Food is the foundation of health


The culinary arts have experienced a revolution of tastes, textures, aromas and products. This revolution has been made possible by the introduction of new scientific knowledge in this age-old art. Scientific research carried out into raw ingredients in order to improve food quality has also been transferred to the kitchen, giving us new dishes that not are not only a pleasure to eat but also have significant health benefits.

In October, B·Debate, the Technology Museum of l’Empordà and the Girona Regional Government Casa de Cultura held the series of lectures entitled Science in the kitchen. Scientific and culinary condiments in the art of food with scientists, economists, nutritionists, chefs and humanists to reflect and debate on the past and future of human food and its relationships with pleasure, creativity, health and scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Toni Massanés, an expert in culinary cultures around the world and director of the Alícia Foundation (a research center devoted to technological innovation in cooking, improving eating habits and valorizing agrifood and gastronomic heritage) explains.

You said that medicine and gastronomy have the same origin. Why is that?

In medieval times, cookbooks were found right next to books with pharmacological or medical remedies. For example, royal physician Arnau de Vilanova was an international promoter of some of the culinary solutions that are characteristic of Catalan cuisine today and Ramon Llull was a great defender of eating frugally. Food is the foundation of our health. In this sense, cuisine as a food strategy has always sought out this end. We have taste, appetite, rejection, excess... a complex and dynamic system of emotions that we aren’t aware of and which leads us to seek out a balance in the food we eat. That’s on the one hand. The other part of the strategy —which is in itself culinary and shared by humans exclusively, setting us apart from other animals— is that we have opted to not only identify the foods that best suit us but also to manufacture them, meaning that —thanks to technology— we are able to make things that in principle aren’t very edible fit for human consumption. In fact, cooking is the first available evidence of technology, of intelligent cultural strategy and, thus, of humanity.

Explain in more detail…

What I mean is that we have to follow a healthy, sustainable eating strategy (safe, self-sufficient and balanced) that has a harmonious relationship with our environment, because otherwise, in the long term, we won’t have enough to eat. Our ancestors faced this issue just as we do today. Moreover, it is clear that there are times when eating isn’t as closely linked to nutrition, and this would be neither healthy nor sustainable if done every day, but has more to do with a sense of belonging, magic, celebration, etc. Greek banquets or our Christmas dinner, for example. This is an extraordinary meal prepared in an extraordinary way. The problem we have now is that the meals that were meant to be extraordinary are becoming ordinary, and this has to change. Some archeologists propose that haute cuisine and protomedicine both come from this same origin: magic, extraordinariness, community building, and are often significantly related.

If scientific breakthroughs hadn’t reached cuisine, what would have happened?

For a long time they weren’t introduced and we still ate reasonably thanks to this biological appetite/rejection system we discussed before in addition to acquired culture and the highly important practical knowledge passed down from mothers to daughters. On a more pessimistic note, I would say that I’ve just returned from the United States, which has a higher degree of scientific development, and it’s not so clear that we are doing things right. Food and eating is very complicated! However it is unquestionable that scientific knowledge helps us see what we should eat and gives cuisine a more rigorous strategy that helps us manufacture and manage what we eat; that’s why we have created Alícia in this way. We either take a very global look at things or we won’t move forward because there are millions of people starving in the world and, on the other hand, parts of the developed world with a high concentration of obesity. The latter is being studied, but it has a lot to do with the mentality, ranging from starvation to overweight.

One of the FAO’s predictions for 2050 is that our food supply is unclear if we need to increase food production significantly. We can't force the land any more; we can't use non-renewable energy, water… But on the other hand, the population is growing and part of this population doesn’t have enough to eat and needs to have access to a specific type of nutrients. There’s a lot still to do. At Alícia we can carry out specific, small-scale actions, and we use cuisine as an educational tool. In general, our society still has an overabundance of food products and dietary information that we don’t know how to manage, using a medicalized discourse that we aren’t able to assimilate and which makes us feel disoriented and guilty.

How do you explain the importance of eating right?

First of all, each year thousands of people, aged three through one hundred, come to our center in Món Sant Benet, where we offer workshops and experiences tailored to the age and curriculum of each group that are based on scientific rigor but use every-day, easy-to-understand language. We also have the Alícia bus that travels around Catalonia and helps us teach people how to eat right and provide them with scientific and technological information, strategies and knowledge regarding eating habits in our society. We can't expect people to be experts in everything. Cooking is a bit like basic computer skills and this is what we focus on. We know about the internal structure, both how it’s put together and what it does to our body (possible problems in swallowing, assimilating, metabolizing, etc.). Plus the part related to sustainability: the products we use, where they come from, who made them, etc. and how to balance all of that.

What is the most attractive facet of science in the kitchen?

