For restaurant reviewers, are health risks at critical mass?
March 28th, 2012
09:15 AM ET
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A recent New York Times review of North End Grill restaurant includes mentions of pumpkin-crab soup, hashed Brussels sprouts and lentils, halibut with pine nuts, green raisins and clams and a bacon-shrimp burger with spice-dusted fries - and that’s all before the mile-high lemon meringue pie with candied almonds.

But when former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni publicly announced his own gout diagnosis last week, he and his fellow professional eaters had a bitter truth to swallow about their career’s potential health implications.

Bruni is currently an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, but served as chief restaurant critic from June 2004 through August 2009. In his March 22 column titled “Red Meat Blues,” Bruni revealed he learned of his condition in November of last year.

“Some risks may be out of one’s control such as gender, age, and family history of the disease. However, like with most diseases from which we suffer in the U.S., diet and weight play a significant role. Specifically, increased intake of meat and alcohol are associated with gout as is being overweight,” says Susan Levin, a dietitian for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The Mayo Clinic describes gout as “a complex form of arthritis.”

“An acute attack of gout can wake you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire. The affected joint is hot, swollen and so tender that even the weight of the sheet on it may seem intolerable,” explains the Clinic.

Gout is caused by a build-up of uric-acid crystals. The crystals accumulate in joints - especially the big toe - and ultimately result in intense pain and inflammation. Foods rich in purines - a colorless crystalline compound your body breaks down into uric acid - can trigger flare-ups.

According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, foods with especially high purine content include: anchovies, beer, bouillon, brains, broth, consommé, goose, gravy, heart, herring, kidney, liver, mackerel, meat extracts, mincemeat, mussels, partridge, roe (caviar), scallops, sardines, sweetbreads and yeasts (baking and brewing).

Take a quick glance through the reviews filed by Bruni's successor Sam Sifton in 2011 and you’ll find mentions of roast scallops at Craft, grilled monkfish liver at Sushi Yasuda, a torchon of duck foie gras at Per Se, sweetbreads at Empellon and sardines marinated in oil and vinegar at Boulud Sud.

To your average American consumer, partridge and heaping portions of offal are hardly on the weekly grocery store checklist - but it’s the fare critics positively eat up.

Bruni – despite his ferocious appetite – has since completely reformed his diet, severely decreasing his admittedly substantial alcohol intake and taking an extra lap in the bread basket instead of the jar of pâté.

“Pasta dishes are a godsend for an additional reason: they often incorporate some red meat, but not a crazy amount. So they let a meat lover like me get flavors he or she cherishes in a lower-risk way,” he writes. Since his diagnosis, Bruni notes he has not consumed more than 16 ounces of red meat in any one week. This is a stark contrast to his usual porterhouse for one; “a cruel joke” he says.

Bruni certainly doesn’t blame his career path, citing his uric acid levels were naturally on the high side even in his 20s. Gout was mentioned in his check-ups, but he says his doctors never exhorted him to remember it.

“It didn't stick in mind as this looming threat. Only when I got the diagnosis did I remember: ‘Oh, yeah, this had been mentioned to me.’ They never said: 'You have a predisposition to gout, so you should avoid x, y or z.’”

And for those who earn their living at the end of a fork, the notion of putting their health in jeopardy is something to chew on.

“I am, of course, nervous, and Frank's news makes me a bit more nervous than before,” says Pete Wells, the current Times critic, who took over the job in early January.

“When one of the professional eaters actually has health problems, you have to face the facts that you’re asking a lot of your body,” he says.

Earlier in his career as the paper’s previous Dining Section editor and a writer at Food & Wine Magazine, Wells says it was easy to focus on the cosmetic hazards, particularly the weight gain. However, announcements like Bruni’s make him realize the occupational hazards might go beyond mere vanity.

Ryan Sutton, the restaurant critic for Bloomberg News, says his weight has fluctuated around 30 pounds during his six-year tenure. He was also recently prescribed Lipitor for high cholesterol at the ripe age of 32.

“I feel for food critics. Their jobs seem to be about tasting everything while not finding that tipping point. Who knows when that one dietary hit will push them into a blocked artery, a stroke, or an insulin shut down? I’d think twice about throwing those dice for a living,” says Levin.

Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle critic, says she’s “pretty much resigned to living with the 20 extra pounds I've put on over the decade I've been reviewing weekly again.” Like Sutton, her cholesterol levels are higher than her doctors would like, although she has not been prescribed any medication – yet.

