Under my byline

The rediscovery of food

Posted in Books, Diet, Health by Rrishi on 27 April 2008

Science and industry have ruined our diets, says Michael Pollan

In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating
Michael Pollan
xiv + 242

“Culture,” says Michael Pollan, “…is really just a fancy word for your mother.” He means food as culture, of course, and the descent of traditional foods to modern plates through the transmittal of knowledge from mother to daughter over millennia.

It is modern, “Western” food culture that he takes to task in this book, the successor to his bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma of 2006. In that book he investigated the organic and “local” food movement in the United States, weighing (and tempering) its claim of providing a superior eating option to standard supermarket and industrially farmed food. That book led to possibly one of the most open and invigorating exchanges ever between a corporate chieftain, John Mackey of the Whole Foods chain of organic-local grocery stores, and an earnest civil-society blowhard, Pollan himself. Conducted entirely online, it set new standards for CEO accessibility (not to mention likeability) and made spectacular use of the Internet’s reach.

In Defence of Food tackles one big question thrown up by its precursor: namely, if so many food claims are dubious, then what to eat? But it also goes well beyond that, questioning the very basis of the scientific thinking that created what Pollan calls the “Western diet”.

Pollan calls this scientific orthodoxy “nutritionism”. It’s not his term — it was coined by a “sociologist of science” named Gyorgy Scrinis in 2002. That’s a late baptism for an orthodoxy conceived in the early 19th century, when for the first time the idea of “nutrients” parted ways with that of “food”. Trying to figure out what made food into flesh and energy, those early scientists and experimentators discovered proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and in crop-bearing soil they found nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (still the main elements of chemical fertilisers).

Naturally, this represented a gross oversimplification of “food”, i.e., edible plants and animals, which we now know are complex beyond our current capacity to understand. But an orthodoxy had been established and, ever since, food scientists have tried to calculate what the best combination of nutrients is, to boost the good and dismiss the bad.

Problem is, we still don’t know how food works. When you take out one ingredient (saturated fats, say) and boost another (omega-3 fatty acids are currently in fashion), you significantly change how the various elements interact; and, what’s more, to do so you have to process the food intensively.

Which is why Pollan comes down so hard on the food processing industry. Ordinary whole foods like vegetables, fruits, meat and eggs (if we ignore for the moment genetic manipulation and the horrors of industrial farming) don’t need processing, and they are perishable — so the margins are low. There is therefore an overwhelming incentive for industry to engineer new and “improved” foods, to the tune of several thousand products a year, for American store shelves.

Pollan calls these products “edible foodlike substances”, because they mimic “real” food without actually being it. This includes revolting-sounding items like Portable Go-Gurt, which is like, but is not, yoghurt, and chewy cereal bars criss-crossed with white lines, representing milk, which they are not.

Government regulation, following scientific orthodoxy, has made all this possible. Responding to the postwar imperative of cheap food, and pressure from the food industry, the US government encouraged nutrionist science, and the production of vast quantities of cheap corn, soybeans and meat — still the predominant sources of calories for the American eater.

The intent was good, but the result is obvious today: lots of fat and sick people. Food culture, as Pollan says, has changed to accommodate our newfound uncertainties about what we eat. If nutrients are all, then only scientists and experts (and journalists, he winces) can tell us what to eat — not our mothers, who today are as confused as we are.

Pollan rejects this orthodoxy and its acolytes utterly. We’ve been eating for millennia; surely there’s some value in accumulated food wisdom. Why pay attention to a few decades’ worth of ever-changing scientific and industrial claims? He himself grows vegetables on his little city lot in New York, and lectures around the country urging others to do the same. Eat as much genuinely organic and local produce as possible, the old-fashioned way, and you’ll be fine, he says.

Once an idea is given a name, it becomes an ideology and its days are numbered. So it would seem with nutritionism. But since India usually comes late to all trends, we’re now rapidly entering the “Western” food pattern (witness the revolution in our grocery stores). We’re certainly eating more, and more often, and more often outside home. The global food industry will be thrilled: just as one market is threatened, another one opens up.


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