Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

In Defense of Food book discussion (chapters 1 - 5)

In Defense of FoodFor 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.


Anonymous said...

Oh I am loving this. I try to buy foods that are not processed etc as I truly believe that everything has its place. I am most concerned about the chemicals thrown at us on a daily basis. They have not be used long term in comparison to the foods man has consumed since man began. It maddens me and I feel that the consumer has been the unwitting victim of huge "experiments" over the last decades.

Anonymous said...

I think the best thing that ever happened to me was being diagnosed as hypoglycemic. Ten year ago, when my doctor first told me I was hypoglycemic, it seemed like a huge burden to have to always watch what I ate and to eat so frequently . . . But now I am grateful. Grateful! that it happened.

One of the first things I learned about how to cope with my condition is that low-fat foods are often high-sugar foods. I was told, way back then, not to eat anything I couldn't pronounce. In fact, I was encouraged to eat a whole foods diet and avoid anything processed like the plague.

Reading the first several chapters of In Defense of Food, I spent a lot of time saying , "Well, duh!" and some more time saying, "Yes, that's it exactly!"

My favorite thing about this book is how easy Pollan makes it to learn all this. I used to have to read ten books to get all the information contained in this one, and this one is easier to read! I've bought extra copies to loan out or give away.

DC said...


I don’t believe in “new and improved” food. Period. Here is the formula for corporate food production:

1. Destroy small family farms that use traditional farming practices to grow heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables.

2. Get the government to pay you (and only you) a sh*tload of money to grow genetically modified grains using fertilizers and pesticides that you manufacture.

3. Gain control of all of the grain elevators and shipping companies so that anyone who wants to compete with you won’t be able to. Also, pay off the agricultural universities to promote your way of doing things.

4. Take the genetically engineered grains and process them to the extent that there is no nutrition left. Then add a bunch of chemical preservatives so your crappy food can stay on the grocery store shelf for 5 years without spoiling.

5. Tell people there is a health crisis (which is true, because you have convinced everyone to buy your products).

6. Tell people you have the answer – super duper fortified food.

7. Set up unregulated factories in the third world to make all of your happy new vitamins and food additives.

8. Charge a premium for your products now because they are “healthier.”

9. When people get sick from eating your products, sell them drugs and dialysis machines you manufacture to get better.

10. Yipee!!! You’re F&*#ing rich!


Do I think eating large portions of foods that are high in saturated fat contributes to heart disease? Yeah, probably. Do I think the answer is to gorge ourselves on low fat Oreos, courtesy of ADM and Monsanto? Are you kidding? Eat minimally processed, organic, whole foods – mostly fruits, vegetables and grains. Your kids will thank you. Preferably, eat food you grow yourself or get through a CSA or local farmer’s market – that’s the only way we’re going to stop big agribusiness from screwing up things even more than they already have.

Lynnet said...

For people who need more information about the "lipid hypothesis", get ahold of Gary Taubes' new book "Good Calories Bad Calories" where it is all spelled out in clear and well-documented prose.

One great way to avoid all the processed cr*p is to become a locavore. No junk food, no fast food, just real food grown by people you can get to know.

Jennifer said...

What an interesting book!

I have noticed this... I try my hardest NOT to buy "fake" foods. I also make a point of buying "low-fat/low-cholesteral/etc" foods... but only naturally low ones. I tyr to buy the baked chips (not the fried in wierd things ones), the 100% Whole Wheat from a bakery bread (with less fat and more fiber than anything that tastes remotely as good from the supermarket), etc.
I constantly look at labels... and I will buy the shortest ingredient list. I don't think fake foods are better for you.

I have to say (and many would NOT agree with me) that the fake tofumeats fit in the same category.... I will NOT eat them. They have long ingredient lists, and "natural" and "artificial" flavors... plus they are FAKE! I'll eat normal tofu. NOT the fake stuff.

Every time something is processed you lose something out of it. I don't care if you try to 'add it" back in... it's never going to be the same as the original (for good or bad).

