In Defense Of Food 3 – Getting Over Nutritionism

Posted: April 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In Defense Of Food | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The final section of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, focuses on ways we can escape the Western diet. That’s not as easily done as said, and even a few decades ago it would not have been possible for most of us. As the book has explored, we also can’t achieve a desired result by focusing on the nutritional content of the food we eat. The science, such as it is, is constantly shifting and often contradictory. The lipid hypothesis tells us that fats are bad. The carbohydrates theory says that carbs are the problem. Other research indicates much of our problem lies in an omega-3 deficiency. And if the past is any indication, there are always more theories, studies, and ideas in our future. Therefore Pollan’s thesis is a much simpler one. Stopping trying to tweak and adjust our present diet. If we want to improve our health, stop eating a Western diet.

However, that’s not necessarily easy to do. Since even our whole foods are suspect and processed foods are in every niche, it can be hard to know what to eat and what not to eat. Most of us have little or no culture of food to guide us. We’ve never known anything but the Western diet. So in this section, Pollan provides some simple and thoroughly unscientific guidelines. They don’t say much about specific foods, nutrients, or calories. Instead, the rules he offers are simple ones that most people should be able to use to guide their food choices and which should then lead us to make healthier food choices no matter what specific foods we choose to eat.

Pollan begins with his first rule: Eat food. And by food, he basically means something that your great-grandmother (or in my case probably my great-great-grandmother) would have recognized as food. Imagine her walking down the aisles of a modern supermarket. Would she have even known if that package of Go-Gurt was food or maybe thought it might be toothpaste? Trust me, reading the ingredient list on it wouldn’t have helped her figure that one out. When discussing Twinkies, Pollan adds another rule you might want to consider adopting. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting. I got a chuckle out of that one, but there’s some truth to it. If even bacteria don’t want it, why should I?

Pollan notes that we have long processed foods to extend their “shelf life” through smoking, canning, pickling, fermenting, salt curing, etc. However, modern processed foods are not processed merely to extend the time they can be stored. Rather, they are designed to sell us more food by pushing the buttons of our inborn preferences for sweetness, fat, and salt. Those are all attributes which are difficult to find in nature, but which are cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy. (That point reminds me of another book on my reading list, The End of Overeating.)

However, there are some products that would look familiar to my great-great-grandmother, but which would really be fooling her. I would use the example I’ve been using of buttermilk. Pollan uses the example of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. It looks like bread, but when you look at the ingredient list, it’s an incredible processed bread-like substance. So he extends the first rule with this somewhat more elaborate one.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.

Pollan points out that none of those criteria are necessarily bad in and of themselves. However, he has found them to be good guides to the sort of processed food that forms the basis of the western diet. And they are guidelines that are at once simple and easy to remember.

His next rule follows in that vein. Avoid food products that make health claims. Don’t waste your time trying to understand or evaluate the claim. Just recognize it as a marketing ploy. And when a food is packaged in such a way that a health claim is prominent, it’s probably a highly processed food. In today’s world, the FDA allows corn oil, chips, and sugary breakfast cereals all boast that, at least in some “qualified” sense, they are good for your heart.

From that, he develops two corollary rules. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. If you’ve noticed, the whole foods tend to be along the outside of the supermarket while the more profitable processed food tends to be concentrated in the aisles in the middle. While that’s not absolutely true, of course, the more you stick to the edges, the less of the other sort of food you’ll see to tempt you.

And that leads, of course, to the next corollary. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Go to local farmer’s markets. Participate in community-sponsored agriculture. Grow your own food in small gardens. The closer you can get to the source of your food, the more likely it is that you will be eating food.

Pollan notes that as long we just eat food as defined above most of the time, we’ll probably be fine. If the incredible diversity of traditional human diets around the globe teaches us anything, it’s that human beings can survive and thrive with just about any sort of diet other than the Western diet. We are true omnivores. In fact, it took an incredible amount of technological innovation to produce a diet that seems to be incapable of sustaining us.

However, Pollan does note that the diets human beings seem to thrive the most on consist mostly of plants, especially leaves. Scientists disagree on why that’s the case, but the beauty of eating food as opposed to nutrients is that we don’t really have to understand why. And he further notes that eating meat in the massive quantities that Americans do, especially industrialized, grain-fed meat, is probably not very good for us. It would be better to eat smaller amounts of more expensive meat from animals that have been fed traditional diets of mostly leaves for their entire lives (especially ruminants like cows and sheep). Similarly, try to eat well-grown food from healthy soils.

