For those of you in shock, I mean shocked!... I'm starting another book club today, inspired by Project Nowaste and our issues with food - both in eating it and throwing it out. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is a follow-up book of sorts to The Omnivore's Dilemma.
It's a slim little number with quick chapters so I'll be cruising along through some of the (three page long) chapters with nary a comment.
Chapter 1. From Foods to Nutrients: This first chapter discusses how, in the last 25 years, supermarkets have been stocking not so much "food" (like eggs, butter, bread), but food substitutes like egg-beaters, margarine and low-carb bread. Most of these food substitutes advertise their merits of having no cholesterol or saturated fats and high fiber or whatever is popular at the moment. Instead of buying foods with a short ingredient list we are now bombarded by a laundry list of chemicals, additives and replacements.
For example, mayonnaise should contain egg yolks and oil. (One of these days I'll show you how to make your own.) But the "healthy" version will contain something along the lines of modified corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, vitamin E, vitamin K, beta-carotene, etc.
The focus over the years has been on what's not there as well as what's been added for your health - phytonutrients, vitamins, and the like.
When you go shopping for food, do you make a point of buying low-fat, low-cholesterol or high fiber foods? If so, do you look at the ingredient list to see how this is achieved? Do you think it's better for you to eat these more "nutritious" foods than the original versions?
If you do look at the ingredient list, do you avoid those with the huge ingredient list of substitutes and just go for the originals?
Chapter 2. Nutritionism Defined: The concept of nutritionism is the idea that foods are essentially broken down into what nutrients are in it: fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The problem with this sort of thinking is that there are myriad elements in food that we do not understand. And by this I mean that scientists do not know exactly what they do or do not do. An example is breastmilk - a more complex food, sure, but equally difficult to ascertain how each component functions on a growing brain and body.
The big issue with nutritionism is that if we believe we can break food down into the sum of its parts, then it's easy to believe that processed foods can be even "healthier" for you than the whole foods strictly based on the fact that it has the appropriate quantities of some nutrients, even if we do not fully understand what some of the other elements (phytochemicals, etc.) do for us.
Do you believe that processed foods can be just as good, if not better than the whole foods they are substituting?
Chapter 3. Nutritionism Comes to Market: The first important synthetic food to hit the market was margarine, which started out in the 19th century as a cheap and inferior substitute for butter. During the 1950s, when the concept that saturated fat and cholesterol caused heart disease (called, in the book, the lipid hypothesis) hit its stride, manufacturers lept on the opportunity to market margarine as the "smarter" butter. The bad nutrients were removed (cholesterol and saturated fats) and replaced with the good ones (polyunsaturated fats and vitamins). Of course, we all now know that transfats are a killer, yet margarines have managed to be reinvented and carry on (Now Transfat Free!) as if nothing happened.
In 1938, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict labelling of "imitation" products. That was tossed out in 1973, thereby opening the doors for all manner of fake, low-fat products. As long as the new product was considered to be nutritionally equivalent to the original, it was no longer considered fake.
What's your impression of the whole trans-fats debacle? Do you feel like it was just swept under the rug and that no one really fessed up to the fact that the pushing of the lipid hypothesis potentially did way more harm than good? Do you feel safe from having this happen again or do you think that manufacturers and food scientists are just carrying on with business as usual - trying to sell enhanced products without much merit?
Chapter 4. Food Science's Golden Age: Starting with oat bran in the 1980's and continuing with omega-3 enhanced eggs, lean pork (aka "the other white meat"), low-carb pasta and the like, foods that could be manipulated to have a different nutrient profile were winning the marketing game. The poor banana, avocado and other whole foods that can't change their nutritional stripes can't compete against fantastical health claims like "whole grain goodness" being sported on boxes of Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs.
Do you get drawn into the marketing on boxes at the supermarket? Do you choose the one with splashy nutritional advertising when comparing two products? Or do you look at the actual quantities, for example of whole grains per serving, when comparing items?
Chapter 5. The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis: The gist of this chapter can really only be summed up with a direct quote or two:
"The most important nutrition campaign has been the thirty-year effort to reform the food supply and our eating habits in light of the lipid hypothesis - the idea that dietary fat is responsible for chronic disease. At the behest of government panels, nutrition scientists, and public health officials, we have dramatically changed the way we eat and the way we think about food, in what stands as the biggest experiment in applied nutrition in history. Thirty years later, we have good reason to believe that putting the nutritionists in charge of the menu and the kitchen has not only ruined an untold number of meals, but also has done little for our health, except very possibly to make it worse."
"At this point you are probably saying to yourself, Hold on just a minute. Are you really saying the whole low-fat deal was bogus? But my supermarket is still packed with low-fat this and no-cholesterol that! My doctor is still on me about my cholesterol and telling me to switch to low-fat everything."
What do you think about this? Do you feel there is merit in the lipid hypothesis - that low-fat, low-cholesterol diets are heart healthy? Or do you think it's just a nutritional philosophy that took on its own life and now can't be expunged from the culture of nutrition?
That's a lot to take in, for sure. Some scientists argue that there was little scientific basis to back the lipid hypothesis even back in the 70's. The next few chapters get more into the heart of the matter. Ha ha.