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Sports and Fitness

What is a carb anyway?

Dec 10, 2019 by carol adams.

In France, bread is “basically a condiment”. So, why do we now treat carbs as though they’re “worse than cocaine”? Laura Goodman investigates.

We love a Friday night in with wine and carbs, don’t we? We don’t go out to enjoy music or comedy any more and that’s fine; we’re pleased with ourselves. We like to compare notes on hermitry, where points on the agenda include fleecy blankets, The Ordinary’s AHA + BHA Peeling Solution, feelings, a bit of CBD oil under our tongues and TV shows that roll and roll without us having to do anything. And when I say carbs, you know what I mean, don’t you? You’re reading a piece on this thoughtful, modern website so I’m sure you do. Pizza, spaghetti meatballs, dense macaroni cheese, mashed potatoes, oozing buttered toast. Carbs, with a capital C.

When I pitched my cookbook, Carbs, to publishers, I knew exactly what food I was referring to, and wasn’t particularly concerned that I might be misunderstood. The book would be a raucous celebration of some of the delicious, energy-giving foods we’ve come to believe we shouldn’t eat. But while I wrote the book, I thought more about the vague definition I was using to guide my recipe writing. Clearly I wasn’t writing a book about the molecular compound that consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. And I wasn’t writing a book about all the foods that contain that compound either – that would’ve meant including anything with sugar in it (Tomatoes! Bananas! Curly Wurlys!), thereby losing all my lovely structure. I was writing a book about carbs as we know and love them today.

Afterwards, when I’d finished the book and was bracing for it to enter the world, some friends from France came to stay with us. They asked me what my book was about, and I became acutely aware that – despite knowing every page in excruciating detail, right down to the quarter teaspoon (or ¼ tsp, if you will) –  I didn’t know how to describe it. The friends (fluent English speakers) considered a translation for a few minutes and suggested “féculents”, or perhaps “glucides”, but they weren’t confident in either suggestion. Whatever the word was, I could see another question taking root in the crinkles of their brows: why on earth would you write a cookbook about those?

After they’d left, I got googling to see if we’d lost something very simple in translation. Maybe they’d gone home thinking I’d written a cookbook about hamsters, or – as one native English speaker surmised – carps. The internet was inconclusive and I wanted a serious translation, so I turned to Elisabeth Bouynot, a translator and baker (ideal). She told me: “Carbohydrates in general are ‘glucides’, and include sugars, while ‘féculents’ are starches. For instance, potato starch is ‘fécule de pomme de terre’”.

Let’s free ourselves from this web of nonsense, woven for us out of vermicelli by a society that doesn’t like women’s bodies

In France, neither word is associated with a food you’d particularly want to go home and smash at the end of your working week. They are pretty straightforward nouns; there are glucides in tomatoes; pasta is a féculent. “Starchy foods” is a more reasonable catch-all for what’s in my book, but it’s just not what we say here; I imagine I’d have had a hard time finding a publisher for Starches.

And even with both words at their disposal, it was not immediately clear to my French friends what my book might contain. My woman on the ground in Paris, Mel, ran this idea by her people. When asked what a book called Carbs might be, Mel’s friend K answered “something about health and teaching you a healthy lifestyle. People in France are not so familiar with the term carbs,” and R answered “a diet book”. One person, M, suggested it might be some kind of reference book, educating people on different types of carbohydrate.

This last statement is the only one from a man and of course, dietary advice the world over is aimed squarely at women, but still, it’s clear the confusion here runs deeper than translation. To understand that my book is a celebration of a vilified food group, you’d first have to have absorbed years of propaganda about that food group. Millennials who have grown up in France just haven’t absorbed any. While many French people love and cherish their bread, few are fanatical about it. It’s as true and everyday as the sky or the snooze button – carbs are run-of-the-mill accoutrements to any bonne bouffe (good meal). As one French woman I spoke to said: “I think we get a bit startled by the concept of carbs. In France, the ‘enemy’ in food terms is more likely to be ‘la malbouffe’ (junk food). Bread is basically a condiment to us.”

So, what was happening in France while shipments of bunless burgers and burrito bowls were docking at Southampton from the good ol’ US of A? Elisabeth explains that lots of popular diets in France were named after what you removed, like “sans sucre” (without sugar) or “sans graisse” (without fat), but there were a couple of diets named after the people who invented them (in the Atkins style), such as Dukan and Montignac.

