“Food, food, glorious food? Nothing quite like it for changing the mood.” Doesn’t that conjure up long Sunday lunches with good food, good wine, a great location and interesting company? And the mood at the end of all that eating, debating and imbibing – after what my old mate Max Lake called The Pleasures of the Shared Table – is one of bonhomie, that wonderful umbrella of contentment with those surrounding you. Our moods sated and mellowed by good food and wine. Mind you, too much booze and not enough food can turn the mood in a different direction.
Sharing delicious food creates friendships, establishes liaisons and makes peace and it has been doing this throughout human existence. Remember the wonderful film Babette’s Feast? As Babette’s generous offerings of the best French food works on the dour, sensually limited members of a strict Danish religious sect until they started to have fun. Now that was a mood change.
Beyond the camaraderie that comes with food, food itself comes with its own moods. There’s the gift of chocolate that does actually woo because the anticipation of the flavour and lushness of chocolate kick start our pleasure hormones the endorphins, while chocolate brings to the party its own anti-depressant, serotonin, and various anti-inflammatory properties. All of which makes eating high percentage chocolate an essential part of being a happy chappie or lassie. (As a food snob, please make sure what you call chocolate actually has at least 55 per cent of cacao in the product as the rest is just confected confectionery deceptively using the title).
Then we are told that some foods are aphrodisiacs. In fact oysters, clams and mussels (which look quite pornographic) are. These bivalves work in two ways; they are high in zinc, which is good for gonad development and gives that ‘rush of blood’ effect; and they have high levels of the ‘good mood’ hormones serotonin and dopamine. They also have two specific amino acids (including phenylethylamine) that trigger the production of testosterone in males and progesterone in females so they work to make both sexes sexier. Cheese also, especially the blue-veined varieties, has this combination of ‘feel good’ hormones and phenylethylamine, which is why Casanova boasted a diet of 50 oysters for breakfast and Stilton with red wine later in the day. Other candidates for aphrodisiacal properties are ginger and ginseng with some reported validity. However, the Chinese/Vietnamese favourite of rhinoceros horn just doesn’t deliver the action so leave the animals alone.
But there is a dark side to foods’ moods. We all know about sugar hits to our kids making them hyperactive and cranky yet don’t think it applies to us adults – but it does. The mood highs and lows of carbohydrate spikes are now well documented. Next, on the human mood meter comes the current, everyone’s doing it, craze of caffeine – delivered mainly by the very in-trend, coffee. It is addictive, so the one latte in the morning gradually becomes various versions of strong black several times a day. The ‘kick-start’ of coffee becomes a need as natural hormones are replaced by the synthetic. Miss a day of coffee and suffer a headache. In the meantime, coffee will make you an increasingly irritable, nervous, hyperactive insomniac and possibly nauseated. Caffeine is in sports drinks; Coke, because it is addictive and delivers a small ‘rush’.
Next are steroid supplements. Steroids mimic testosterone and are the go to supplement for both men and women who want to love their muscles. Apart from the self-love mood involved, steroid use can have many other significant impacts on the personalities of users. These start with ‘roid’ rage or psychotic aggression; then paranoia; next delusions of supremacy with swings to deep depression. Physically the effects are pronounced as muscle growth and definition is accelerated, hirsutism (both male and female) increases and generally masculinity takes over even on women.
Paradoxically to the need for the sexy, toned body is that gonads (male and female) can be damaged. Penises, testicles can shrink; clitorises grow; men can become impotent and women may stop menstruating and start displaying male features. All of which, makes trying to strut your guns and abs as a come-on to the opposite sex all smoke and mirrors. Then those testosterone-imitating steroids do what they do to adolescents – acne. Very depressing.
Much deeper down and darker in the world of human foods we come to modern agriculture and its many hormone imitators and endocrine disrupters. Condensed Animal Farming is based on putting as many of our food animals into as limited spaces as possible and growing them to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. Because we are physiologically hunter-gatherers, we have evolved to really like eating animals that free-range like poultry, bovines, pigs, fish. So we put them in high-density living conditions they psychologically hate so much so that a walk through a piggery will showcase displays of hyperactivity, repetitive actions and even catatonia-like depression. Similarly, you will find chickens in their cage behaving repetitively, looking depressed and losing feathers, while cattle in feedlots form into camps like human prisons. These are manifestations of various, hormonally managed psychoses of stress and sadness. And then we eat these animals and wonder where the ADHD, the suicides, the self-harm is coming from. But there is more. The need to have these protein animals make as much weight as fast as possible means they are on hormonal growth supplements. These will be a mix of oestrogen and testosterone – natural or synthetic – oestrogen to stop fights and testosterone to build muscle.
In the late 1960s US feedlots fed so much oestrogen to the steers to stop fighting andbruising, they grew udders and lactated. In the late seventies and early eighties, research papers linked the huge ‘Coming Out’ in California with the abnormally high levels of oestrogen in beef and the effect on foetal sexual orientation. When US dairy farmers tried hormonally adjusting their cows to produce more milk (multiple daily milking) a high cluster of female infants and later young women with ovarian abnormalities and infertilities occurred. Vegetarians and vegans aren’t spared because their foods are sprayed with pesticides using endocrine disruptors, oestrogen imitators and thyroid manipulators. The agricultural industries are alert to this and say levels are now safe and monitored but we need generational-span research that involves the vulnerability of the foetus to atypical hormones or hormonal concentrations. No one is funding this.
We can have for dinner depression, gender confusion and aggression. We boost our exercise with gender-altering steroids and line up for irritability and nervousness in a cup from a barista.
Now we are being bullied by the consequences with an increasingly large, noisy and aggressive demographic of the LGBT about voting “yes”. Is this the other side of foods’ moods? Personally, I am for free-range, hold the coffee, accept the body and leave marriage where it is. Chocolate is a “yes” from me; the marriage vote a “no”.
Deb Newell has spent some 40 years in and around the food industry as chef/patron, teacher, writer, judge and promoter and hold a Masters in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development in the Field of Agriculture from the University of Queensland.
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