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The Wonder of Science and the Funny Nurse
By William Tara


The other week I went to the theatre here in Glasgow, Scotland and saw a modern dress version of Romeo and Juliet. I have never had a problem with modern dress versions of Shakespeare; it’s the words that count. This one was pretty predictable, chain link fence, graffiti on the walls, Capulet and Montague in hoodies with lots of bling. You get the picture.

By the intermission I had adjusted to the heavy Glaswegian accents and come to a startling revelation. Romeo and Juliet is not about star crossed lovers or mindless prejudice - not at all. This play is about a funny nurse. Who would have thought?

This was confirmed in the second half by a hilarious scene where the nurse finds Juliet (in her deathly sleep) and engages in at least three minutes of funny stage business with a container of yoghurt (don’t ask). The audience loved it. Every time the nurse was on stage there were laughs to be had.

The nurse got the biggest applause at the curtain. We all walked out into the rainy night, secure in the fact that Romeo and Juliet is one damn funny play. Sure enough, the play got good reviews, even in the national press. I can’t wait to see what they do with Hamlet, talk about room for some good jokes.

I know why the nurse had to be funny in this production. I know why the director told her, perhaps in private, “roll ‘em in the aisles honey”. The reasons were that the other actors were lifeless, he didn’t trust the play and Shakespeare is hard work for most audiences. What’s a fellow to do? You’ve got to call in the funny nurse, the only talent you have, and go for broke. The sole purpose of the funny nurse was to distract from the fact that the production was a total write-off.

It occurs to me that deflecting attention in this way is a common phenomenon. Advertising is built on this kind of smoke and mirrors. We live in world ruled by a kinder, gentler newspeak. Oil drillers and lumber companies are “building a healthier environment” and goofy clowns and cute cartoon characters tell our kids to eat junk food. The food industry is more sophisticated than most in its ability to direct attention away from unpleasant or unpopular truth. Large food manufacturers, fast food empires and even some in the natural food trade don’t want us to think too deeply about the food we eat.

The funny nurse tells you that a frozen desert with enough sugar in it to rot the tusk off an elephant is enriched with calcium to build strong bones. The funny nurse is as old as Betty Crocker and as wise as Aunt Jemima and together with her newest incarnation, the Scientific Nurse, she keeps the conversation about food right up there on a par with Reality TV or Celebrity Chat shows.

The promise after World War II was that food would be uncontaminated, easy to prepare, quick and cheap. These promises were in tune with the times. The nation was growing fast and food producers had learned much about making bad food tasty during the war. The modern food industry has its roots in producing “K” rations for the military. From 1945 onward the food we eat has steadily moved away from being grown to being manufactured.

“Food Science” can now give petroleum jelly the texture, taste and smell of strawberry jam and make almost anything taste like chicken. Vegetarians need not despair; by the end of the century animals will be redundant in the food chain, they’ll all be in zoos. We’ll just manufacture unspecified meaty stuff in the lab and turn it into chickeny, beefy or piggy product later. The Chemical Kitchen feeds America and the cost of the service is very high indeed.

We have been facing an epidemic in food related disease for over fifty years. The incidence of cancers, heart disease, diabetes and a wide range of serious ailments are linked to dietary choice and yet the dominant issue is weight loss. Weight loss is the funny nurse of the food drama. It makes the conversation superficial, which is what is intended.

As a nation we know what foods make us sick – they’re the ones we eat. We know which foods would create an improvement – they’re the ones that we avoid. Every few years we re-discover this fact and then we forget it immediately. We forget it precisely because to pay attention would mean we would have to change – no one wants that. Why listen to Shakespeare when you can laugh with the funny nurse?

The newest approach to a healthy diet changes almost weekly. Making good choices becomes a baffling riddle for most of the population. We are told to avoid carbohydrates, to stay away from meat, to only eat meat, to count our calories and monitor our blood sugar. Science tells us that fats are bad, that not all fats are bad and that we need some fats but it’s not clear yet which ones.

Hope springs eternal that somewhere between eating twigs and bark and throwing up our hands and washing down some fried animal parts with a gallon of purple ice sludge lays the truth. The debate will go on for three reasons. The first reason is that science is a total bust in terms of telling us what to eat, the second is that confusion is actually good business where food is involved and the third is that we love to be confused.

