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, April 1, 2008

In Defense of Food book discussion (Part II: chapter 3)

In Defense of FoodThis 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.

Part II
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?

Motherlode chocolate cakeSection 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?


Burbanmom said...

I just finished this book and thought it was great. I think that it is NOT too late to change our way of eating. But it does take serious effort. Western diets are easy to buy, prepare and consume. We need to make eating whole foods a priority and dedicate the time required to shop for and prepare these meals.

Lots of people "make time" for such important activities as exercising, being social, or even watching tvs. We just need to readjust our priorities and cut out some other time suck (TV, Internet?) to allow for the preparation of our slow food.


Erin AKA Burbanmom

DC said...

I think Pollan makes a lot of good points in this section, and I pretty much agree with him.

In the quest for money, even "whole" grains and other foods have been degraded. Whole wheat flour that you buy at the store isn't nearly as good for you as fresh, stone ground flour. The most nutritious part of wheat is the wheat germ, which contains oil that breaks down rapidly once the wheat kernels are ground and exposed to oxygen. Whatever portion of the wheat germ oil that remains after the kernels go through the high speed, commercial milling process quickly loses its nutritive value. By the time whole wheat flour has sat on the shelf for even a week, many of the vitamins that were present in the original wheat kernels are gone. Grinding your own flour and using it right away is the only way (other than eating cooked or sprouted wheat berries) to preserve the full nutritional value of wheat. The whole wheat flour and bread you get at the store are still much better for you than white flour and bread, but they're not as nutritious as they could be.

Anonymous said...

I've not read the book, but I wanted to comment on the question "Do you think that it matters what food history humans have had?" Yes, I do think it matters. And not just human history in general but ethnic history as well. Native Americans will quickly get diabetes if they eat too many wheat-based carbohydrates, but not so with corn-based carbs. And they can't handle alcohol as well as europeans because they don't have the ancestral history of it. Lactose intolerance is more prevalant in the far east. Our bodies are well honed to the foods our ancestors used to eat. There is danger in any type of deviation from that diet, even if it is switching from one whole food to another (corn to wheat). So it is no wonder that chemically altered foods like trans fats, which none of our ancestors ever ate, are causing so many health problems. And I think this applies to livestock as well. Meat, milk, and eggs from pastured animals are more nutrient-dense than those fed corn+vitamins.

Deb G said...

I want to be able to say that I don't think it's too late to maintain traditional food cultures, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm afraid that eating organic, ethnic, slow foods will be something that predominately green/granola/hippies do. I think it will take a lot of education or a huge shake up in our economy to change the dominance of processed foods.

Lee said...

I think with Peak Oil will come a move to what is local and organic, and local, traditional foods will re-assert themselves through necessity.

The main concern I have is the ownership of food lines and products, and the ownership of seed and stock by GM companies. This could prove to be THE major issue of the 21st century, due to GM contamination being seen as control and GM companies via contamination having control over contaminated stock. If the various governments of the world support GM companies rather than individual non-GM farmers, things could get very ugly for the future of food.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for giving these chapter summaries, but I did read the book, and I just want to say that I think Michael Pollan is being a little too cynical. He talks about all this untrustworthy food science, but how do we know that what he's saying might be just as untrustworthy? Sorry, but I think he's a bit full of himself, the way he writes. And honestly, I know someone who started using butter instead of margarine, real sugar instead of fake, etc. and trust me, he gained a lot of weight; bad weight, and his cholesterol levels went way up. I'm not trying to say that Pollan's ideas are completely unreasonable. He does have the right idea. I just think he's a bit too extreme. Personally, I think people just need to exercise more, and eat "not too much, mostly plants".