Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, 2008

It was in 2006 that I first heard the term “trans fats.” Returning to the U.S. after a four-year absence, we discovered that many food products now boasted they had “none” of something we had never before heard of. A new food baddie had been discovered, or perhaps made up. This constant turnover in nutritional buzzwords is one aspect of a wider phenomenon which Michael Pollan critiques in his book.

Pollan’s basic thesis is that the nutrient-by-nutrient approach to healthy eating has served to confuse consumers by taking nutrition out of the realm of common sense and putting it in the hands of the experts, those scientists who alone can detect the nutrients that are invisible to the naked eye. The same approach has been very profitable to the processed-food industry. If the experts say a nutrient is bad, manufacturers can find a way to remove it from their products. If the experts say a nutrient is good, it can be added to just about anything.

The problem, says Pollan, is that foods are probably greater than the sum of their parts, and certainly greater than the sum of the very limited number of nutrients that have so far been discovered. That’s why taking a supplement that contains vitamin C, vitamin A, and folic acid is not as good for you as eating a carrot. It’s a classic case of scientific reductionism. Reductionism fails again and again, but the modern dream lives on. We keep trying to use our limited knowledge of science to make foods that are better than the plant and animal foods that God causes to grow right out of the ground for us. And of course the foods we make are always much worse than the God-given foods, though sometimes it takes us decades to figure this out. So we spent a generation eating hydrogenated vegetable oils, now known as trans fats, because the experts told us that they were better for us than lard. That's right, lard. Pollan demonstrates that they're actually much worse for us. Than - I must say it again - lard. That was the biggest surprise in the book, for me.

(An interesting side note: part of the blame for Americans’ susceptibility to the notion that basic, natural foods such as meat and cheese could be unqualifiedly bad, can be laid at the door of the church. There has been a strain of asceticism that keeps popping up in the church at various times and places that mistrusts the enjoyment of food, viewing such sensual pleasure as an indulgence of people’s “animal nature.” Its roots lie in the acceptance of the ancient Greek notion that matter is evil and spirit is good. This notion, by the way, is in defiance of the Bible which teaches us that “the kingdom of heaven is not a matter of what we eat or drink” and that “God gives us all things richly to enjoy.” This mistrust of table pleasures goes way back, but it flowered in the modern age in such characters as the Seventh-Day Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, whose contributions to American food faddism Pollan briefly documents [56 – 57]. Just more proof that error in the church can have bizarre, long-term effects in the greater culture.)

Pollan closes his book with some rules of thumb that can be summarized: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” and include injunctions like “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” So: hooray for steak! Hooray for eggs and fish and chicken! Hooray for milk and yoghurt and real cheese (not “cheese food”)! And double hooray for apples and cantaloupe and peppers and tomatoes and cherries and sweet corn and mangos and squash and carrots and watermelon. And lest you think I am a food puritan, hooray for homemade cake as well.

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