Notebooks

## Dangers of Natural Foods

09 Apr 1997 11:14

In Islands in the Net, Bruce Sterling imagines a movement away from natural foods towards synthetics on health grounds --- as one of his characters says, plants have spent millions of years perfecting chemical warfare on things which eat them. Not only that, but things which live on and eat plants have been doing the same. Penicillium did not evolve penicillin to make life better for humanity and Alexander Flemming immortal, but to kill off its competing molds. Many of those molds, in their turn, make other fungicides and toxins, and there's no particular reason to think they are as benign in humans as penicillin is. I remember hearing, shortly after the Alar scare, that someone had calculated that the molds on unsprayed apples were substantially more carcinogenic than Alar was! Even if this was wrong, it's still the kind of calculation which really ought to be done...

More data points: William Calvin, in one of the evolutionary chapters of The Cerebral Symphony, suggests looking at spicy foods as natural carcinogens. This sounds altogether too plausible; nothing that tastes like Thai peppers wants to be eaten. (Very little does, of course, which only adds force to the natural chemical warfare argument. Most of the exceptions are seeds and fruits, which sometimes want to be eaten only by very specific animals, and poisoning everything else which tries would be a good way of ensuring that.) Yesterday's New York Times (Tuning In to the Hidden Message in Some Fruits' Siren Songs'' [where do they get these titles?], 8 April 1997, p. b11) carries a report of some work on natural toxins in fruits by Cipollini and Levey, published in Ecology, April 1997, and David Dickey recommends George C. William's Darwinian Medicine, which I really ought to read anyway, on the grounds that Williams is about as smart as they get.