The Wonder of Science

I would much rather listen to an anthropologist, an epidemiologist or an ecologist concerning human diet than a nutritionist. The function of specific nutrients in diet is fine background information but fairly useless in deciding what to eat. It is like the old story of five blind men describing an elephant. With all the variables of individual metabolism, activity, environment, personal constitution and individual history, drawing conclusions is very difficult unless the study is huge.

Science loves to discover things. That doesn’t mean the discovery has an immediate application. It also doesn’t mean that someone with a vested interest hasn’t funded the “discovery”. There have been studies that have shown that there were nutrients in cheese that prevented cancer, that chocolate had great health benefits and that eating any number of high fibre breakfast cereals would prevent colon cancer – guess who sponsored the studies? If you guessed that it was the manufacturers of those foods you get a free lollypop.

It is also very easy to manipulate silver bullet science to promote a specific diet. How many hundreds of millions of dollars were made on the back of “Low Carb” diets. What a mammoth fraud. Even natural food stores were stocking these products, shame on them. The natural foods industry knows better. Specialty items and snack foods rule the roost when profit is the issue.

Large studies like the China – Oxford – Cornell Diet and Health Project have proven once again what every sensible study of nutrition has shown before it. A diet that is based on complex carbohydrates and plant based protein with an adequate variety of fruits and vegetables shows a marked decrease in the types of disease we suffer in North America and Europe. Such a diet also helps most people find their healthy weight if they are getting even moderate exercise. The problem is that there is little profit in these foods.

Remember this: Dieticians following scientific nutritional guidelines design the meals served in hospitals. I rest my case.

Help me I’m confused

As I said before, confusion is good in the grocery trade. If I can get people to buy four different kinds of milk instead of one - I’m ahead of the game. If I can take tap water, filter out the chlorine, add some minerals, put a tree on the bottle and call it Hoboken Springs Pure Water – I’m ahead of the game. The words such as “pure” or “natural” have become meaningless marketing tools and only serve to make the consumer feel good about the purchase.

I knew we were all in trouble when I read an ingredient list several years ago and it included something I’d never seen before. There in the second position on the list was “dehydrated cane juice”. Wow, talk about creativity. DEHYDRATED CANE JUICE! I was thrilled because I really wanted to buy that stuff. I don’t eat sugar but maybe just a little dehydrated cane juice would be OK. I can hear the funny nurse giggling in the wings.

“No fat”, “low cholesterol”, “no sugar”, “no sugar added”, “filled with natural anti-oxidants” – the beat goes on. We all want to be healthy but it is difficult to give up the foods we associate with culture, pleasure or habit. There is a cynical edge to the food industry that knows this. Rather than accept the fact that it is damn near impossible to create healthy versions of everything some marketing guy will put some tofu in it and hope we don’t ask questions.

Food should taste good. Food should bring pleasure and health. We don’t want to be fearful of what we eat but there is a point where we have to make a choice. Do we pretend that the food industry will take care of our nutritional needs or do we take that responsibility back into our own kitchens where it belongs? Do we use more fresh, locally produced, organic food or do we eat ready-made and try to fill in the gaps with supplements?

In dealing with the corporations that run the food game we might be wise to listen to Juliet’s nurse in one of her sober moments, “There’s no trust, no faith, no honesty in men; All perjured, all foresworn, all naught, all dissemblers.”

For over 35 years, Bill Tara has been an advocate of a Natural approach to health care. He was vice-president of Erewhon Trading Co, one of the first major distributors of organically grown foods in America in the 1960s and was active in the Natural Foods Movement in both America and Europe. He began his educational work in the 1960s and in 1975 founded the Community Health Foundation and the East West Centre in London, England. This centre was the largest and most active alternative health centre in Europe and served as a model for other organizations worldwide. He has submitted expert testimony to the American Congress on diet and disease and is the author of several books on the Macrobiotic approach to health, including Macrobiotics and Human Behavior.

He has given seminars on natural health care in over 20 countries and served on the faculties of the
Kushi Institutes, in England and America, the Kiental Institute in Switzerland and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.


Posted: May 2006


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