Montignac was popular in the 1990s (Atkins era), but the Montignac method appears to have had more emphasis on choosing “nutritious” carbs (rather than just counting them). I hope it goes without saying that both diets are shams and swindles, but this partly explains why the concept of “carbs” never entered popular discourse in France. Even if you were into watching your carbs, Elisabeth says, you’d be more likely to say you were on a “régime de type Montignac” than that you were eating “low-carb” or “sans glucides”.

Generally, diet advice in France tends to err on the side of “everything in moderation”. Elisabeth pointed me in the direction of the French Elle website, which has a section called “guide des regimes” (diet guide). The low-carb diet is deemed unsuitable for everyone “because of its many health risks” and is described as monotonous and frustrating. Other low-carb diets, such as the ketogenic diet, come with health risks.

Like lots of women, it was only through diet culture that I came to understand what carbs were. I don’t think I’d have considered the word much at all before shops started selling low-carb Rolos to go with my Coke (in 2004). I’d previously understood pasta and jacket potatoes to be “healthy” dinners, but I didn’t know them as carbs, just food.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, you can see the meaning of the words “carb” and “carbohydrate” shift subtly but tellingly around the same time. Every few years, a quotation is added to the definition to demonstrate common usage. Around the turn of the millennium, entries for both words seem to extend the concept from the chemical compound itself to any foods that contain that compound in large amounts. These examples are taken from the “carbohydrate” entry:

1988 Bicycling To avoid the onset of hypoglycemia, keep your sugar levels in check by consuming some carbohydrates during rides of two hours or longer.

1994 Vogue The worst carbohydrate is maltose, found in beer; its glycemic index is 110.

2005 Country Living It's the time to switch from the comforting carbohydrates of winter to the energising saladstuffs and new young vegetables of spring.

You can see that in 1994, we’re starting to talk about carbohydrates in terms of good and bad, but we’re still referring to the compound itself (the “worst” one is maltose). By 2005, foods that contains lots of carbohydrate have become carbohydrates, and the concept of carbs as comfort food has arrived. Going one step further to cover the nuance, Oxford’s dictionary of current English (as opposed to the historical OED) added a new subsense to the carbohydrate entry in 2012: “Food consisting of or containing a lot of carbohydrates.” For context, 2012 is the year Pizza Express started selling pizzas with great gaping holes in the middle.

As we know, dictionaries don’t make the rules; they react to whatever we’re all out here gassing about. For instance, words that made it into the dictionary this year include “shakshuka”, “upskirting” and “mansplaining”, and Lord knows that last one’s been happening since the dawn of time. To get a handle on how people are talking about carbs right now, I turned to #carbs, or carbs as they appear on social media.

One quote often used on Instagram is “Is butter a carb?”, taken from Mean Girls (2004, six years before Instagram).

In the movie, the quote appears when we’re supposed to believe Regina has “let herself go” and Cady is egging her on to eat food that’ll make her put on weight. Regina asks if butter is a carb while sitting in front of a tray of crisps, bread rolls and cookies; Cady answers yes. Tina Fey already knew that avoiding carbs was hard and ludicrous.

Motivational quotes are sprinkled all over Instagram, but so are quotes that remind us to live our lives. From the #YOLO camp, we get things like:

Recent searches for carbs on Twitter have yielded tweets along these lines of: “Send carbs,” “I just wanna drown my sorrows in carbs,” “I like carbs way too much,” and “I’m ready to go home. I need a nap and carbs.”

The definition of carb appears to have skipped on a level – to mean “bad food” but also “bad food we all love”. We like carbs too much and we need them in emotional emergencies. Carbs make us feel better and we like to eat them on Sundays when we’re letting our hair down. Not everyone has a sweet tooth, but it’s a meme-able truth that everyone loves carbs. Certainly, carbs can be wonderfully comforting (I like them so much I wrote a book about them), but we talk about them as though they’re illicit substances, rather than energy-giving foods. When we define carbs this way, we’re a long way from that original molecular compound. We’ve definitely forgotten there are carbs in tomatoes, bananas and Curly Wurlys.

Let’s free ourselves from this web of nonsense, woven for us out of vermicelli by a society that doesn’t like women’s bodies; let’s stop talking about carbs like they’re worse for us than cocaine. And let’s start using bread as a condiment. It’s the only way forward.