No modern consumer can deny that bad news sells. Every day we hear about yet another FDA medication being recalled or being linked to cancer. James W. Cooper, Ph.D, a former chemistry professor at Tufts University, brings a much-needed dose of sanity into a world filled with medical anxiety. His book Food Myths Debunked walks the reader through the most common food fears, countering them with some simple science.
MJN: Can you link the decision to write the book to any specific incident? At what point did you say, "Enough of this obsession with MSG and aspartame. Someone needs to set the record straight." Or did this realization come to you gradually?
JC: Well, as you know, I have been writing a food and food science column for Examiner.com for about five years, and have written about 1000 columns. I found that the science columns seem to attract the most readers, (or maybe they didn't like my recipes.) I wrote several columns on some of the topics in the book, but the column format is too limiting when you want to tell a story about the background and the people.
So at first I decided that collecting my columns might make a good book. However, as I worked on it, more than half of it is completely new material because I wanted to lead people from the idea of what scientists do to all the topics and places they work in. I made a list that kept growing of the things I wanted to cover and ended with 29 chapters, on different topics in food and science.
MJN: Having worked with history professors, I know that many of them would hesitate to write a book intended for pedestrian audiences for fear of jeopardizing their unapproachable status. I applaud your initiative to write a palatable, digestible book. Chemistry as a discipline exists for the benefit of humanity. How did your colleagues in the academia receive your book? Assuming, they are aware that you wrote it.
JC: My Ph.D. advisor loved it and told me everyone should buy a copy.
MJN: You have a track record of publishing your books. You chose to publish Food Myths Debunked independently. Can you elaborate on the reasons behind that decision? One of the reviewers mentioned that your style is more editorial than academic. Do you believe that a third party editor would curb your freedom of expression?
JC: No, it's more a change in the publishing business itself, as well as the fact that all of my good contacts had retired.
MJN: In spite of debunking the myths about the dangers of certain substances, are there specific foods you would not eat yourself or feed to your loved ones?
JC: My whole family thinks that kale is vile.
I don't think much of fast food, but that is because it tastes terrible, not for any high principle.
MJN: The last question is a little philosophical in nature. Clearly, you are a well-rounded individual. In addition to being a scientist, you are a gardener and appreciator of performing arts, serving as a treasurer for Troupers Light Opera. Do you feel that you view art through the lens of science, or do you view science through the lens of art?
JC: I see science in a lot of things I work on, from writing to theater to singing to gardening. I also build sets, and that is all physics, of course. I see the art in the finished products.