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From Quality to Quantity

Posted by tinako on July 6, 2010

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as part of the Yale psychology course on food I’m… well, auditing would be the word, I guess.

It is packed with interesting information, and while I sometimes come across statements or opinions I can’t agree with, for the most part it is terrific.  I love his language – he has a sublime sense of the ironic: “Yet the beauty of a processed food like margarine is that it can be endlessly reengineered to overcome even the most embarrassing about-face in nutritional thinking – including the real wincer that its main ingredient [trans-fat] might cause heart attacks and cancer” (p.33).

The ironic point he’s making here, found in words like “beauty” and the delicious “wincer,” is that margarine, like all imitation foods, bounces around like a pinball as the nutritionists decide that first this thing and then that thing is bad for us, but the item itself never actually improves, because nutritionists, for the most part, don’t know what they’re doing.  Not because they’re stupid, but because how whole foods are used in our body is too complicated to be understood, now and in the forseeable future.  In addition, the research itself is flawed because it’s almost impossible to tell what people are actually eating unless you follow them around and measure everything, and because when you tell someone to stop eating one thing, such as saturated fat, they have to eat more of something else, so you have added another variable in.

So what are we to do without nutritionists to guide us?  Stop eating fake food.  People have been eating wide varieties of whole foods for thousands of years, and have done pretty well on it.  How are we doing on Doritos and 32 oz Cokes?  Adding the seven vitamins that scientists think (today) are important to a Pop-Tart does not make it the equivalent of a whole food diet that has those seven vitamins in it.  Nutritionists understand this limitation – they are aware that whole foods are mysteriously more than the sum of their chemical components, but food manufacturers find it increases sales to throw a pill into junk food and label it healthy.

Pollan is endlessly quotable: “You don’t need to spend much time in an American supermarket to figure out that this is a food system organized around the objective of selling large quantities of calories as cheaply as possible” (p.121).  Pollan finds this pattern right from the beginning of our food, in the chemical fertilizers dumped on conventional farms, and the artificially selected varieties of crops we plant.

The nutritional quality of American produce has gone way down since the 1950s: vitamin C declined by 20%, iron by 15%, riboflavin by 38%, and calcium by 16%.  Figures from England showed declines of at least 10%  in iron, zinc, calcium, and selenium across a range of crops over the same period.   Some researchers attribute this loss to widespread chemical fertilizer use which began then, and others blame it on modern plant breeding.  It was discovered that plants could get by with just nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but this ignores many aspects of healthy soil, such as microbes, earthworms, and fungi (which are destroyed by harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides), not to mention other nutrients which we just don’t know about yet.  In addition, when pesticides are applied, the plant does not have to work hard to fight off pests – the components it manufactures to do this are often what makes the plant nutritious to us – and when easy-access fertilizers are applied, the plant grows so quickly it does not have the time or the deep root system to take in other nutrients that are in the soil.  On the genetic side, even if we choose non-GMO crops, they have been bred and selected for attributes convenient to producers, such as fast growth, high yield, easy-to-transport, and it is basic evolutionary theory that if you are not selecting for nutrition (or natural pest or disease resistance), it will fade away.

Quantity wins again in our food system when we think about the crops we eat the most of: wheat, corn, soy, and rice.  These crops are incredibly productive uses of land and sunlight – they are very cheap calories.  But our species thrives on variety, and we aren’t getting it when two-thirds of our calories come from four sources, all seeds.  You may not think you eat much of those crops, but if you’re eating the Standard American Diet, they’re there; they’re just cleverly disguised into all manner of processed foods.  Most of the unpronounceable ingredients in processed food comes from corn or soy – “The business model of the food industry is organized around “adding value” to cheap raw materials; its genius has been to figure out how to break these two big seeds down into their chemical building blocks and then reassemble them in myriad packaged food products” (p.117).

The outcome of this quantity over quality system is that for the first time human beings are both “overfed and undernourished” (p.122).  Overweight children have been found to have deficiency diseases such as rickets.

So far, at least, this book does not seem to have as its message a call to arms to make sweeping policy changes.  It seems to be about the individual choices we can make every day about what we put in our mouths.

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