April 1, 2009

Picking a Food Fight

Omnivore  author Michael Pollan says we focus way too much on nutrients rather than the food itself, and end up ruining our meals—and our health

By Marjorie Howard

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Those three simple rules are the distillation of Michael Pollan’s years of thinking and writing about food and its production.

“We have created the one diet that reliably makes us sick. What an achievement for a civilization,” Michael Pollan said at the Snyder President’s Lecture. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“We have a national eating disorder,” he told an overflow crowd at Cohen Auditorium as the 10th speaker in the Richard E. Snyder President’s Lecture Series. “We hunger for advice to know how to perform this human activity.”

The author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan told the audience that instead of appreciating and enjoying food, we have come to focus on individual nutrients that are often dubbed good or evil, sending us scurrying off in pursuit of one and avoidance of the other.

Pollan was good naturedly tough on his audience, which included a large number of students and faculty from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He chided the nutrition field several times. While it’s important to understand more about the chemistry of food, he said, the public doesn’t necessarily need to know about the results. At one point, to nervous laughter, he issued this comparison: “Nutritional science is fascinating,” he said, “but sort of where surgery was in 1650. It’s interesting and promising, but are you ready to get on the table?”

He described what he called “the American paradox,” namely that people are obsessed about dietary health, yet have the worst dietary health in the world. He blamed what he calls “nutritionism” for this problem and said that nutritionists contribute to the malady.

Underlying nutritionism are several premises. The first is that because nutrients are invisible, only experts can explain the hidden reality of food to us. “You need a priesthood, an intermediary. These are food experts, journalists, nutritionists. The idea that the whole point of eating is about health, when we eat means we are either advancing or ruining our health,” he said. Instead, he added, it’s important to remember there are other reasons people eat: for pleasure, a sense of community, a sense of identity and rituals.

Good and Evil … Foods

Nutritionism divides the world into good and evil, leaving us to navigate between them, Pollan said. “There is always some satanic nutrient we are trying to drive from the food supply, such as trans fat or sodium. At the same time, there is always a blessed nutrient that if we ate enough of, we would live forever, such as omega-3 fatty acids or fiber.”

Food manufacturers jump on the bandwagon of the so-called good nutrients, fortifying food with these substances whether they belong there or not, he said, so that yogurt, for example, now contains omega-3 fatty acids, which occur naturally in some nuts and fish. He predicted that the next “evil” nutrient will be omega-6 fatty acids and that consumers would soon see packaging labeled “omega-6 free.”

Nutritionism is an old idea, he said, noting that at the turn of the last century, protein was considered evil and carbohydrates good, leading to the invention of breakfast cereals. But its recent history dates to 1973, when an early regulation of the Food and Drug Administration was repealed. Under the rule, food had to be labeled “imitation” if it was not the real thing.

“Who would buy imitation cream cheese?” Pollan asked. But when the rule was changed, food producers could make low-fat or no-fat cream cheese without using cream or cheese by replacing natural ingredients with xanthan gum, carrageenan or other substances.

Four years later, in 1977, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs issued dietary guidelines, one of which was “eat less meat.” That set off a firestorm from the cattle industry, which persuaded the committee to instead say, “choose meals that will reduce your saturated fat intake.” What was at first a clear directive became murky. “We went from talking about a food that everyone recognized to talking about a nutrient; it was a fateful development,” he said.

Pollan said the low-fat campaign of the 1980s was the “crowning achievement” of nutritionism and coincided with Americans getting fatter. By focusing on one nutrient, namely fat, the food industry produced numerous products that were low or nonfat, and then people binged on carbohydrates. “As long as you avoid the evil nutrient, you can eat whatever you want,” he said.

A Marketer’s Paradise

“The food industry loves nutritionism because it’s a fantastic way to sell food,” Pollan continued. “It favors processed foods, because you can change the formation. Right now, for example, foods are bragging they are full of sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup,” he said. “An avocado cannot change its nutritional stripes, whereas processed food can change. You can now have low-carb pasta, and it would have been called imitation pasta in another time.”

Nutritionism is also a boon to agriculture, because corn and soy are the building blocks of processed food. “You can’t make money selling plain oatmeal at 89 cents a pound, but you can make money selling Cheerios and even more selling Milk ’n Cereal Honey Nut Cheerios bars.”

The Western diet “makes you sick. People who eat a lot of processed food and meat and refined grains are at risk for heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” he said. “We have created the one diet that reliably makes us sick. What an achievement for a civilization.”

Pollan said we are at a point where we must either surrender to the American diet, allowing our bodies to adapt to it, or change. So far, we are living with it by “medicalizing” its consequences, he said, namely spending money on diabetes treatments and bariatric surgery.

The Twinkie Challenge

So who can we rely on for counsel about how to eat?

Culture has taught people how to eat for eons, argued Pollan, who is collecting a series of cultural rules about food. First, he said, people need to distinguish between food and what he calls “edible food-like substances,” namely processed foods.

The second rule is, don’t eat foods whose ingredients you don’t recognize. If you went to a supermarket with your great-grandmother, he said, and picked up a box of Go-gurt portable yogurt tubes, your great-grandmother would puzzle over it, wondering, “Is it toothpaste?” She wouldn’t recognize the ingredients, since she would know yogurt is simply milk and bacterial cultures. Go-gurt includes things like tricalcium phosphate and potassium sorbate.

Third, avoid foods that make health claims. To make a health claim, he said, a food needs a big package on which to print the claims. “Really healthy foods in the store are not screaming about how healthy they are, namely the produce section.”

Finally, he said, don’t eat anything that won’t rot. Pollan owns a Twinkie that is more than two years old and is as soft and spongy as the day he bought it. “Bacteria and fungus were not interested in my Twinkie; they know something about content and are staying away.”

“It turns out what is best for health is also best for agriculture and the environment, namely real food that people can cook and eat,” Pollan said. “Our personal health is not a matter of good chemicals and bad chemicals but is linked to the entire food chain. Taking back control of food is the best thing we can do for our health and for our families.”

Watch the video of the lecture and Q&A session after the lecture. For users on Macs and older PCs, use these links to watch the lecture and the Q&A session.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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