Cook adds: “If I've got to go, I want to go having eaten and drunk well.”

And that very act of eating and drinking well is often met with its own criticism on online dining forums – with commenters claiming that those in the profession practice gluttony and excess and therefore reap what they sow.

“I understand the social argument, that we feast at the top of the food chain when so many have so little,” says Cook. “But there's another social argument, too: that thoughtful food writing makes readers aware of the food chain, its importance, its fragility, its variety. You can connect readers with their region and its possibilities, and that matters, too.”

“Restaurant criticism ought to be about deliciousness and sociology and art. It shouldn’t ultimately be about nutrition,” wrote Sam Sifton, Wells’ predecessor at the Times, about criticism and calorie counting.

“Food critics eat lavishly because their job is to be emissaries, canaries, proxies for the reader, and that means visiting certain restaurants, partaking of certain dishes and doing it at a night-after-night frequency,” Bruni adds.

“There's no other way to be a food critic.”



soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Chantal Duvall

    there are so many products advertised on the internet ... how do I find the leaves from Amazonia without a bunch of other things added ?

    March 29, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  2. WhatNow

    Wow, I guess all the people in France must have gout because they survive on a lot of that type of food. Yet, they have longer lifespans, are healthier, and thinner than many of us in the US. We need to stop labeling foods based on the latest trends in dieting. Eating healthy is about portion and quality of your foods.

    March 29, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  3. Chet

    Gout, elevated cholesterol, diabetes? Carnivores have all the fun!

    March 29, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  4. Tyler

    There's this funny little thing called EXERCISE that will allow you to eat without getting fat. Some athletes eat 10k+ calories a day. An hour or so of exercise a day would easily allow you to be a food critic without gaining weight or becoming unhealthy.

    March 29, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • amgel

      but athletic people eat GOOD food not just anythig-and stay away from alcohol!! een if you exerise-you shoud/muust eat good clean healthy food-they do eat alot but its to feed and fuel their muscles and body!!!!!

      March 29, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  5. aunt.jamima

    do like my mother take your expertise across the board & bring it to a molecular level . ideas ABOUND from some of the most ordinary people

    March 29, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  6. Tonia

    I have lived abroad in many countries and it is amazing how the locals can treat common ailments with simple herbs. Currently, I am taking a new supplement that is basically water and sodium chloride but it has been modified. It works on a cellular level and has helped with digestive problems and even insomnia. An amazing product. It is called ASEA. Check it out at http://www.aseaturtletonia.teamasea.com

    March 29, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  7. jj

    When Rachel Ray had that show where she traveled around to restaurants in different cities, it looked like she did not eat more than a bite of the meal placed before her. Smart lady.

    March 28, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      And then HD resolution came out and we could see her roundness a little more clear.

      I'd still hit it, though.

      March 28, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • amgel

      exactly! i always wondered hmmmm how does she do it? i noticed that most chefs from foodnetwork only take a bite or two of the food-at a time!!!! there is man v food–he also takes a bite or two but the food is GINORMOUS!!!!! he doesnt look too good! ha!

      March 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  8. Anne

    Where can I buy the tea?

    March 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  9. Steve C.

    First time I got gout I went nuts and went to the hospital. They put me on a crazy drug that was eating my kidneys. I moved to Ecuador a few years ago and had a flare up. I went to the doc for pills and he recommended something else. In 24 hours the gout was gone and I haven't had it a flare up in 2 years. And I drink lots of $1.25 huge beers. I eat everything that causes typical gout. Things that are not listed here. The trick is to drink Chanca Piedra tea. Simple preventative. But don't buy that garbage they make the money on. Buy it in bulk and make tea out of it. Google Chanca Piedra Gout It works and it is cheap and doesn't destroy kidneys. The stuff is also cheaper that Lipton Tea! It tastes great with honey and a little lemon or mint. And healthy.

    March 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Carla Vazq

      Hola, In EE.UU people do not believe anything works unless the drug companies put their label on it. The FDA will not look at Chanca Piedra or Guanabana and many rain forest plants. This leads the USA citizens to believe that herbs and plants are unsafe or do not work. This is wrong.

