I am a fan of Michael Pollan, having read several of his books and heard him speak when he’s in town. I hadn’t read In Defense of Food because I heard him interviewed and attended a lecture right around the time the book was published. At the lecture he brought a shopping bag full of things he’d picked up at a grocery store: green tea infused sodas, yogurt with fiber added, and numerous other manufactured foods. His point was that in the United States we practice “nutritionalism” focusing on particular nutrients rather than whole foods, and eating manufactured foods in the process. This is the theme of the book. Pollan goes through a history of food science, a description of what we are eating today, and his suggestions for a better way of eating.
The phenomenon of nutritionalism was named in the late 20th century, but has been in practice since the 19th century. Currently the popular “bad” nutrient is the carbohydrate. Athe end of the 20th century it was fat, in the 19th and early 20th century, John Kellogg and others extolled the harm of animal proteins. In general, our food research seeks to isolate certain nutrients and determine their harmful or beneficial effects. This isn’t all bad, science has discovered vitamins and other minerals in food and determined they were necessary. The problem is that this form of reductionism also creates over simplifications in our approach to food.
At the same time we were researching the properties of food, we also industrialized our agriculture. Pollan goes through well plowed material, that the growing of industrial monocrops on a lifeline of synthetic fertilizer has decreased the diversity of our foods and eliminated many of nutrients. Some of those nutrients get put back in artificially, some don’t. What science is just learning is that nutrients outside of the food in which they naturally grow, don’t necessarily work the same way. Beta-carotene from carrots are anti-oxidants and may help prevent cancer, but a study shows that beta-carotene as a supplement doesn’t have the same effect. Like other systems science, our food and relationship to it is much more complex than just breaking out the components. In other words, a whole food is better than the sum of its parts.
The reasons we add supplements to our diet instead of whole food are many, but Pollan targets two. One is the notion of a “Western Diet” as our baseline. The Western Diet consists of processed foods, lots of red meat, dairy and not a lot of vegetables. Already in the 1970s a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition issued a draft document “Dietary Goals of the United States”, which recommended reducing red meat and dairy products and eating more fruits and vegetables. Lobbyists got in the act and the goals were immediately watered down. Thus our starting point is always the Western Diet. In addition, food in our country is big business, and manufactured foods are much more profitable than fresh fruits and vegetables. Every year thousands of new products are introduced: including snack chips allegedly fried in heart healthy fats. Snack products are more profitable than broccoli.
Another sad fact about Americans approach to food, is that we don’t really enjoy the way we eat. When shown a picture of chocolate cake, most Americans said the word “guilt” as their first reaction. The French said “celebration.” Go figure. Despite the fact that we have more calories than we need available to us, we spend little time actually enjoying them, wolfing them down at our desks, in our cars, or standing up. Yuck.
The final part of the book is Pollan’s non-scientific approach to solving the problem. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He breaks this down further, but this suggestion resonated: Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than 5 in number, or that include D) High-Fructose Corn Syrup. HE admits that none of these characteristics are harmful in and of themselves, but all are indicators of foods that have been highly processed, and thus become food products rather than just food.
Near the end, Pollan adds this quote from Wendell Berry: “Eating with the fullest pleasure–pleasure, that is, that dos not depend on ignorance–is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” And with that: Bon Appetit!