In Defense of Food

When Salon.com is not shilling for the Democrats (which they often do), it’s actually interesting and thoughtful. It helps, right now, that Democrats don’t hold the White House, so salon.com does not have to regularly defend the indefensible. Presidential power is always morally and ethically indefensible.

There was a good review at Salon on Tuesday of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, his follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And interesting, because if the review demonstrates anything, it is not the lack of federal regulations that cause problems, but the regulations themselves, because what matters is not the spirit of the law, but the letter:

… America is a gullible nation with a long-standing thirst for snake oil. How could we have resisted the blandishments of marketing departments and their lab-coated allies? We couldn’t, and as a result, Pollan writes, “Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.” … The smart thing to do, he thinks, is stay away from any food that trumpets its nutritional virtues, since “for a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.” Meanwhile, “the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute.”

We know that it’s possible to alter a culinary culture. No one eating in London in the 1970s could have believed that by the beginning of the 21st century it would be a great food city. A similar revolution took place across the United States — granted, a revolution in gastronomy, not nutrition (which, as Pollan documents, was simultaneously headed south). Yet the very success of the processed-food industry in putting over its bogus health claims shows, at least, how many people care about these issues.

My friend the low-fat freak is one of them. “What the Soviet Union was to the ideology of Marxism,” Pollan writes, “the Low-Fat Campaign is to the ideology of nutritionism — its supreme test and, as now is coming clear, its most abject failure.” Recent research shows the decades-long effort to get us to use trans fat (as in hydrogenated vegetable oil) in place of animal fat to have been — putting it mildly — misguided. In Pollan’s words, “The principal contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one.”

My friend, a stay-at-home spouse who tended her family with the devoted ferocity of a mama grizzly, would cook with anything that had “low fat” on the label. There was good reason for her heart-healthy mania: Two of her uncles had died young after heart attacks. Now her husband has diverticulitis (a condition unknown in populations that exist on whole foods, Pollan reports) and her grown son suffers from Crohn’s disease. And I can’t help wondering whether their intestinal maladies don’t have something to do with all the processed glop she fed them, in good faith, back in the ’80s.

Not to worry — medicine has their conditions under control. As Pollan points out, the food industry’s blunders have been a blessing to the healthcare industry: “Doctors have gotten really good at keeping people with heart disease alive, and now they’re hard at work on obesity and diabetes. Much more so than the human body, capitalism is marvelously adaptive.”