Science can help explain cooking and cooking is a nice way to explain science. Here at Alícia we really do two things. We research cooking and have scientists that provide us with the methodology and tools to do so. That’s why the workshops we do at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with multidisciplinary groups of students have been so successful, because they have been able to play with technological solutions that give them new tools to let their creativity run free, to fine tune the results, to predict, etc.  We also do that on the bus we travel around Catalonia with. We come from haute cuisine and we go to society. We support pleasure. The first lesson to be taught is that we don’t have to choose between what tastes good and what’s healthy; the idea is that if it is healthy, it will be appetizing. Therefore, we have to enjoy and learn to like the things that are good for us. We’re carrying out the TAS action program in Spain, which is also a research project, to get teenagers more involved in decision-making oriented towards healthy lifestyle choices.

You participate in a lot of debates that are open to the public, like the one organized by B·Debate, the Technology Museum of l’Empordà and the Casa de Cultura last October. How important is it to raise awareness in this field?

Society is so overloaded with information that we don’t know how to manage. Faced with this situation, we demand certainties, want things explained very clearly… even if they aren’t true. We’re becoming binary, we don’t accept nuances (we feel like we don’t have the time or ability to evaluate them), we want to be told if something is good or bad, but with food things are hardly ever clear-cut. The dose makes the poison, as the classic writers said; it’s all a question of equilibrium. Of thinking and harmonizing the complexity.

When we do workshops at schools with parents’ associations on how to manage their children’s eating habits, we try to give them practical tools geared towards the target audience, as well as advice on values like paternal responsibility and the idea of educating children on how to properly manage their own eating habits. We explain that there are no good or bad foods, just appropriate quantities and frequencies. But, in the end, the complexity of this topic requires effort and too often we oversimplify our analysis, or become lazy in choosing, or impose adult criteria as parents even through the children don’t like it, or think that we’re all too busy and that managing family eating habits requires work and dedication… Moreover, we are inclined towards magical thoughts, which in food —due to the fact that eating something makes it part of us— are still hugely present. Some of the most common questions include ‘Is it true that milk is bad for you?’ (the argument often heard is that we are the only mammal that drinks milk as adults but we are also the only mammal that eats beef and mushrooms, reads poetry, plays the piano, crochets and uses the scientific method, you see!) and ‘Is the microwave dangerous?’ (I tell them, of course! Above all make sure you don’t turn it on while your head is still inside!) We try to transmit that people must use the available tools and processes correctly, that they need to properly manage their every-day food habits whether they are young children, teenage athletes, university students, busy mothers or grandparents, whether they have a disease, allergy, chewing problem…or any other situation.

Should we choose products from here at home?

This is an absolute trend in the rest of the western world that we aren’t following enough here at home. All farming biodiversity is important and must be preserved because otherwise we may find ourselves in a difficult position if we allow our phytogenic resources and associated knowledge to be lost (because if we don’t consume these products they won’t be farmed). However at Alícia, above all, we aim to find new opportunities for the most endangered species in our country: the farmer. Often in this modern and highly urban world, we plan ways to manage the land —because if abandoned it becomes degraded and burned out…— which are more expensive for all of us, and what we should do is live off the land and allow it provide us with ways to feed ourselves, to produce food...

And how can we do this?

We’re back to the simplest explanation: at Alícia we try to take small, practical steps that together can be transformative. As we have a pluridisciplinary team, we can first study the opportunities: whether a product is tastier, whether it is healthier for a specific reason, whether it has more specific properties, whether it works better in some dish, whether people would be willing to pay growers more for it … We have gardens where we have recovered traditional varieties of fruits and vegetables like white eggplant, (which is sweet, you should try it!) and are working to reintroduce them into the market when we think they can generate value for local producers. We also work to valorize agrifood products that deserve to be better known and appreciated, and to make people more aware of the territory where they are grown. We take into account that cuisine, and therefore chefs, have a huge capacity as prescriptors for consumers… And we do this seasonally. We work to make things healthier, more sustainable and more local…

Contrary to the trend towards an excessively naïve bucolic romanticism in our attitude towards food, we must remember that nature is neither morally good nor bad; it’s relentless. We must live in harmony with nature because we depend on it, but we can never become overconfident; we must be prudent. This is why we must invent new ways to overcome the dictatorship of seasonal immediacy (preservation systems) and space (markets, retail, etc.). Obviously, we must be much more local, more autonomous in terms of the food we eat, which is not to say sovereign (which taken to the extreme is neither possible nor desirable. If we want coffee in the morning or chocolate, we know that these products come to us from afar and we shouldn’t have to give them up because we also must know how to sell our oil and wine around the world. However if we have tangerines, apples and lettuce here at home why should we import them from the other side of the world?). Because otherwise we could come to have a big problem, always excessively dependent on others. That isn’t sustainable; it isn’t ecological (the price of gas, carbon footprint…). Catalan cuisine has always been very open, innovative, because we’ve incorporated everything that has come to our country from abroad. We’ve become a global benchmark in culinary creativity and must know how to take advantage of this to generate wealth in our agrifood industry and in the tourism sector. Nevertheless, we also have values, traditions and a relationship with our surroundings that we need to appreciate more because we don’t do so enough!