Which one would win the title of Public Health Enemy number one? When I was growing up, it was definitely salt. Every time my brother and I reached for the salt, we got a look from my mother that conveyed “that stuff will kill you one day”.
In my college days, the focus shifted to fat, which resulted in lines of fat-free everything (yes, even fat-free “butter”). An interesting thing I learned from my friends majoring in Nutritional Science at the time – a study based on fat-free cookies revealed that some people actually ended up gaining weight.
The reason? Well, thinking that these cookies were a weight-gain loophole, these people ended up happily cramming them in by the fistful. What they didn’t realise was that in order to make these “treats” palatable (and not just edible cardboard), they were loaded up with intense amounts of….yep, sugar. So while these cookies may have been fat free, they were calorie heavy.
Which brings us to the last of our PHEs. Sugar is probably the most reviled one of modern day, causing everything from acne to weight gain (with some diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay along the alphabetical way). There are people out there who’ve dedicated their lives to figuring out a way to completely eliminate the white stuff from our diets. (In case you don’t know me very well – I am definitely not one of them.)
Ok, quick quiz now – so other than being health hazards, what do these three ingredients have in common?
Quite a few things probably, but I want to focus on two:
1. The obvious one – they all make our food taste SO MUCH BETTER.
2. They are all preservatives.
Yes, that’s right, they are all preservatives. Salt is probably the most obvious one (beef jerky, bacon, corned beef etc), but both sugar and fat are also key preservatives. Jams, preserves (key’s in the title), dried fruits packed in sugar – these are all ways people used to conserve fruit before refrigeration. As for fat – believe it or not, cheese is probably the most common example of this. Basically after curdling the proteins, you remove most of the water and are left with just the fat and proteins, et voila, cheese! (Which lasts much longer than the milk it came from.) There’s also confits, duck most famously, which actually means “preserved” in French. And that thick layer of fat on top of pâtés, rillettes and other canned meats? Yep, that’s to preserve whatever is underneath it.
So where am I going with all this???
While thoroughly enjoying a slice of cake, my father-in-law once said, “Why is all the good stuff so bad for you??” The ‘good stuff’ in this case being fat and sugar, but he was also an avid enthusiast of bacon sandwiches.
Well, in the beginning, the ‘good stuff’ was a tool to help save other good stuff, ie food that nourishes and keeps us alive. So in fact, the ‘good stuff’, really was good stuff. In fact, salt was so precious at various points in history that it has been cited as reasons for wars breaking out, land being discovered and empires being created and destroyed.
A quick moment now to bemoan humanity’s tendency towards the pendulum swing. By this I mean our habit of going from one extreme to the other, back and forth with no resting points along the way. So we say, “Hey, salt is good. In fact it’s so good, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get some.” Cue war, the fall of empires etc etc.
Then some sort of realisation hits such as the health consequences of excess sodium. And the mantra changes from “salt is good” to “salt is bad…very, very bad.”
Now some of you probably already honed in on one particular word in the paragraph above – excess. For whatever reason, we can’t really handle excess of anything. Too much salt can lead to death. But so can too little. Too much work can lead to life-threatening levels of stress, too little work can lead to deadening apathy.
“Everything in moderation.” It’s a familiar phrase. Simple to say, yet difficult to live. The moderates love to preach it when faced with the pitfalls of excess.
Again, where is this leading?? Is all this just to say, “Hey, salt, sugar, fat…they’re not so bad after all.” Just a long, convoluted metaphor to praise a life of moderation?
Well, here’s the thing. In the many biblical descriptions and metaphors of heaven/the promised land/eternal life, “excess” is actually a common theme. Terms like “abundant”, “overflowing”, “running over” feature widely, think of the land “flowing with milk and honey”.
And what about that key word for all the faithful…grace. Doesn’t grace, by nature of its definition, have a sense of excess built in? Grace isn’t by nature “measured” or “earned” or even “attainable”. Grace, God’s grace to us, is characterised by its bounty, abundance… excess.
Maybe instead of “everything in moderation”, a better phrase would be “everything in its place”. For there is a place for both the life-sustaining aspects and the joy that come from salt, sugar and fat. As for excess, perhaps the only thing we can safely indulge in, in this life at least, is God’s grace.
God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it,
He throws caution to the winds,
giving to the needy in reckless abandon.
His right-living, right-giving ways
never run out, never wear out.
‘This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.’
– 2 Cor 9:8-11, MSG