When Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma, named his new book In Defense of Food, a lot of people were left scratching their heads. Who needs a book defending food, of all things? Isn't food... well... food? Not nowadays, according to Pollan and others in the know. Whole foods, natural and unchanged, fed humankind for thousands of years, but sometime in the middle of the last century, food began to morph into something best described as "not really food." They have become highly processed and void of the nutrients that we so desperately need. There are also the genetically modified Frankenfoods that are taking over the food industry by storm. Pollan points out that few of our grandmothers -- and likely none of our great-grandmothers -- would recognize many of the so-called foods people feed their families today.
Who takes the blame? The food industry, to no one's surprise... but interestingly, Pollan jabs his journalistic finger at another group too -- one that is a bit more unexpected: researchers in the science of nutrition, a field he refers to as "nutritionism." Their work has shifted the focus from food itself to the elements of what is in that food. Studies continue to break down foods, such as broccoli and blueberries, into specific nutrients -- for example, their isothiocyanate compounds and phytochemicals -- as scientists attempt to figure out why one food is healthier than another. But these are chemical components, not food. Just as mainstream medical doctors have a tendency to isolate symptoms without addressing the root causes of illness, this deconstructionist view of food misses the point -- eating is not just about intake of nutrients, but about life itself. And these elements don't necessarily work in isolation... it's why we are encouraged to eat "whole" foods.
This isn't a strike against science -- there is much to be gained from learning the make-up of foods and helping people better understand what constitutes a healthy diet. It's a marketing issue. The factoids are used to pave the way for food manufacturers to "enhance" their unhealthy processed, preservative-filled foods so they appear healthier than they are.
THE FOOD INDUSTRY
Nutritionism has provided a whole new set of marketing tools to the food industry, which is always looking for ways to get consumers to buy and eat yet more food. Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor at New York University, is author of many books on this topic, including her latest, What to Eat. She points out that, according to the USDA, 3,900 calories/day are brought to market for every man, woman and child in this country. The food industry makes money by seducing ordinary folks into stuffing themselves. Profits are slim for food manufacturers when consumers buy apples and grapes, but they balloon with purchases from the vast selection of new and more novel "foods" that fill supermarket shelves.
This is where nutritionism runs amok, as food manufacturers deem each new research finding an opportunity -- in fact, they are often motivated to fund studies in order to ascertain how nutritional benefits might be used to sell more product. For years sugar-drenched juice drinks (those with less than 50% and sometimes as little as 5% juice), have been able to state that they're made with "real juice" so they can benefit from a halo of health on their label. The most absurd example I have seen of this trend recently is the addition of fiber to Splenda, the artificial sweetener! For the best juices buy and use a quality juicer and make your own. It is much less expensive and more nutritious. Also avoid all artificial sweeteners. Use stevia or honey and even real sugar in small quantities is preferred over these toxic sweeteners.
WHAT'S FOR DINNER?
All this results in a lot of confusion about what's for dinner... not to mention lunch, breakfast and all those snacks. At one time most of the people worrying about eating right were looking to lose weight; now the problem is broader because it centers on a far most basic dilemma -- how to eat to be healthy. For some answers to that, let's hear from Pollan again. His book does offer a few basic nutritional rules -- notably, avoid foods with more than five ingredients, along with those with ingredients you can't pronounce. But his best advice is hard-boiled and served straight-up, unprocessed and with no additives: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Also choose organic and always wash fruits and vegetables to remove pesticides and possible salmonella or other contaminents. Wash with water mixed with either lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide and let them soak for about 10 minutes before consumption.
Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition and food studies, New York University, and author of What to Eat.