      There are some things that are not mentioned about Chanca Piedra and Guanabana. They will lower your blood pressure! They reduce pain caused by kindneys. Chanca Piedra also takes the sting out of sunburns. And if you are a guy losing hair, spray it on and drink it! It works. If you want a better skin tone, spray it on! There are other secrets about Chanca. Eli Lilly has been researching it for years, along with other drug companies.

      Sounds like "snake oil". It sure does. But it works. Don't bad mouth it because the FDA will not put their mark on it. Try it, but don't spend lots of money. Buy the bulk and make tea and keep in cool in the fridge. When you want to sleep, put water in the microwave and make it like you do Lipton Tea, strain it and then add some honey. It works. You will rest better. You can also mix Guanabana tea with it for added flavor and more medicine.

      Eli Lilly will not comment on Chanca Piedra or Guanabana. But I know they do test it. My uncle works for their company in Ecuador! He comes to Indianapolis often. I am a student at Purdue! We research it here.

      Read about these two plants on the internet. It isn't a scam but some companies will scam you so that is why you should only buy the bulk plant. The companies will add other items to the Chanca pills. That is not good. You want puro Chanca Piedra or Guanabana leaves, nothing else! Look for the plants from Ecuador or Peru.

      March 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
      • DannyL

        I know that Chanca works for gout and blood pressure. I don't need Urosin anymore! I did not change my diet but I added Chanca tea just like you say. My doctor is from Latin America and works in Tucson at the U. Med Ctr and he recommended it and took me off Urosin.

        March 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Robert

      I have used it for 3 years. Sometimes I get a little pain in my right toe but I drink more Chanca and it goes away in a few yours. And I noticed when the pain was there, I would have increased blood pressure. But drinking Chanca lowered the blood pressure and no more waking up in the middle of the night screaming!

      March 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • KJC

      I studied abroad in Ecuador, and your comment about the big beers brought me back to those days of Pilsener. (Not that Club stuff, that's just gross.) :-)

      March 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
      • Steve C.

        I live in Playas, EC. About 1.5 hrs from Guayaquil. Before then I lived in Cuenca and then in Conocoto (outside Quito).

        I drink Pils in the big brown bottle! Lots of it. The price just went up to $1.00 at the local tienda. Club has more alcohol but and cost more, but it just doesn't taste as good.

        March 28, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Jose S.

      http://www.rain-tree.com/chanca-techreport.pdf

      http://www.rain-tree.com/graviola.htm

      For those interested...the Chanca report is not a sales brochure. It is fact.

      Chanca Piedra and Guanabana are both in the leading 10 rain forest plants being researched in the USA today. Drug companies are spending millions trying to find a way to patent the chemicals from the plants. However, water soluble extraction is very difficult to patent.

      Jose Sacha, MD

      March 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  10. fart nuggets

    Red meat is a sin.the food critics should in clude more crushed glass and anti-freeze iin their diets...>:-(

    March 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  11. ToddT

    If this is their business they should be smart enough to figure out that they don't have to eat everything. Taste it and move on. If you don't do that it's not your job to blame, it's your own bad choices.

    March 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • dragonwife1

      I was going to post pretty much the same thing! Making an informed judgment or opinion on a dish doesn't mean you have to eat the whole thing. Take a few bites, savor them slowly, and then stop. If something is particularly delicious, indulging occasionally is fine, but you don't have to stuff yourself at every meal.

      March 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  12. pitukita

    Well, Anton Ego was, and apparently survived...

    March 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Charlotte

      LOL! That's because like Mikey, "he hates everything!"

      March 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  13. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    A lot of my favorite foods on that list. Guess it's back to sawdust and water for me.

    March 28, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • xesor

      No you do not have to eat sawdust, this site shows how to eat like Jesus and has some recipes. jesusfoodcross .com.
      It has a cool new cross that looks like the outdated food pyramid and obama food plate.

      March 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  14. K

    "Canaries". Indeed.

    March 28, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  15. AleeD®

    Whether you choose to be a restaurant critic, a paramedic, a teacher or a mechanical designer, all professions carry inherent risks. Learn about the risks involved in your profession and take steps to make your health & safety job 1. That doesn't give you license to blame the job for your condition (as it relates to this article) or become complacent & careless over time. It means take responsibility for your own health & safety in your profession of choice.

    March 28, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  16. Deneen

    #First world problems

    March 28, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Troll Patrol

      ... and?

      March 28, 2012 at 8:49 am |
  17. Thomas

    They can always quit. Someone else can always take their place.

    March 28, 2012 at 7:58 am |
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