, information vital to ourselves and our wellness. Of course they did not do this deliberately; they did not realize, and many of us didn’t, that the removal of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that we had not yet discovered 60 years ago, would have such a huge impact on the health of our society. Let me give you some examples. Removing B vitamins from whole-wheat grains to make white flour actually caused an increase in the birth defect known as neural tube defect. It took over 25 years for scientists to act on this fact after it was discovered! Finally, in 1998 folic acid (vitamin B9) fortification of cereal products became mandatory in Canada. Since we have added back that particular B9 vitamin, folic acid, the incidence of neural tube defect has decreased by 50%, as reported in the New England Journal of Medicine by Canadian authors in 2007. In other words, putting this particular information back into food has helped. Folic acid is an information molecule. It is critical in the development of other information molecules such as hormones and neurotransmitters that effect not only our emotions, but also our blood pressure and heart health. But we have taken far more nutrients out of our food than we have put back. When we took out fibre, which 35 years ago scientists thought was an inert substance that really didn't do very much, we didn't realize that it was actually food and nutrients for the 5 or 6 pounds of healthy bacteria in our bowel that help with digestion, immunity, and vitamin production. Taking away that fibrous nutrition for those bacteria created an imbalance that causes us much distress in our digestive tract -- inflammation, pain, irritable bowel disease, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, and so forth. Yet another example resides in fat. Thinking that fat was just calories; food manufacturers just went ahead and made oils solid, calling it margarine. Again about 25 years later we realized that the fats in some margarines, known as trans-fats, can increase the incidence of heart disease in a fashion similar to, or greater than, the increase in blood cholesterol. Here are some more facts about fat -- there are two important kinds known as omega-6 and omega-3. Omega-3 fats tend to come from cold-water fish and nuts; whereas omega-6 fats come from meat. In Paleolithic times the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 in the diet was less than one – in other words more omega-3 than omega-6 fats. Now that ratio is somewhere between 5:1 and 15:1. The problem here is that omega-6 is inflammatory and anti-immune, whereas omega-3 is anti-inflammatory and pro-immune. Do you wonder why we have so many allergies and infections in our society? One reason is that that balancing fats is important. Our bodies are highly adaptable and in the 10,000 years that we have been on this planet as human beings, it is only in the last 100 years that such huge changes have taken place in our diet. The nutrients that are contained in plant and vegetable foods are in the thousands -- we don't know the half of it yet. But while scientists try to find out what all those nutrients are, all we have to do is go back to basics, back to what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew best -- eat your vegetables, and fruits. Not the juice, which is a form of processed food, but the whole fruit or vegetable. These foods contain phytonutrients – plant substances that act as good messages for your genes. The messages generated by the kind of food that we eat today are messages of inflammation, and irritation. Give yourselves good messages as often as you can. The New Year is always a good time to start! Happy Eating in 2008!