This week's book club post is the fourth installment of the In Defense of Food discussion posts. Since the third chapter of Part II is so obscenely long, this discussion will encompass one chapter only. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Chapter 3: The Industrialization of Eating: What We Do Know - In this chapter, Pollan discusses the relationship of food with nature. As a species we have adapted to different environments and different foods based on its availability. One example he uses illustrates the relationship between cows and some humans who have the ability to digest cow's milk beyond weaning age that occurred about five thousand years ago. This provided a nutritional benefit for those who possessed the gene to digest the milk as it provided a "terrifically nutritious new food source" and was beneficial to the cows as it created a symbiotic relationship with humans.
The relationship between plant foods and the animals that eat them are complex as the plants are dependent on the spreading of seeds to proliferate. In turn, animals learn what foods are suitable based on color, taste and smell of ripeness. Detecting these signals is a whole lot easier when you have developed a relationship with a food over many years. It becomes a lot harder when manufactured foods are available that mimic "real" food with artificial flavors and synthetic sweeteners because the relationship was originally between the eater and whole foods, not with nutrients or chemicals.
Do you think that it matters what food history humans have had? Is there really a difference between foods grown in nature or ones created in a lab if they have the same nutritional components and values (protein, carbohydrates, fats, etc.)? Do the sci-fi fantasies of taking a pill for all your nutritional needs ever seem plausible given the information you've read?
Section 1. From Whole Foods to Refined - Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, refined foods have been de rigueur. They imparted not only more prestige (due to the expense), but better digestibility and a shelf-life heretofore unseen. Flour and rice could now be stored for months and shipped over long distances. The drawback is that, with the removal of fiber among other things, the conversion to glucose was quickened when digested. The other problem with these gorgeous white powders and grains was that they were nutritionally worthless. They merely provided a quick energy rush in the form of calories, but not much else.
After reading this section are you more inclined to seek out and purchase brown rice and whole wheat flour over white? Or do you already do so?
Section 2. From Complexity to Simplicity - With the advent of chemical fertilizers, modern foods have been grown on a distillation of a few major macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium aka NPK) and little else. As a result, produce grown in this environment has lost some of its nutritional components.
Why is this so? Well, for one, harsh chemical fertilizers depress or destroy the natural biological activity of the soil (microbes, earthworms and fungi), leaving the plants to subsist largely on a simple ration of NPK. This chemical diet also leaves the plants susceptible to pests and disease. The addition of pesticides affects the quality of the plant as well. The tendency of modern plant breeding has consistently selected for industrial characteristics (such as yield or ability to transport) over nutritional quality. Additionally, plants grow considerably quicker under chemical fertilizers and are unable to uptake as many nutrients in such a short period of time.
Another issue is the rise of monoculture farming. Roughly two-thirds of the calories we eat come from four crops: soy, corn, wheat and rice. This is an issue because humans, as omnivores, require somewhere between fifty and one hundred different chemical compounds and elements in order to be healthy and it's unlikely we are getting all of them from such a limited diet.
Were you aware that so much of your diet is a product of soy and corn? Will you pay more attention to your food choices in trying to achieve a balanced diet?
Section 3. From Quality to Quantity - Our food system is at the point where the focus is on increasing yields and selling food as cheaply as possible. With the rise of "super-sized" meals, enormous portions and restaurants such as Claim Jumper that pride themselves on food gigantism, it's no wonder Americans are getting heavier. (For example, Claim Jumper's Ore Cart, I Declair and Chocolate Motherlode Cake are all obscenities of consumption.) Add in the fact that our food has less nutrition per calorie, one needs to eat more in order to gain the proper amount of nutrients. As a result, people on a Western diet are overweight and malnourished.
When buying food or meal-planning, do you take into consideration the nutritional components of the food you eat or do you think of it in terms of the food pyramid? Will you focus on getting a wider range of fruits and vegetables in your diet and will you choose organic foods to help supply those missing nutrients?
Section 4. From Leaves to Seeds - This section goes into great detail regarding the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids versus the potentially harmful effects of omega-6s. I won't reiterate it as there's a lot of information there, but suffice it to say that we are eating more seeds and less leaves and, as a result, we aren't getting enough omega-3s. A growing number of researchers believe that the Western diet is grossly deficient in omega-3s.
Section 5. From Food Culture to Food Science - The gist of this section is the fact that industrialization of food (i.e. the Western diet) is systematically and deliberately undermining traditional food cultures everywhere.
Do you think it's too late to maintain traditional food cultures or is the draw of the novelty and glamour of the Western diet too hard to resist with its emphasis on sugars and fats?