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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Purity and quanity" of modern sugar and fat

In his blog post The Unwisdom of John Mackey Seth Roberts wrote:

John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods, a business I greatly respect. But he’s not always right.

“You only love animal fat because you’re used to it,” he said. “You’re addicted.”

Well put, Seth. The rest of his post is worth reading, as is the comment thread below.

I commented in response to the following comment (which was not made by Seth):

The conventional wisdom is that sugar other than honey and fat other than blubber weren’t available in modern quantities and purities until agriculture.

My comment follows:

Sugar *including* honey was not available in modern quantities and purities until recently. Agriculture was invented some 10,000 years ago. Sugar became cheap and plentiful with the advent of the European powers developing warm-weather colonies around the globe suitable for sugar plantations. Honey became cheap and plentiful much later.

The 19th century saw the invention of human-made beehives with removable, replaceable square frames that bees spontaneously fill with honey. Until then, humans had to smash a beehive (and usually kill the bees) to get at the honey. Honey in any controllable, scalable quantity dates only from that time.

Modern, large-scale, commercial beekeeping involves keeping a cheap syrup solution near the beehives for the bees to visit. Cheap honey comes from bees that never lit upon a flower. I suppose you could call the resulting product “pure” in that it is simpler, lacking the complexity of wild or artisanal honey, in content and in taste.

As far as the “purity” of modern fat, I don’t understand what is meant by this. True, olive oil has been available in large quantities since the dawn of the agriculture. (Only in its “extra-virgin” form, though.) But modern plant oils, like canola and cottonseed, are the result of complex, high-tech processes like bleaching and hydrogenation that result in substances that may appear “pure” to the naked eye, but they are so altered from any naturally occurring fats that our animal bodies cannot safely metabolize them. The problem with them does not inhere in their quantity, but in their quality: they are not fit to eat.

Why marginalize blubber? The fat of many types of marine fauna supported the human race throughout our history. Arguably, it was eating all those high fat creatures so easily captured along shorelines that enabled our brains to grow big enough for us to figure out how to hunt down faster, stronger land creatures. Humans have long thrived on a lot more fat than many well-meaning people allow themselves today.

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