Monday, February 25, 2008

Nutrientism: Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food

The author of the bestselling Omnivore's Dilemma (required reading for anyone interested in local foods) has a new offering: In Defense of Food. The central idea is that much of what we're eating is not food -- it's a collection of 'nutrients' made to look and taste like food but which is a sad imitation of real food.

Pollan refers to 'nutritionism' (I actually think a better term would be 'nutrientism') as the culprit behind the American movement from the real foods our grandparents ate to the focus on taking a bunch of processed ingredients, adding nutrients to those ingredients, and asserting that these new fake foods are superior to and healthier than the originals.

From the chapter Bad Science:

"People don't eat nutrients; they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently from the nutrients they contain. Based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, researchers have long believed that a diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrient in those plant foods is responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce -- compounds like beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, and so on -- are the X factor. It makes good theoretical sense: These molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive forms of oxygen they produce during photosynthesis) soak up the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and cause cancer. At least that's how it seems to work in a test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these crucial molecules from the context of the whole foods they're found in, as we've done in creating anxtioxidant supplements, they don't seem to work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta-carotene ingested as a supplement, one study has suggested that in some people it may actually increase the risk of certain cancers. Big oops."
Pollan's conclusion? Stop taking supplements and adding nutrients to fake food. Start eating real food. That's where the protection lies.

No comments: