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Conversation with Jean-Michel Cohen

Doctor and nutritionist

by Caroline Gaudriault

"Organic food is a useful idiocy!"

Interview Jean-Michel Cohen pour ZigZag par zigzag-blog

Caroline Gaudriault - You are looking at a photograph called the “Big Supper” by Gérard Rancinan, which denounces junk food. The central character has invited a number of guests who, for 99 cents, can tuck in to a gargantuan feast. At the same time, he is eating organic food that doubtless costs a good deal more. What is our society today?

Metamorphose IV, Le Big Supper Metamorphose IV, Le Big Supper   © Gérard Rancinan

Jean-Michel Cohen – For me, it’s the perfect illustration of a cynical character who could be a doctor, but who offers his guests junk food. Around him there are characters, caricatures even, who may either be ill or in a state representative of the evolution of society. In the end, aren’t we all doomed to become obese as long as we continue to obey the diktats of the food economy? That’s the question being asked here.

Caroline Gaudriault – With every new food-related scandal, we seem to discover the facts: health managers, politicians, the media … Isn’t it a bit hypocritical?

Jean-Michel Cohen People have always had fears about food. The best example is Mithridates who took poison every day so that he could develop immunity to potential assassination attempts. This gave rise to mithridatism. People acquired the habit of distinguishing between what was poison and what wasn’t. Except that today, we have pushed research so far that what wasn’t scandalous before is certainly scandalous now. Fears about food lead to panic. We have never before attained such a high standard of cleanliness, but we haven’t been able to get this fear out of people’s minds, a fear characteristic of our species. For example, aspartame poses a number of problems, so the short cut is to say that “aspartame causes cancer!” What is the scientific reality? Nobody knows, except for hyper-specialists, who express varying opinions on various blogs and TV shows … But that only feeds our fears about food, which we will never rid ourselves of. Today, we talk about horse meat, having forgotten all about Mad Cow Disease, fish infected with mercury, eggs full of E.Coli...

Caroline Gaudriault - Yes, so it is grounded in reality. It’s not just an imaginary fear...

Jean-Michel Cohen – It’s about accidents. And accidents in the food chain are always possible. The recent horse meat scandal was about fraud, there was no health problem.

Caroline Gaudriault – Yes, in fact, it became apparent that there were abattoirs in Romania that were less scrupulous than one might have hoped.

Jean-Michel Cohen – Absolutely. The abattoirs there are less scrupulous. The further you go into less protected regions, the fewer things will be monitored. And the more pressure there is to reduce cost of food, the further we will have to go to find cheap sources of food. That means that we will have to look for what is expensive here is under-developed countries. It also means that risk will increase with the desire to reduce the cost of food, and that’s why the image is interesting. Because the 99 cents price poses a question: Are we capable of producing cheap, high quality food without making people work for low wages or exploiting them?” No, not really.

Caroline Gaudriault - So how can we eat well?

Jean-Michel Cohen – The American approach is very interesting. It’s making headway in France: to avoid disrupting the food chain and above all in periods of crisis, we are going to have to run the factories at the same rate as before. Instead of reducing prices, we’ll offer an extra portion. In so-called low end supermarkets, instead of selling a packet of crisps for 20 cents less, 20g will be added to the weight of the packet. But, in fact, by offering more food, companies are focusing of a very specific concept, namely external stimulation. In other words, the more we are stimulated by food, the more of it we will consume. Today, if we want to eat healthily, we’ll have to be reasonable, we’ll have to use preventive measures to stop children eating the wrong things, we’ll have to develop a coherent approach to nutrition. We have to return to more straightforward values, to more simplicity, more authenticity, more reality in our lives: cooking to eat well, buying “good food” to have “good food to eat”, pay the price for quality products and not trying to get them on the cheap. Of course, in a politically correct society, which claims that we have to offer everything to everyone, we need to let people know that not everyone will be able to eat caviar.

Caroline Gaudriault - In regard to meat and fish, perhaps we should eat less. Better but less.

Jean-Michel Cohen – We are going to have to reinvent food.

Caroline Gaudriault - In what sense?

Jean-Michel Cohen – We will have to change some of our approaches to food. Perhaps we can stop eating protein at every meal. We don’t have to eat organic food, but we should eat in a balanced way. We have to reinvent food. Either we do it spontaneously, or we are going to be forced into it because, whatever the case, in twenty years’ time world food production will not be able to meet the demands of the population. Eating less food, of higher quality, produced close to home; focusing on healthier products and limiting any kind of mass production, while remaining aware that certain foods are to be eaten at certain times of the year and that we should vary the food we eat. If we do all that, we will become omnivores again and when we do we will be helping to protect the environment.

Caroline Gaudriault – What should we think about organic food today? It’s easy to get lost, what with all the labels and certifications. Organic food has become a marketing product. It’s expensive. But does this really mean that it’s good to eat? Because that’s another problem: finding flavoursome products…

Jean-Michel Cohen – This might shock you, as it shocked members of the French parliament. When people ask me what organic food is, I reply in a somewhat vulgar fashion, that it’s a useful idiocy. It’s idiotic because very few things are organic today due to massive imports, because of transported food. It would be difficult to produce substantial quantities of organic food; there wouldn’t be enough to feed the population. So, organic food is not easy to supply. But for a country farmer, organic food is just what comes from the garden. How is this useful? It raises consciousness. By taking part of the population out of the industrially produced food equation, it raises awareness about what people eat. Are we eating good food? Are we eating healthy food? So, organic food has become a sort of counter-power to the agro-food industry? And it has rendered us a great service. Eating organic food means eating a balanced diet; it means not believing that we should eat tomatoes all year round. It’s a way of life; it’s a way of living better. Knowing that spring is coming, because that’s when the camellias bloom, that there are going to be buds on the fruit trees. It’s about living with the seasons. That’s where organic food is extremely useful. Yet, I wouldn’t buy organic. It has been proven scientifically that organic food provides no additional nutritional value. And when I wash and peel my vegetables, I eliminate 99% of all pesticides and fertilizers.

Caroline Gaudriault – The problem is that since food has lost its flavour, we now use additives. And if we have to analyse every label on every product to see what they contained…

Jean-Michel Cohen – Let’s take the example of the tomato. What has happened here? Dutch producers discovered that we could produce much larger tomatoes, that all we had to do was put them in greenhouses, water them more frequently, put them in the sun and add fertilizer. Production was tripled or even quadrupled. Once that had been done, tomato plants were altered and made less natural. There was no effort made to preserve the taste of tomatoes, which were sweet and which contained pigments and lycopene. The only concern was to produce more and bigger tomatoes at a lower price for consumers. Tomatoes, which used to be sweet, flavoursome and full of pigments, are now 96% water. They look like tomatoes, but that’s about it. Consumers need to be selective and seek out the organoleptic qualities of products; they have to know what they find satisfying. What’s better, eating a small tomato with taste or a big tomato that’s tasteless? What’s better for my body and brain? That’s where imagination plays a role in nutrition. Because food is not just about filling your stomach full of carbohydrates and proteins, it’s about fantasy, imagination, pleasure. And the phrase I use most often when I go abroad to countries where “France” is being sold is that in France people “love to eat”. The pleasure of eating is part of our culture. There is such as thing as a French culinary art that focuses on flavours, emotions and sensations.
We remember the great meals we’ve had and the events we’ve celebrated. When you are sold a Yule log in a tacky package at the supermarket, a log made with vegetable fat, skimmed milk powder, and eighteen additives to conserve, soften and thicken it, you’re being sold an illusion. The illusion enters the brain, but it doesn’t feed either the brain or the body.

Caroline Gaudriault – And the consequence may be that we all end up eating medications…

Jean-Michel Cohen – Perhaps one day – and I’m thinking of the film Soylent Green – there will be nothing left to eat on the planet and we’ll have to recycle cadavers – made of proteins, lipids and carbohydrates – and we’ll end up making food bars to feed human beings. On one hand we have the caricatured movie, Soylent Green, and, on the other, Babette’s Feast.

Caroline Gaudriault – Do you believe in food through medication?

Jean-Michel Cohen – Yes. And I believe that the world will be divided into two. On the one hand, there are the naturalists who want to eat eggs out of chicken’s arses, and, on the other, robotic men who want metal bars, with adequate quantities of magnesium, iron, vitamins C and D, in an easy-to-absorb liquid to give them the illusion that nourishing yourself is merely a biological act. Between these two categories, we have to find a middle way, a balance. And balance is really the keyword in terms of nutrition.

Caroline Gaudriault – In the end, it’s up to consumers to put pressure on the agro-food industry to produce higher quality food. But that seems to be a negation of the role of government, which doesn’t seem to be imposing its rules.

Jean-Michel Cohen – Governments have always been hypocritical about this subject because the old approach still works. As soon as you start threatening to ban certain foods or to give consumers more information, someone’s going to tell you, “you’re affecting my sales figures and people are going to start losing their jobs.” Politicians have a difficult time of it, because they have to calculate what’s in their interest, whether they’re going to opt to defend jobs or improve the health of consumers. So it’s consumers themselves who hold the key to improving food by prohibiting or stigmatising various products. When I said that chocolate bars contained as much fat as foie gras, and asked whether parents would give their children foie gras at four in the morning, food producers told me to tone my comments down a little. They said that if they put less fat in their chocolate bars people would buy less of them, which would make it impossible to innovate and create jobs. They were proffering a kind of generalised economic threat. Maybe the term “green economy”, which has not spoken to me for many years is now beginning to speak to me again, because instead of serving up fat, the same employees could give courses on cookery and how to eat well in schools. We’re in a dynamic of overproduction.

Caroline Gaudriault – Is food cultural? In the United States, people like some things rather than others. There is a good deal of talk about the wine expert, Robert Parker, who tends to favour a woody flavour in American wines. Is there a dictatorship of taste?

Jean-Michel Cohen – In the United States, the culture of money holds sway exclusively. They sell the wines that makes most profit. Instead of talking about Chablis, Sancerre, White Burgundy, or whatever, they talk about grape varieties like Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. They don’t talk about terroirs or regions. In other words, they’ve wiped out culture, tradition, education and patrimony and replaced it with something biological and economic. Wine provides an excellent example. Americans really don’t care where wine comes from; they don’t need to place a product in its historical context because their country is younger than our oldest products. We have learned to make Beef Marengo, but it must have taken a very long time to perfect the recipe. Americans want pleasant biological products that give immediate satisfaction. It’s a culture of performance and money. Unfortunately, in France, we’re not very intelligent: America has invaded us with its hamburgers and with Mickey Mouse, while we have incredible riches, a museum of healthy culinary art, and we’re unable to export them because we’re overwhelmed by marketing.

Caroline Gaudriault – All this implies time, and the Modern doesn’t have much time …

Jean-Michel Cohen – That’s the question you should ask yourself. Do you create one of your photographic images in just a couple of minutes? Yes, there are a lot of photographers … But real talent consists in doing something that no one else can do, and that requires.
You pose the question of the notion of time, and that notion has featured on a number of occasions in our interview; the time needed to appreciate things … Time is the thing that we have the least of, so we should really use it intelligently. 
 Time is what the rich buy from the poor. They make the poor work for them. Industrialists make workers work. They buy the life-times form these people and time is contained in food.

Ivry-sur-seine, 2013

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