I do feel it's been "swept" away. It's NOT all about transfats... hydrogenated oils are at least as bad (and yes, usually contain transfats). Things like coconut oil are appearing in our food, "transfat" free... but OH so bad for you. Companies are plastering "transfat free" on their boxes... that contain hydrogenated oils, saturated fats up the wazoo, etc.

On omega-3 eggs... it's easy to "enhance" an egg into having more good things in it by simply FEEDING the chicken a healthy diet. So, I don't worry too much about that one.. I just buy eggs from a friend who lets them eat bugs and feeds whole grains.

I try my hardest to compare actual ntritional data... I don't like to buy processed, and so am not usually tempted by much... I have occassionally picked up a bag of something, thinking "really? Is this really good?" IN a comparison to my tried and true version, it is usually MUCH worse.

5. I DO feel that lowfat/lowcholesterol diets are worth it, and save many people's health... WHNE DONE PROPERLY. By properly, I do NOT mean eating lowfat chips with lowfat cheese, a lowfat pizza, skinless chicken breast etc.

What I mean is that if you primarily eat a diet NATURALLY low in fats and cholesterols, it's one of the healthiest ways you can eat. By naturally, I mean that the food contains what it would contain in "nature".

The "lowfat" diet that is touted by the masses of culture is NOT the one I am talking about. Theirs involves processed foods, replacement foods, etc.

Lisa Zahn said...

I am so thankful for my local food co-op for introducing me to the term "whole food" and getting me to eat real food about 12 years ago when I first started shopping there (and that was because the co-op was a beautiful, small store with wonderful employees more than anything). I took their classes, learned to eat butter not margerine, whole eggs not just whites or egg substitutes, whole oats not puffed or doughnut-shaped ones, etc.

I've felt much better particularly in the last year when I started eating an even more traditional diet, with more fat (of all types from whole foods like butter, whole milk, grassfed meats, etc.); more protein; fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut; soaked-overnight-before-cooking grains, etc. a la' Sally Fallon's book _Nourishing Traditions_. I don't take her book religiously as the only diet to follow, but it has definitely worked for me.

I have actually lost weight, had easier menstrual cycles, and felt a whole lot better (I am slightly hypoglycemic too) since eating way more fat (and that applies only to certain fats, yes) than the "diet dictocrats" and "nutritionism" scientists have been recommending.

So yes, I agree with Michael Pollan that nutritionism hasn't done us much good. We should all eat whole, real foods, local as much as possible, and listen to our own body for what it needs and feels better eating.

Thanks for doing this book! I love it!

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with all of the above. The is probably what irks me the most.
About a year ago, I heard the phrase "chemical form of estrogen". Now, I've never taken HRT's, but when I heard that "chemical form" part it all of a sudden hit me... they're not squeezing oranges and carrots into these vitamins I take every day! Somebody mixed a bunch of stuff together in a laboratory, and said, "Voila! It's just like vitamin C." But it's not! What is it? I don't know, so I won't take it.
With that epiphany, I began to wonder what's really in my food, and what am I feeding my children? I've always tried to avoid Hamburger Helper and macaroni and cheese from a box, but I now realize that that's not the only form of processed food. The fewer the ingredients, the better.
My biggest struggle is trying to convince my kids that GoGurt is not good for you, in fact, neither is Yoplait.. it has more sugar than a bar of dark chocolate. It's just like all those cheap plastic toys, they're marketing these kid friendly so called healthy foods like there's no tomorrow. And everybody else buys them for their kids. Needless to say, my children think I've gone off the deep end when it comes to what we eat. My youngest is fairly well trained, but the older two have had much more exposure to the way "normal" people eat.
I could go on and on. Just reading this post angers me, I'd hate to see what would happen if I actually read the book!

Abi said...

As a medical student, I am STEEPED in the nutritionism mindset, so it is very difficult not to immediately respond to "foods" advertising their respective additives or deficiencies. However, the more I read, learn, and eat, the more I realize that although some of the ideas might be sound (such as eating less fat), the methods that our modern society has chosen to follow those ideas is faulty. Several years ago, I was carefully rationing my intake so as to get all of the recommended minimums and none of the recommended maximums of known nutrients -- primarily via processed food. The result? Sick 3-5 times per year and constant fatigue. In the last two years, I have gotten on board with a CSA and am paying less attention to the numbers and more attention to what is essentially Pollan's main point: "eat food, not too much, mostly plants". The result? Haven't been really sick in 1.5 years (despite beginning my clinical training in hospitals this year) and having enough energy to take up jogging.

