The first section of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, explores the process by which we shifted from talking about foods to talking about nutrients. It’s an interesting history covering the last couple of hundred years. We have repeatedly thought we’ve unlocked the secrets of animal nutrition only to discover again and again that we were sadly mistaken — usually at the cost of human lives.
We have reached a juncture where we can reduce food to its component chemical elements, but we cannot construct equivalent food from those elements. Apparently, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. One example Pollan uses is infant formula. Early attempts were disastrous, but even today our efforts cannot equal a mother’s breast milk. Now, that’s not to say that our efforts to produce a life-sustaining formula are not valuable. After all, in the past if a mother died or could not produce milk, and a wet nurse could not be quickly found, infants generally died. Nevertheless, the best formula we are able to produce remains distinctly inferior to breast milk, as study after study has demonstrated.
The central idea of nutritionism is that it is the individual nutrients that matter and thus “food” is simply a delivery mechanism and something which is no more (and might be less) than the sum of its parts. Moreover, every “good” nutrient has as its foil a “bad” nutrient. We’ve seen that battle waged again and again with an ever-changing cast of “good” and “bad” nutrients. Indeed, as the drama between butter and margarine has illustrated, nutrients and their delivery foods tend to flip-flop from bad to good and back again over time.
The primary purpose of nutritionism seems to be to place the emphasis on nutrients rather than the actual foods themselves. When that is accomplished, then even the most heavily processed foods can claim to be as healthy as unprocessed whole foods. As Michael Pollan drily notes, “How convenient.” And when you look at the history, you find processed commercial products linked to most of the past and present claims of nutritionism.
The food industry has waged an ongoing war to shape laws, regulations, and our perception of reality. One example the book provides is the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. That law required that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, for lack of a better word, an imitation. The book quotes an excerpt of that law.
“… there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk, and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting … [and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”
Our food industry lobbied for decades against that law, and though the law itself has never been changed, in 1973 they succeeded in getting the FDA to essentially undo it through regulation. And that’s truly a shame. If the buttermilk-like chemical concoctions you find on the shelves today had to label themselves as ‘imitation buttermilk’, I bet I would still be able to find the real thing more often and more easily. The same is true for a host of other foods.
Pollan walks through a number of claims nutritionism has made and the studies that have reversed those claims. He spends the most time deconstructing the “lipid hypothesis”, which is basically the claim that dietary fat is bad for you. The scientific evidence coming out now from Harvard and multiple other research centers is that there is simply no scientific support for the claims linking dietary fat to heart disease, cancer, or even body fat itself. It was an interesting idea that everyone bought into for decades, but it turns out the hypothesis never actually had any basis in reality. In fact, acting on it as though it were true appears to have adversely affected our health. Go figure.
In summary, Pollan builds a well-constructed, thoroughly sourced argument against most of the claims of “nutrition science” over the last century in this section of his book. Given that I’ve lived through the past several decades of changes in foods and the flood of nutrition claims followed by subsequent reversals of those claims, I find it a perfectly credible history. Read it for yourself and decide.