I like his rule about eating more like the French. Or the Italians. Or the Japanese. Or the Indians. Or the Greeks. In other words, approach a culture of food as a culture. Don’t try to reduce it to something you can lift out of the overarching culture of food, food preparation, and dining. Rather, enter in and embrace the whole culture of food. You’ll get at least some of the benefits as a result, even if you don’t know why.

Finally, he suggests again that we pay more and eat less. We pay less than most other developed nations for our food and we get less benefit from it. Eat meals. Don’t consider food simply fuel for the body we must consume as we rush to do other things. Approach food within the context and culture of meals. Every cuisine that has a reputation for health comes embedded in a rich culture of dining. It might not just be the food, but also the manner and context in which we eat it. I think that point is one we should all take seriously.

It’s a relatively short book, but Michael Pollan develops and presents his case well. I certainly agree with many of his points and the entire book is very well sourced. I definitely would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone I know.


In Defense Of Food 2 – The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization

Posted: March 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In Defense Of Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The second section of Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, shifts from nutritionism to the factors involved in the development of what we tend to call the “Western Diet” and the impact of that diet on our overall health. In the section, Pollan explores some of the well-documented studies both of the negative impact the Western diet has on aboriginals and others when they are first exposed to it and on the health improvements when people return to their traditional diet. Those of us who have lived with the Western diet now for multiple generations have adapted slightly — at least our tolerance for it seems to be greater. But we do develop many of the same health issues over the course of our lives. The “food” (using the term loosely) we eat is killing us, even if it’s not killing us a quickly as it does groups who are newly exposed to it.

The book explores a number of trends that led to the modern Western diet. The first of these trends was the shift from whole foods to refined. The roller-milling revolution around 1870 was the first huge leap forward in this trend and we have since forgotten the epidemics of pellagra and beriberi caused by vitamin deficiencies that resulted from it. In short, refined foods of all sorts deliver glucose to the system faster than whole foods. Our brains like that since glucose is what fuels them. But we are drowning ourselves now in a flood of glucose and in the marriage of glucose and fructose we call sucrose. Moreover, when you refine something, you are always taking something out of it.

The next trend has been the shift from complexity to simplicity in our food chain. Agricultural industrialization, for instance, has focused on the big three macronutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) — while largely ignoring the importance of biological activity in the soil. That has forced crops to live essentially on the three macronutrients alone in chemically enhanced and sometimes almost sterile soil. Chemically simplified soil produces chemically simplified plants. The process of refining also often involves simplification. In the case above of white flour, we removed the germ, simplifying the result, but at the cost of vitamins we needed. We can then try to add them back into the refined product, which is what we do with enriched flour, but we can only try to put back in what we realize we are now missing. Moreover, we often don’t know how. Destroying complexity is a lot easier than creating it.

We have also shifted from quality to quantity. As we have specifically bred for plant species that produce more, we have reduced the nutritional value of the whole food itself. One example Pollan gives is that you would have to eat three modern apples to get the same amount of iron you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple. Even when we do eat whole foods, we’re getting substantially less nutrition per calorie than we used to. It’s not just a result of selective breeding, but also of the way we produce the food. Food grown in the aforementioned chemically simplified soil grows larger faster, but also has less time to absorb nutrients from the soil (and the soil itself contains fewer that the crops can absorb.) We’ve done much the same thing to our meat and dairy animals. We have bred for quantity over quality and by feeding them nutritionally deficient diets combined with growth hormones and antibiotics we further reduce the nutritional content.

Next, we have shifted the core of our diet from leaves to seeds. The small handful of plants that now make up the bulk of our diet (wheat, corn, soy, and rice) are all seeds rather than leaves. In an industrialized, highly processed food world, there’s good reason for that. Seeds are much more durable and longer lasting than leaves. They can be stored for long periods of time, which means they can function as a commodities as well as food. Since we have shifted our diets and the diets of our food animals from leaves to seeds, one of the effects has been a dramatic shift in the balance of omegas-3s and omega-6s in our body. We don’t yet fully know why that is as bad for us as it has proven to be, but there’s not much doubt that it has been a pretty negative shift with some dramatic health consequences. And that is just one documented result.

Finally, we have shifted from food culture to food science. Throughout the history of mankind, we have typically relied on national, ethnic, or regional cultures for guidance on what and how to eat. Both of those appear to have been much more important than we credited. I like Pollan’s way of relating “food culture” as another word for “mom” — that is, the figure who normally has passed along the food knowledge of the group. We now rely on “food science” to guide us in our food choices (with 17,000 new products introduced each year), but that “science” has been remarkably flawed over the years for a variety of reasons. Instead of doing something to recover a healthy culture of food, we are developing new “health care” industries to deal with the fallout of our poor diets.

