Few books caused as much of a stir last year as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s examination of the American food production system. It exposed, among other things, the fact that Americans are eating way, way too much corn. Corn is in nearly everything at the supermarket, from the corn chips (duh!) to the meat to the walls of the building itself. The most prevalent use of corn, as some of you can no doubt guess, is high-fructose corn syrup, a sugar substitute found in nearly every kind of processed food. The effects of this diet, high in refined carbohydrates, are evident all around us. How can Americans – a people obsessed with dieting and health food – be so tragically unhealthy?
This paradox and others are the subject of Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. First published as an essay in the New York Times Magazine, In Defense of Food traces the rise of “nutritionism” – the ideology that states that the best way to understand food is as a sum of its component parts. This ideology took hold of food science sometime in the early 60s, changing how Americans thought about eating:
Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.
Nutritionism became politically useful in the 1970s, when the federal government, reacting to soaring rates of heart disease in post-WWII America, tried to tell people to eat less red meat and dairy products. Cattle ranchers took issue with this idea, and nutritionism came to their rescue. After considerable pressure from the meat and dairy industries, the government backed down. “Plain talk about actual foodstuffs – the committee had advised Americans to ‘reduce consumption of meat’ – was replaced by artful compromise: “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.’” With that one sentence, the meat and dairy industry was able to shift the blame for heart disease from a kind of food to a nutrient – saturated fat.
As Pollan points out, saturated fat was the first nutrient to be vilified, but hardly the last. Anyone who tried the Atkins diet can tell you with what low esteem most Americans held carbohydrates in the early 21st Century. For each villain nutrient, a counterpoint must exist. For every saturated fat, carbohydrate, or trans fat there is the corresponding “good” cholesterol, antioxidant, or omega 3 fatty acid of which we must certainly get more. The trouble with the science behind nutritionism is that we simply don’t know enough about how these nutrients work to properly utilize them (except in whole foods, where these nutrients exist naturally).
Take for instance nutritional supplements. For years, we’ve been told by scientists (and their journalist mouthpieces) that supplementing our diets with pills containing omega 3s or antioxidants would help us be healthier. It turns out this isn’t the case. Studies have shown that people who take supplements are healthier than the general population, but this is likely because they are the kind of people who take supplements. In other words, they are educated people who take a greater interest in their health and are therefore more likely to eat nutritious foods and exercise. The supplements themselves had no positive effects, and in some cases, they had negative ones. Beta-carotene, found naturally in several foods, including carrots, is a terrific antioxidant. On its own, as it is in a supplement, beta-carotene actually acts as a pro-oxidant and has been linked to several types of cancers.
Where does this leave the American eater? If we can’t trust those health labels in the supermarket, if the scientists and journalists don’t know for sure what causes food to be beneficial or harmful, what the heck should we do? What should we eat? Pollan spends the final part of the book answering these questions with several general guidelines of how and what to eat. These include fairly straightforward ideas, like “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves,” to other, not so obvious ideas, like “Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism.” What does he mean by that latter rule? Don’t eat anything new? Hardly. Pollan spends much of the book arguing for a return to the food culture of our great-great grandparents, who ate foods like apples, potatoes, bread, milk, eggs, rather than things like mini-bagel pizzas, Cheetos, Snackwells, etc. When Pollan suggests avoiding non-traditional foods, he’s really proscribing foods made from soy that weren’t traditionally made from soy. So tofu is okay, but soy milk might be suspect. The reasons behind this particular bit of advice are well grounded, in that soy eaten in curd form is a terrific source of protein, while other forms of soy do little other than add needless estrogen to our bodies.
In Defense of Food succeeds in offering a path to a healthier life (it’s succeeded in getting me out early every Sunday morning to hit the farmers market), but it’s far from flawless. Pollan readily acknowledges that not everyone in America can afford to eat the way that he does. One of his rules is to pay more for less food (in other words, pay for smaller quantities of higher quality food). One has to wonder how the working poor in America would react to that suggestion. Pollan’s advice is aimed at the segment of the American population that can afford to pay more for their produce and meat, but doesn’t. At times, Pollan falls into the trap of using food science to attack itself, citing one study to rebuke or debunk another. He sees the hypocrisy in this, but can never fully escape the language and assumptions inherent to the field.
Pollan acknowledges these flaws, but skirts around a greater one, in my opinion. Much of Pollan’s suggestions point towards a retreat from the modern American food production system, a system run by corporations like Cargill and Archer-Daniels-Midland. These corporations, in the interest of bottom line profits, have created a system that produces enormous quantities of poor quality food, by choosing varieties of vegetable based on yield rather than nutritional quality, by dousing those crops with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and by stuffing cattle with unnatural foods (cows were never meant to eat corn, yet most eat nothing but for the last few months of their lives) and antibiotics. This system serves no one’s best interests but those of their shareholders. The system pollutes the land (bovine flatulence produces more greenhouse gas every year than automobiles), destroys the American family farm, and, make no mistake about it, is slowly destroying our bodies. The food these companies produce is cheap, but when the secondary costs are considered, is it worth it? Pollan stops short of taking any of these companies to task, and comes nowhere near stating equivocally that the globalization of food production has actually robbed us of nutritious food. In a book that claims to be a manifesto, I expected a little more vitriol.