A few thoughts on the ongoing debate over Paula Deen, diabetes, and Southern cooking

About a week and a half ago, I started a post about Savannah celebrity chef Paula Deen’s admission that she has type 2 diabetes (I did not realize at the time that she has had it for 3 years) and is promoting a drug with Novo Nordisk.

My main point in that post was going to be about the public relations aspect. Here’s part of what I wrote in that draft post on the 17th of Jan.:

From the message from Deen on that Novo Nordisk website, Diabetes in a New Light :

When I found out I had type 2 diabetes, I didn’t know exactly what it meant. But after talking with doctors, and my family and friends, I learned that living with diabetes didn’t mean that I had to also settle for less.

My sons Bobby, Jamie and I have teamed up with Novo Nordisk to create a program that will help you better manage your diabetes. We’re sharing some of our favorite recipes, lightened up, and creating new diabetes-friendly options that everyone will love. We’re also going to offer tips and advice to help you stay on track.

If you’re anything like me, you may need a little extra helping of positivity and support. That little extra is really what Diabetes in a New Light is all about. When you look at managing your diabetes in a new light, with healthy habits and a little encouragement, and a treatment plan that works for you, you can manage your diabetes and manage to live the life you want.

I think this is a big gamble for Deen, her company, and for Novo Nordisk. On the one hand, maybe she can genuinely educate people about how to manage type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, all parties in this venture have invited irony, scrutiny, and lots of jokes. Deen’s cookbooks have been pointed out as promoting a variety of health problems. . . .


I never ended up finishing that post, but I’ve decided to dig it up today.

Before I continue, let me add that I have the upmost respect for Paula and her sons Jamie and Bobby, all of whom I talked to for columns long before they made the big time. I was the first person to report on The Lady & Sons’ move to their current restaurant location. I still like them personally and am friendly with people who work for the company.

I decided to weigh in now because I feel like we’re actually beginning to see an interesting discussion of some of the underlying issues about how Americans eat.

There are a couple of interesting pieces from the Huffington Post on this issue today.

Paula Deen Shocked By Lack Of Public Support Following Diabetes Announcement goes into some of the entirely predictable PR storm and notes that her fellow celebrity chefs are wary of being publicly supportive, in part because of the delay in announcing the news and because of the paid gig with the pharmaceutical company.

Of much more interest, food writer Kristin Wartman’s Paula Deen: From Big Food to Big Pharma extends the conversation in relevant ways:

Personal responsibility and consumer choice are solutions heralded by conservatives and liberals alike–the idea being that ultimately good health comes down to what we choose to buy and eat. But it’s not that simple.

There are three main issues when it comes to the myth of personal responsibility about food choice and they get at the root of our nation’s health crisis: The public’s confusion about nutrition; the lack of time and knowledge when it comes to real home cooking; and the promotion of quick fixes like drugs, diet foods, and fads in lieu of addressing underlying causes. The Paula Deen diabetes story manages to hit on every single one of these issues.

Wartman in particular notes that fat keeps getting mentioned at the top of the list of problems with Deen’s and others’ recipes, but that’s really not the main issue:

The issue that mainstream media has largely overlooked is that Deen uses the processed, packaged versions of these foods, which are full of chemicals, additives and trans-fats. Actual home cooking would require whipping these foods up herself in her kitchen using real ingredients. And that is the real story behind Deen’s diabetes diagnosis: Her health problems are largely due to her reliance on packaged, processed foods that are the foundation for many of her recipes. [. . .]

But the most recent research indicates that when it comes to diabetes, fat is not the problem. The problem foods are sugar, refined white flour, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners and flavors, trans-fats, and the various other chemicals and additives found in the processed foods that abound in Deen’s recipes.

Southern cooking does not have to involve all of those processed foods — in fact, traditional Southern cooking predates all of those processed foods. As I said in a recent column about the wonderful new Cafe Florie here in Savannah: Traditional Southern cuisine has nothing to do with can openers but with using fresh ingredients, making do with what’s on hand and maximizing taste.

I also recently posted NYT: Growing number of Southern farmers “want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity”. That post and the NYT article it references discuss some of these same issues.

Sure, no matter how fresh and homemade, there are some foods that are going to contribute to high blood sugar more than others. But it sure would be interesting to see what would happen if the public health initiatives concentrated more on encouraging the use of non-processed ingredients as the top priority.