In Defense of Food

2008-03-02

in Books and literature, Economics, Science, Writing

No parking sign

Having recently read and enjoyed Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his newer book caught my eye this morning. I had seen a review contrasting it negatively with his prior work, but decided to take the plunge anyhow. I am glad I did. While there is less value added in terms of general knowledge, it is a much more practical guide to how the realities of contemporary food production affect the choices of conscientious modern omnivores.

The book does an excellent job of combining a good breadth of consideration with the production of manageable advice. Opening with “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” it elaborates those simple sentiments into a pretty good set of suggestions. Critically, ‘food’ refers only to things that would be recognized as such by people from a few hundred years ago. After going through the decidedly unnatural list of ingredients for a loaf of bread, Pollan declares that:

Sorry, Sara Lee, but your Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread is not food and if not for the indulgence of the FDA [in not longer requiring the use of the word ‘imitation’] could not even be labelled “bread.”

Pollan does an excellent job of critiquing food science and the ‘nutritionism’ that reduces the complex chemistry of food and eating to simple affirmation or condemnation of individual chemicals and chemical classes, such as saturated fats. He provides a compelling description of the nature and evolution of the Western Diet, as well as the societal and economic reasons for its emergence and the health consequences that emerge from it.

In addition to discussing what to eat, Pollan provides some good tips on how. Basically, he suggests that people return to forms of eating more rooted in culture. Constant snacking, eating alone, and consuming massive portions are problematic even if the foodstuffs in question are relatively good. He also endorses gardening and cooking from scratch as ways of weeding out non-foods while also gaining more appreciation for the relationships involved in growth and eating.

Pollan provides a list of 24 bits of concise (and sometimes counterintuitive) advice. He provides some good tips on where and how to shop (avoid the centre of supermarkets – stick to the unprocessed foods at the edges). I was particularly delighted to learn about the strong case for how a glass of wine with dinner can do a fair bit to promote cardiovascular health. Since reading his previous book, I had already made some pretty significant dietary changes. Barring the occasional pot of Knorr soup, I have eaten virtually nothing that wasn’t “food” as he defines it. I have also been thinking a lot more about what I eat, where it comes from, how I prepare it, and so forth. Overall, the process has been meaningful and enjoyable.

It is pretty rare for me to buy a book and read it though in a day. The fact that I did with this one demonstrates both how engaging and accessible it is. For those wanting some sound dietary advice, rather than a more extensive discussion of the nature of various food systems, this book is well worth examining. I am planning to foist my copy onto as many people as possible.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

tristan March 2, 2008 at 8:56 pm

“I have eaten virtually nothing that wasn’t “food” as he defines it. I have also been thinking a lot more about what I eat, where it comes from, how I prepare it, and so forth. Overall, the process has been meaningful and enjoyable.”

This makes me glad.

tristan March 2, 2008 at 9:02 pm

That might have come out wrong. What makes me glad is that you are thinking about changing what you eat.

AT March 3, 2008 at 6:12 pm
. April 11, 2008 at 7:52 pm
. May 6, 2008 at 9:29 am

Explaining food vs. nutrition: Michael Pollan talks at Google

By Cory Doctorow on Video

Avi sez, “Michael Pollan gives his most practical lecture yet @ Google. Pollan’s 12 heuristics have been most helpful during my year shopping for veggies at Berkley Bowl:) I grew up buying fresh produce at atmospheric places like this in Mumbai and do fervently hope that vivacious local markets trump impersonal food-processing corporations.”

. March 10, 2009 at 9:14 pm

FDA Approves Salmonella

March 10, 2009 | Issue 45•11

WASHINGTON—Calling it “perfectly safe for the most part,” and “not nearly as destructive or fatal as previously thought,” the Food and Drug Administration approved the enterobacteria salmonella for human consumption this week.

The federal agency, which has struggled in recent years to contain the food-borne pathogen, and repeatedly failed to prevent tainted products from reaching store shelves, announced Monday that salmonella was now completely okay for all Americans to enjoy.

“Rigorous testing has shown that salmonella is…fine,” FDA director of food safety Stephen Sundlof said. “In fact, our research indicates that there’s no need to pull any more foodstuffs from the market. Not raw chicken. Not contaminated spinach. Not thousands of jars of harmful peanut butter. Not anything.”

Magictofu March 10, 2009 at 11:11 pm

You should at least point out that it comes from the Onion!

