Food Fights in Aspen: Fats, Labels, and the Toxic-Sugar Debate

Highlights from the food events at the Aspen Ideas Festival, including controversial speakers and a bacon/M&M smackdown

The "track" at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year was called Food Fights, and though there was the potential for plenty of them, audience members familiar with the generally pugnacious stance of many of the panelists might have come away slightly disappointed that there were no pre-Fourth fireworks. I moderated and helped assemble five panels, and was pleased that matters got no more than a bit contentious—pleased because I was more interested in light than heat.

One of the most controversial speakers, Gary Taubes, had what turned out to be one of the most informative sessions of all, because it was just him answering questions from the audience and me for over an hour. Taubes is known for his science reporting, including "Fields of Fear," his 1994 Atlantic piece about electromagnetic fields (we met when I edited the piece), and his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, in which he lays out his argument that the periodically popular, now widely controversial low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat diets are in fact the most conducive to weight loss, because high carbohydrate consumption can interfere with the efficient regulation of fat by insulin. This goes in the face of nutritionists who believe that the eternal verity is that weight is inexorably a matter of calories in and calories out. His pointing out that randomized control trials demonstrate that people can lose weight by piling on steak and bacon and cutting out potatoes and bread—very 1960s advice—infuriates cardiovascular disease researchers as well as nutritionists. (A New York Times Magazine excerpt of the book used the cover line "What If Fat Doesn't Make Us Fat?".) He's summarized his long, heavily scientific book in the recent Why We Get Fat, which ends with a diet plan from a Duke University clinic that treats severely obese and diabetic patients with the kind of plan he writes about.

Most of the attendees who crowded the room were there not for sanction to eat limitless amounts of bacon but to hear, quaking, if they indeed had to cut out sugar altogether, as his recent Times Magazine cover story called "Is Sugar Toxic?" implied. I brought along a plate heaped on one side with strips of dark, crisp bacon and covered on the other half with a clear jar full of M&Ms and placed it before us, to see which Taubes and audience members would devour first. (I knew I fell on the sugar side of the plate; Taubes was disappointingly restrained.) The story posits that sugar is not only linked to diabetes and obesity but could also lead to "heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers."

No one wants to hear this news—predictably, Taubes received hundreds of emails immediately following the publication of the article, and a number of them were angry. But they do want to hear the reasons, and the length of the panel gave Taubes some time to describe hormonal regulation of body fat, and to make the case for scientists whose work was eclipsed by the school that in the 1970s and '80s demonized fat and either implicitly or explicitly sanctioned high compensatory carbohydrate consumption—exactly what Taubes thinks has led to the obesity epidemic, along with the profusion of high-fructose corn syrup, which he considers to be just another form of sugar.

I don't know how many minds got changed: as is inevitable, many questioners wanted to know just what Taubes eats, and he prefaced his answer by saying that was irrelevant. (He's very fit, and he doesn't eat very many carbs.) But I, and I think many others, am convinced by his call for large-scale, long-term studies of the effects, good or bad, of low-carbohydrate and high-protein—which, as a fellow conference attendee who swears by Good Calories, Bad Calories and lost 30 pounds after he read it pointed out, means high-fat—diets on heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. I did notice that a number of the people who came up to ask Taubes questions, once assured that the bacon had been cooked just a few hours before, cleaned the plate, and no one took an M&M; I had to look for a naive population outside the session to clean out the bowl (it didn't take long).

Other panels took on light, easy-to-solve matters like obesity, salt, and how to fix school lunch. I moderated the school lunch panel, which featured Robin Scheppers, who just left her position as executive director of the First Lady's Let's Move initiative, and the always-entrepreneurial and innovative Robert Egger, of DC Central Kitchen, whose work has attracted numerous Life channel contributors, including José Andrés and Zeke Emanuel, who trained there along with, as he put it "ex-cons"—a term I knew instinctively to be un-PC, and which Egger gently corrected me as being better put as "returning citizens." (He wasn't so gentle about "lunch ladies": even if our Kate Adamick praises the "increasing number of courageous American lunch ladies who recognize that USDA guidelines are the insidious result of corporate lobbying and not just a standard to be met for federal funding" as "hardworking and little-recognized frontrunners in the world of school food reform," Egger declared the term sexist and verboten.)

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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