[Outlook]Food for thought

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[Outlook]Food for thought

Koreans have long been interested in food. In the past, people used to greet acquaintances by saying “Have you eaten your meal?” as there was a lack of food.

As we have plenty of food these days, this greeting may not have the same meaning to the young generation.

However, food is certainly still a subject of keen interest to Koreans. Controversies or disputes over food safety take place quite often, the most recent example being the candlelight vigils over safety concerns about U.S. beef.

If the risk of contracting potentially lethal diseases, such as avian influenza or mad cow, enters into the picture, public concerns can quickly turn to fear and even panic.

Both humans and other animals are sensitive to issues related to physical danger or health risks. The difference is that humans have emotional considerations that can influence what should normally be looked at objectively.

When dangers don’t exist or the degree of danger is not serious enough to present any real threat, subjective thinking can lead people to amplify the danger.

As human beings can’t skip meals for very long if they wish to survive, it is not difficult to understand why they are very sensitive about issues related to food and how emotional perceptions can enter into the equation.

However, worrying excessively when there is little or no danger is not good for mental health. Thus, scientific studies must be conducted to judge whether or not a danger exists, and the results must be released to the public.

Non-experts are unable to discern when a chicken has bird flu or a cow has mad cow disease. They also can’t tell how much fat, cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat a food item may contain, although all of these can cause a variety of diseases if consumed in high enough quantities. As such, people’s food concerns are more general.

As society develops, people start having higher expectations about science and technology. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Science and Technology Council, Koreans have high expectations for developments in science and technology to improve their standard of living.

In particular, 63 percent of respondents said a healthy life is the most important factor in maintaining a high standard of living. Considering that the most frequent cause of death results from chronic diseases closely related to diet and eating habits, this desire to lead a healthy life is directly linked to a healthy diet.

Koreans have become more aware of and interested in food issues, like people living in more advanced countries.

However, unlike those countries, the Korean government does not invest enough on research into food and diet. Only around half of academic papers on food and nutrition studies published in Korea receive grants from the government.

In the United States, 92 percent of papers in the same field receive grants from the government. Each paper receives an average of 2.5 grants from national agencies or nonprofit organizations.

Grants.gov is the Web site of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services where researchers can seek grants from the federal government.

On the site, food and nutrition is one of the 22 search keywords and ranks eighth in terms of the amount of grants. In Korea, food and nutrition is regarded as a small subcategory in the academic field. This is a huge difference.

Food and nutrition studies are sciences which directly affect humans. Thus, they are different from most other science and technology fields, in which research results from other countries can be applied to Korean cases.

In food and diet research, however, foreign study results can be referred to but studies must be done with Koreans to be accurate and reliable.

I hope that scientific studies on our food will grow to be considered a more important field in the state’s science and technology policy.

*The writer is a professor of nutrition at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
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