I thought for a second that the FDA was relaxing its rules on salmonella.

. March 11, 2009 at 10:50 am

The fiber in Cocoa Pebbles comes from a little-known ingredient called polydextrose, which is synthesized from glucose and sorbitol, a low-calorie carbohydrate. Polydextrose is one of several newfangled fiber additives (including inulin and maltodextrin) showing up in dairy and baked-goods products that previously had little to no fiber. Recent FDA approvals have given manufacturers a green light to add polydextrose to a much broader range of products than previously permitted, allowing food companies to entice health-conscious consumers who normally crinkle their noses at high-fiber products due to the coarse and bitter taste of the old-fashioned roughage. These fiber additives serve dual purposes—they can serve as bulking agents to make reduced-calorie products taste better, such as the case with Breyers fat-free ice cream, and carry an added appeal to consumers by showing up as dietary fiber on food labels.

. March 11, 2009 at 10:55 am

“But you wouldn’t know that from the FDA-approved food labels, which don’t distinguish between dietary and functional fiber. The FDA allows polydextrose to be labeled as a dietary fiber, just the same as whole oats. The same polydextrose products in Canada, which has tighter classification regulations, wouldn’t show the fiber content because Health Canada doesn’t consider polydextrose to be a dietary fiber. Naturally, food manufacturers in America are taking advantage of this loophole—to the distress of nutrition watchdog groups.”

. November 6, 2009 at 1:57 pm

THE best ways to get enough “good” (ie, long-chain) omega-3 oils are either to eat lots of oily fish or to take, every day, supplements that contain at least 500mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or both (though some studies have suggested as much as 1,100mg a day is better). Products that contain short-chain omega-3s, such as alpha-linolenic acid from plant oils like flax-seed oil, have not been linked with the strong health benefits shown by fish oils.

Having got enough long-chain oils, though, it is important to let them do their work. That means reducing consumption of omega-6 oils—those found in maize, sunflower, olive and most other seed oils. Many people have turned to these seed oils as a way of reducing their intake of saturated fats, but omega-6 fatty acids compete in the body with omega-3s, since the two have similar chemical properties. The best dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is reckoned to be less than 4:1. In Western diets, it is typically more like 10:1. The message, then, is: eat less fat and get more of it from fish. And those who buy omega-3 supplements that also contain omega-6s are probably wasting their money.

. November 9, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Regulating health food
The proof of the pudding

Oct 29th 2009
From The Economist print edition
If food companies want to claim that their products have health benefits, they must provide solid evidence

The industry’s claim that greater scrutiny will kill innovation is off the mark. Those firms making misleading claims will suffer; those prepared to invest in proper scientific studies to back up their supposed breakthroughs will benefit. And in pharmaceuticals, smaller firms seem to be more innovative than bigger ones. If food companies wish to make the sorts of claims about their products that pharmaceutical companies do, they must be prepared to submit to similar scrutiny. Extraordinary claims, after all, require extraordinary evidence.

. August 10, 2010 at 12:14 pm

“In a staggering feat of twisted logic, lawyers for Coca-Cola are defending the lawsuit by asserting that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”

Does this mean that you’d have to be an unreasonable person to think that a product named “vitaminwater,” a product that has been heavily and aggressively marketed as a healthy beverage, actually had health benefits?”

. August 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

“I still can’t get over the bizarre audacity of Coke’s legal case. Forced to defend themselves in court, they are acknowledging that vitaminwater isn’t a healthy product. But they are arguing that advertising it as such isn’t false advertising, because no could possibly believe such a ridiculous claim.

I guess that’s why they spend hundreds of millions of dollars advertising the product, saying it will keep you “healthy as a horse,” and will bring about a “healthy state of physical and mental well-being.” “

. August 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm

“Few of the companies that sell processed foods or drinks want the public to know that outside laboratories supply them with flavors. Even after Snapple’s founders admitted to me that, more than twenty years ago, a Brooklyn-based company named Virginia Dare had designed the flavors for a line of sodas that Snapple has long since discontinued, people at Virginia Dare refused to discuss the matter.

Such secrecy helps shape the story of our food. It encourages consumers to think of processed foods as fully formed objects, rather than as assemblages of disparate components. It treats a brand as sacrosanct. (This is not the case in all industries: Dell openly acknowledges that the processors for its computers come from Intel.)”

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