Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Eat Food

Regular readers might recall my going on about Food Rules, Michael Pollan's pithy follow-up to In Defense of Food. Now I've gone ahead and read that book, subtitled “An Eater's Manifesto.” So should you, if you are concerned at all about food.

And you ought to be, you know. Concerned. We're living in an age when going to the market means filling our carts with the products of food science. The first two words of Pollan's famous dictum, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is no joke. Most of what we feed ourselves with today is not food but “edible foodlike substances.”

Mankind has been eating animals and plants for millennia. Only in the last few years have we begun eating products that are made in plants. What is this vast experiment in the way we eat doing to us? We are beset with obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Scientists tells us that a child born today has a one in three chance of getting a diagnosis of diabetes sometime in his life.

Who is to blame for all this? Business, of course, is one villain. So is food science in the employ of that business. Government, in it's efforts to do something for us, as usual, does something to us. Surprisingly, one of Pollan's biggest villains is nutritional science.

At first I had trouble with this. Yes, I could see that scientific errors, hubris, and bad communication had caused many problems, but Pollan's condemnation of what is he prefers to call “nutritionism” seemed off. Surely it is good to know about vitamins, fiber, and such.

But as I read I began to understand what Pollan was driving at. Science is a reductionist discipline. It has a tendency to look at the bits and pieces of something, see what they do and how they work together. The problem is that food is a complex subject. We don't yet really understand all the dynamics of the interaction between the complex things we put on our plates and the complex beings that do the eating. But nutrition science learns something about a part of our food and goes from there. The classic example is the “lipid hypothesis.” You know it as the concept that fat in our food is bad for us. Fat is to be avoided. Science said so. So now there are low-fat versions of everything. They're more chemical than food, but the label says it is good for us because it is low-fat. Problem is, it turns out that there really isn't much evidence, all these years later, that fat in food is all that bad. Sure, overindulging in anything isn't the best idea, but fat is an essential part of our system. It makes your brain work, for one thing. But fat was the enemy, so it had to come out of the foods that we had been eating. Pigs were bred so that they'd be less fatty (and less tasty). And butter was right out. My parents always had margarine on the table. No unhealthy butter for us. There was overwhelming scientific consensus (how we love that phrase) that this new miracle of food science, margarine, was good, and butter, which was higher in fat, was bad. Margarine had some fat, but not as much, because it was made with a wonderful new invention called trans fat. I think you know how that worked out for us.

In fact, since nutritionism took over from traditional cuisine American waistlines have increased as have our medical bills.

Perhaps you are still diligently searching the grocery aisles for chemically jiggered low-fat versions of your favorite foods. You haven't heard that scientific consensus has shifted away from it? Why do you suppose that public health officials have been slow to correct themselves? What are they afraid of? Pollan suggests that they are afraid that “we'll come to the unavoidable conclusion that the emperors of nutrition have no clothes and never listen to them again.”

More than an attack on food science, In Defense of Food is a call for mindfulness about how and what we eat. It is a reminder that the brightly colored packages in the middle of the grocery store may contain attractive and tasty products, but they are not really food and they are probably not very good for us. It is a call for a return to a more traditional diet with foods that have been traditionally grown, not manufactured in a factory or doused in chemicals, injected with hormones, or otherwise “improved” to make them more profitable. It is a Glenn Guaranteed Good Read and as long as you plan to eat in America, an important one.

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