Most of the profit driving our food industries, though, lies in the heavily processed and industrially grown foods. You can quickly develop a new or reformulated processed food to follow every trend and fad. But you can’t change a carrot into something else overnight.


In Defense Of Food 1 – The Age of Nutritionism

Posted: March 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In Defense Of Food | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.


In Defense Of Food 0 – Introductory Thoughts

Posted: March 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, In Defense Of Food | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on In Defense Of Food 0 – Introductory Thoughts

Last week I read Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto. It’s quite well written and thoroughly sourced. He’s a journalist, not a scientist, but he is an academic as well and certainly able to document and defend his ideas. I plan to devote a post reviewing each of the three sections of his book. Pollan’s basic premise is actually simple and he unveils it immediately in the introduction.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done in the United States today. The first two sections explore why it has become so difficult and the last section explores ways to overcome those difficulties. If more of us begin to “vote” with our wallets, we may begin to have a real impact.

For the past year, since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve had to actually read and analyze the full ingredient list on absolutely everything (other than fresh produce)  before I eat it. I already knew that some common things were actually imitations, of course. For example, I’ve loved buttermilk my whole life. And it’s next to impossible to actually buy real buttermilk anywhere. Read the label on the “buttermilk” in the store next time you go shopping. Odds are it’s not actually buttermilk at all, but rather a chemical concoction designed to emulate the taste and texture of buttermilk. However, I didn’t realize until I began reading all labels just how little of our food is actually the food itself and how much is a processed imitation. That heavy whipping cream? Probably not real cream or at least not just cream. Those potato chips? You won’t find more than a few that are really just sliced, fried, and salted potatoes. Check that butter to see if it’s really just butter. Most of what is sold as “yogurt” is a lot more than milk with bacterial cultures. I even have to watch out for supposedly “raw” meat. It sometimes comes with a list of ingredients as well.

I’m not the sort of person who was blithely unaware of the health implications of processed foods. I grew up in a family that frequented health food stores and subscribed to Mother Earth News back in the 70s. My parents gardened so much that I was sick of it by the time I became an adult. We had a yogurt maker to make our own yogurt from scratch. My father co-authored an Indian cookbook and began teaching me how to cook (and letting me experiment) by the time I was in 5th grade. I’ve been somewhat aware of food and environmental concerns my whole life and have been partially engaged. I have friends with various sorts of food allergies and sensitivities and know their struggles. Even given all that background, I’ve been surprised this past year by just how difficult it is today to find real food.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the Internet allows me to research each individual chemical ingredient and additive so I haven’t had to completely eliminate such things from my diet simply because I had no idea what it was. But I feel like cheering anytime I  find a short ingredient list with normal things in it that I recognize without online research. I find that I buy more from non-US companies.

Tasty Bites is a good example of one such company. In order to illustrate my point, let’s take a simple product like unflavored rice. Here is Tasty Bites microwaveable basmati rice. Look at the ingredients. There are three of them: water, basmati rice, and sunflower oil. That’s it. Short, simple, and easy to decipher. Compare that to the ingredients in Uncle Ben’s Basmati Ready Rice product (one of the shortest ingredient lists of all the Ready Rice products): WATER; BASMATI RICE; CANOLA OIL AND/OR SUNFLOWER OIL; SOY LECHITHIN; NIACIN; IRON (FERRIC ORTHOPHOSPHATE); THIAMINE (THIAMINE MONONITRATE); FOLATE (FOLIC ACID). I happen to know that most of that list represents an attempt to add “nutrients” into the processed rice. But I think it illustrates the point. Moreover, the Tasty Bites rice, simple as it is, tastes better than Uncle Ben’s processed rice product.

Or let’s look at a more complicated Tasty Bites product, their Zesty Lentils & Peas. Here is its ingredient list: Water, Bengal Lentils, Green Peas, Yellow Peas, Red Pepper, Coriander, Sunflower Oil, Sugar, Garlic, Salt, Pepper, Cumin, Chilies. It’s a longer list, but every single one of those ingredients is easily recognizable. Moreover, they are all food, not chemical additives or heavily processed food-like substances. Tasty Bites is just one example company, but it illustrates the lie that packaged foods require a preservative chemical bath. It’s a lie that too many of us have swallowed without question and authors like Michael Pollan are beginning to expose it.