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Food Philosopher Serves 'Liberation Theology' to Go

November 15, 1987|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

Paul Saltman, Ph.D., respected biochemist, revered professor, author of a new book billed as the latest word from California on nutrition, was moving quickly about the kitchen of his La Jolla home preparing lunch one recent afternoon.

Out came a bag of ruffled potato chips. Then came slices of Italian sausage on rye toast, topped with glistening pools of melted cheese. There was beer, miniature yellow tomatoes and sweet nectarines. Topping it off, a frozen Snickers candy bar.

"When I say be a hedonist, I mean it. But you've got to be a constructive hedonist," Saltman muses with a visitor. " . . . I say I'm giving people more fun--to be able to eat a nice toasted salami-and-cheese sandwich and not feel like you're doing primal sin."

Saltman is a defender of the Twinkie. He has a box of Butterfingers in a freezer in his garage. He is also partial to red meat, poached eggs, fish and chicken, fruits and vegetables, corned beef hash and "a wonderful chocolate mousse."

Saltman likes to make the point that no food is inherently evil. All foods have nutritional "redeeming virtue." But, he contends, zealots have sought to banish certain foods, leaving our lives gastronomically poorer and our bodies nutritionally deprived.

"You remember when you were a kid and the lady held up the four basic food groups?" Saltman said one recent afternoon while constructing a salami and cheese on rye. "Well, what the hell is a pizza? It's all of the above!"

Saltman's ideas make dietitians, and even ordinary eaters, edgy.

Some people are suspicious of Saltman's heresies--red meat is good for you, salt won't kill you, sugar is low-cal. Indoctrinated in dietary dogma, they seem uncomfortable with his laissez faire approach: Know what you are eating, then eat what you want.

Others oversimplify his theories. "Snickers and Twinkies Will Make You Healthy," a supermarket tabloid shrieks. A few wonder whether the Beef Council has an unhealthy interest in Saltman. (His recent address to the council: "Stop Being Chicken About Beef.")

Praise Called Perverse

Consumer advocates say Saltman's emphasis is dangerously misplaced. In the midst of an epidemic of heart disease, they say, it is perverse to praise red meat. Where Saltman sees a great source of minerals and trace elements, they see fats, cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

"If he were a historian, he would describe how beautifully Attila the Hun combed his hair," sneered Michael Jacobson, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "Or he might say that Adolf Hitler brushed his teeth twice a day, while perhaps decrying that Clara Barton didn't iron her dress."

Saltman's arguments, laid out in his new book, "The California Nutrition Book," published last month, go something like this:

Food and eating are a source of pleasure. But food bigots are taking away the fun. They have promulgated rules rooted in religion or abstraction, not nutritional science. Good foods are being driven from our diets.

Genetic Potential

Saltman says American women, in particular, are depriving themselves of nutrients because they have sworn off such things as red meat and milk. He says many are living "sub-optimally" and below their genetic potential, risking diseases like osteoporosis.

No food is all bad or all good, Saltman argues. Fruits and vegetables have vitamins and minerals but lack other nutrients. Salt may harm people with hypertension, but there is no proof that it is hurting the rest of us, Saltman says.

The lesson? Eat a balanced diet, Saltman says. People should analyze their eating habits, using dietary tables and learn what nutrients are missing. Nutrition is complex, but learning the principles will liberate people to live up to their potential, he says.

A few of Saltman's most controversial contentions:

- Sugar isn't poisonous, but lack of sugar is.

- Cutting dietary cholesterol may not reduce cholesterol levels in a person's blood.

- Alcohol, on balance, is a nutritional asset, in moderation.

- Obesity is the biggest threat to health.

- There is no universal benefit in everyone cutting down on salt.

- Coca-Cola? A source of water.

A young undergraduate was sitting in Saltman's office in Bonner Hall at the University of California, San Diego, one morning earlier this month, looking baffled.

"Twinkies don't have nutrients," she scoffed at him, as though dismissing a joke.

"The hell they don't!" shot back Saltman. He holds court regularly in a room lined with books and Rouault prints, bantering with people who pause in his doorway and engaging visiting students in a gently challenging dialogue.

"They have more nutrients than an apple or an orange," he went on. " . . . They have more protein than an apple or an orange. . . . more B vitamins . . . more calcium . . . more trace elements than an orange has."

"I don't see how there could be more vitamins and nutrients," she said, scowling.

Question of Calories

"Because you add it! What the hell do you think is in an apple?"

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