The root, from what I can see, of the problem with nutritionism is a fundamental mindset that "newer is better". Instead of respecting that the earth is a complex system of co-evolved beings, people tend to trust in human innovation instead. I think the average person would easily choose a bag of frozen berries ("high in antioxidants!" "heart healthy!") over going for a short hike through a berry patch ("what if I don't know which ones to eat?" "what does a blueberry look like on a plant?").

Thinking of nutritionism as a way of looking at the world helps considerably in modifying my own behavior. Instead of being on guard that companies would put something "bad" in my food, it really helps to realize that I need to have a different worldview entirely. Why purchase a highly engineered product that tastes like artificial flavors when I could go to the farmer's market and get one of those AMAZING sweet carrots?

~mel said...

I have long thought that we should eat food in it's most natural state. Butter as opposed to margarine. Sugar as opposed to Sweet 'n Low, etc. I don't think fake is good. And I don't agree with low-fat, low-carb, or whatever-the-rage diets. I've always been suspicious of what things are being put in the foods as replacements for the so called "bad stuff."

I think it's all about striking a healthy balance. We all know it isn't good for you to eat a whole 1/2 gallon container of ice cream in one sitting, low-fat or not. We all know we need plenty of water, not straight cola. We know we need several servings of fruits and vegetables.

We don't need a substitute for a balanced diet. There isn't one. We have to eat what is good for us if we want to be healthy. Americans just want to be able to eat crap and be healthy. It doesn't work that way.

Anonymous said...

I think I will have to read this book even though it will probably be preaching to the choir. It's amazing how many years it took me to realize the idea of eating real, whole food is the way to go. I am college-educated and have always had an interest in cooking and nutrition, yet cutting through the clutter of marketing and faux-foods took considerable effort and time. At least I can pass this understanding on to my future children so that they have a good start in life.

ruchi said...

I try not to eat too many "processed" foods, but one thing I do eat every day is my high fiber Fiber One cereal. It's non-negotiable. After six months of eating it, my cholesterol dropped 50 points and that was the only change I made in my lifestyle/diet. So while I think processed foods should be eaten sparingly, I do think there's a place for them. (To be fair my Fiber One is much less processed than most cereals.)

Julie said...

Oh, I just started this book last night. I love it. Even if you think you already know this stuff, you should read it just because Pollan is such a great writer and has a great way of articulating the issues in a concise and often funny way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I agree with almost everything you all have said so far. I've had a lifetime of very serious migraine, and I learned early on that certain foods made me feel awful, even if I didn't have a migraine. When I was growing up, on Sundays for lunch we always had hotdogs and canned pork and beans. Without fail, I always felt crummy Sunday afternoon. By the end of my 20s, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that I was going to have to eat "real" food or spend my life in a dark bedroom.

The law that required ingredients to be listed on food labels was a godsend for me, and I rarely eat things with ingredients I'm not familiar with. I love cheese and eat it nearly every day. We eat real butter, lots of different fats and oils, meat mainly from local growers and lots of whole grains and veggies. I just had the first checkup I've had in over 10 years and my cholesterol, blood pressure, etc were all normal.

Now here's another way to look at unnatural foods. As a nation, nearly all our dogs eat "dog food" out of a bag, pouch or can. Health problems in dogs are rampant and range from all kinds of allergies, epilepsy, dental problems up the wazoo and on and on. There's been a slow movement for the last few years toward feeding dogs a more natural diet. In the last couple of years it is becoming far more mainstream, and now many people who show and breed feed their dogs real food. The dog who won Best in Show at Westminster last year is a completely raw fed dog. I have a friend who is a judge, and she has always been a bit skeptical about this, but yesterday she told me she is going to start feeding her own dogs this way. She said she can no longer believe that it's coincidence when she sees in her judging how much healthier dogs who eat that way are. Not to mention they have beautiful teeth and mouths with no doggie toothpaste, yearly cleanings and so on.

