If, as the saying goes, you are what you eat, then the average American is a Grade A, blue-ribbon hog. That, at any rate, is one of the takeaways from "Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating," a brilliantly conceived exhibition that will be up for most of 2012 at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. It is such a timely, intelligent and entertaining exhibit — for all ages — that it should be mounted, as a sort of antidote, in every town with a McDonald's and/or Dunkin' Donuts and, out of civic duty, every American should see it.
Created by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) at Yale's School of Public Health, "Big Food" chomps on an issue that, according to Rudd's Marlene B. Schwartz, who co-curated the exhibit with CARE's Jeannette R. Ickovics, "impacts the entire human condition."
Though it reinforces the importance of personal responsibility, "Big Food" is not built to shame you. Indeed, it suggests that not only has shaming the obese proven counterproductive, but much of the blame for the plague of obesity — half of American adults and 30 percent of our kids are obese — can be laid at the feet of marketers who've convinced us that bad food is good for us. Americans of all ages are in daily combat against this behemoth of food makers, marketers and lobbyists whose real targets are children. They stalk kids where they are most vulnerable, via TV and the Internet, then "brand" them for life. "These companies are remarkable for reaching kids without parental awareness," says Dr. Ickovics. "The public should be angry."
And yet, "Big Food" is not an angry exhibit. It opens with a display of the food an average American consumes in one year. In this caloric cornucopia, soda jugs, Doritos packages, pizza boxes and meat slabs overwhelm bushels of raw vegetables and fruit. The visual impact is more jarring than the recitation of stats, though the stats are unappetizing. For example, we drink twice as much soda as milk each year, eat 36 pounds of potatoes (mostly fried), another 14 pounds of potato chips, 170 pounds of red meat, 20 pounds of pasta, 20 pounds of white rice, 66 pounds of corn sweeteners, and so on. Our serving sizes have expanded with our waistlines — what's called "portion distortion." In 1936, chili con carne had 243 calories per serving; today, it has 611.
And our drinks?! Forget about it! A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but what about the 18 spoonfuls of sugar in a can of Arizona Tea or the 16 in a can of Red Bull? Even the "fruit drinks" we obliviously ply our kids with are frauds; the "fruit" is the flavoring for chemicals laced with more sugar.
What does this fat-filled, sugar-saturated, processed-food diet do to our bodies? "Big Food" shows you that, too, and it ain't pretty. Resembling a Damien Hirst mini-exhibit, this section has a dissected "normal" and "fatty" liver, a normal heart next to diseased hearts, a normal kidney beside a "nephrosclerotic" kidney and, last but not least, a five-pound blob of fat that most of us carry around in our guts. If this doesn't make you want to change the menu, nothing will.
"You can argue over the semantics of 'good' and 'bad' food but we want people to make choices that include better food," says Schwartz. "There is a disconnect from what we know intellectually and what we actually eat."
"Big Food" ends on a positive note, with an emphasis on community collaboration and personal challenges, sending you out the door determined to change.
Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating
Through Dec. 2, 2012, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 432-5050, peabody.yale.edu
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