Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan's follow up book to The Omnivore's Dilemma (reviewed here in four parts) provides us with some much needed guidance. After following the four food chains, he described in his previous book, the reader is left contemplating the dilemma and not quite sure what to do. Those four chains were:

1. A fast food meal
2. An Agri-biz organic meal
3. A pastoral meal from a sustainable farm
4. And a meal that was entirely hunted and gathered

None of the meals was vegetarian or vegan, however if I were a meat-eater, I'd stop and think hard before eating animal products from options 1 or 2 after reading how those animals were fed and slaughtered.

Now Pollan addresses the dilemmas he left hanging with this advice:

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

Sounds simple, but how to convince people to do that after a life time spent absorbing the typical Western diet? Pollan makes a convincing case. His new book is divided into three sections, which I will review one at a time. Today's section:

The Age of Nutritionism

How did we get from eating food to eating products that must be labeled with complete ingredients, along with amazing pseudo-scientific claims? Leading off with "An Eater's Manifesto," Pollan states:
"'re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That's what I mean by the recommendation to 'eat food,' which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims, which brings me to another, somewhat counterintuitive, piece of advice: If you're concerned about your health, you should probably avid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it's not really food, and food is what you want to eat."
The health claims began in earnest with the advent of nutrients replacing real food in the supermarkets. Product claims of low-fat, low cholestoral, vitamins added all grew out of scientific studies that were trying to discover what exactly is in food that is good for us or bad for us. In the early 1d9th century, William Prout first identified the three major constituents of food: protein, carbohydrates and fat.

Justice Von Liebig followed with his discovery of the essential chemicals for building life from the soil up the food chain: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He developed formulas for beef bouillion and the first baby formula (made of cow's milk, wheat flour , malted flour and postassium bicarbonate -- babies who drank it failed to thrive), which were not as nutritious as he expected. It wasn't until micronutrients (vitamins) were discovered in the early 20th century, that nutritional science really began to take off.

Pollan then takes us through a little-known event in 1977 that he says is responsible for the shift away from food to nutrients in the last two decades of the 20th century. The Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human needs, chaired by George McGovern (a man for whom I once voted for president). Responding to reports that the typical US diet was leading to an increase in chronic diseases, the committee prepared a document called "Dietary Goals for the United States."
"The committee learned that while coronary heart disease had soared in the US, certain other cultures that consumed traditional diets based mostly on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic diseases. Epidemiologists had also observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease had temporarily plummeted, only to leap upward once the war was over."
Based upon all that evidence, the committee issued guidelines that called for Americans to cut down on dairy and red meat. Can you guess who leaped into the fray? Why the red meat and dairy industries, of course. Senator McGovern's state of South Dakota was home to many cattle ranchers. McGovern bowed to pressure and the guidelines were re-written so that Americans were advised to "choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake." Pollan puts it in sharp language:
"...with these subtle changes in wording, a whole way of thinking about food and health underwent a momentous shift. First, notice that the stark message to eat less of a particular food--int his case meat--had been deep-sixed; don't look for it ever again in any official US Government dietary pronouncement. Say what you will about this or that food, you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it or the industry in question will have you for lunch. But there is a path around this immovable obstacle, and it was McGovern's staffers who blazed it: Speak no more of foods, only nutrients."
And so began the age of Nutritionism, in which food is broken down into components which accompanying claims:L lowfat vs saturated fat, high and low cholesterol omega 3 vs omega 6, good carbs vs bad carbs and so on. Pollan points out that the advent of low-fat products coincides with the rise of obesity and diabetes in the US.

Pollan digs in deep to the claims and the research for the various nutrients. This first section is fascinating and enlightening, and leads to a conclusion that when food became a substance filled with nutrients that are either good or bad for you, eating became a chore rather than a pleasure. References to the French way of eating are found throughout the book. The French eat food that is filled with all the wrong stuff, and yet they remain slimmer and healthier than Americans. By the end of In Defense of Food, you will be considering not only French cuisine, but French attitudes about food and its place in your life.

Tomorrow, we'll delve into Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization. It's not very pretty and it will probably make you feel queasy, rather like the typical American meal.

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