One of my dogs developed terrible food allergies and eventually she could eat only an expensive dry food in which the protein has somehow been altered to avoid allergic reactions. She hated this food so much that it made all of us miserable, and I kept wondering if a real food diet would help her. Last spring, when we learned that so much dog food contained melamine (and after that, we learned that it contained much, much more, some of it even worse), I gathered up all the commercial food I had and pitched it. Since then all of my dogs have eaten nothing but real food. My old girl is now almost 17, and the difference in her health has been amazing. In just two days we noticed her eyes looked much more clear and less goopy than they had, and she was zippier (relatively speaking, lol). Now, a year later, she can eat beef and salmon, both of which caused terrible, immediate reactions in her before. While I realize human processed food isn't exactly dog food, I think there are plenty of parallels.

Jennifer said...

I read your post with interest... I have been debating the real dog food thing for a few years.
I DO think that a real food diet (whether raw or cooked) is the best thing for a dog.
In my life... it just doesn't work right now! We are vegetarian, and dogs are not. I don't really want to introduce the bacteria of real meat into our house... and we don't buy it anyway.

I compromise by feeding an organic human grade (and somewhat expensive) kibble. NOT something you can get at the grocery store. I also supplement it with real food from our table (in their bowls), yogurt, and raw bones out in the yard.

Your story is a good indicator of what a processed diet does, though... I've read it a lot. The turnaround in doggy health is usually quite spectacular. (Makes me feel guilty for my above choices, even!) Real food is so much better!

Anonymous said...

I try to stick with nonprocessed foods, but sometimes people go a little overboard.

I was looking for a homemade cornbread recipe that I could pre-measure the dry ingredients for, like Jiffy mix. I found a blogger saying "do you want to eat calcium phosphate or calcium aluminum phosphate? My recipe is just corn meal, baking powder, milk..."

Well, most baking powders are a combination of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), calcium phosphate, and calcium aluminum phosphate.

Anonymous said...

Oh I am a big fan of Michael Pollan and am looking forward to reading more of your discussion of this book.

I for one am a full fat raw milk/cream/butter/buttermilk drinking, make it from scratch eatin', fill the freezer with $300 of grassfed beef from the local farmer kinda gal.

Anonymous said...

I haven't done the reading (didn't get to the bookstore) and will have to catch up. I'm going to comment on a few things though, 'cause I just can't help myself.

Regarding chapter one, I buy my food in the least processed form possible. Haven't even bought canned tomatoes in the last year, just using what I canned and froze.

Probably the most processed things I buy are things like, baking soda, rolled oats, sugar, flour, and chocolate. I don't buy package mixes at all or many frozen pre-made foods (ice cream is hard to give up-but it's local, with mostly local ingredients).

What's kind of interesting is that once you start buying "whole foods" and local foods, there aren't many labels to read or to sway you one way or another. Not having a TV helps too :)

The substitute ingredient that amuses me the most is "artificial flavor." Good grief!

I firmly believe that there is no way that processed foods are/could be more healthy for humans than food in it's natural state.

Mindful Momma said...

The only low-fat thing I buy is dairy: 2% milk and low-fat (not non-fat) yogurt. These are things we consume a lot of and I think it's smart not to go overboard on fat. But I'm all for full fat ice cream as an occasional treat!

I'm teaching my kids to love cooking and eating whole foods and to enjoy treats in moderation. I can't wait to read this book - I'm a big Pollan fan!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm trying to have a no-spend year so I haven't bought the book. Like someone else said it's prob preaching to the converted for me but i still want to read it. Several years ago I had a stand up row with a practise nurse who was giving me a medical and telling me about healthy foods such as margarine, That was fun, she threatened to tell the doctor on me!
I encourage anyone to listen to the BBC 'Food Programme' discussion of this book:-

hope this link works

Anonymous said...

this book is the most boring book ever!!!