Perils of Nutritionism

By John deJong

Or, how the food industry pimped my breakfast
by Chip Ward
F-ST_Ward_cereal-wild.jpgWe seem to have no rules about food anymore. If you survey the planet, it’s pretty clear that given the diversity of habitats and cultures, just about anything goes—if it’s edible, it will be eaten. From fish eggs to frog legs, from calf nuts to hog heads, and from grubs to slugs, almost anything is acceptable to somebody. But every culture also has rules – as in “this food is acceptable and that is not.”

I used to think that my food rules were so self-evident that they would never be broken. Like “never eat anything bigger than your head” and “never eat anything that is neon-colored, especially if it is blinking,” and, of course, “don’t eat anything that is actively looking at you.” But now I am not so sure. Ten minutes in Costco and it’s clear we regularly eat things bigger than our heads. How else do you explain gallon jars of mayonnaise and 70-ounce boxes of Cocoa Puffs? You can get gummy bears in pillow-sized sacks now and – there goes another rule — they’re neon.

I sometimes wish my groceries came with an owner’s manual. (ED. Or a MSDS Material Data Safety Sheet) Intuitively I know that “Yellow-2” can’t be good for me, but I heard that guargum is okay even though it sounds like something you would use to repair the bottom of a leaky boat. The Omega-3s are welcome but I am not sure why. The Cocoa Puffs are “fortified” and the case of toaster pastries is “organic.” How can that be?

We also don’t know where our food comes from because it comes from everywhere. When you were two and you picked up that Dorito you found on the park bench, your mom said, “Don’t eat that, you don’t know where it’s been.” Well, that’s pretty true of all our food today. As evidenced by those recent news videos of sick cows, covered in their own excrement, being fork-lifted through the slaughterhouse doors, where your food has been is still important. We also don’t know who grew it or who processed it, though if you find a severed finger in your can of beans, you can bet some lawyer will find out real fast. And we don’t know how our food was grown.

According to Michael Pollan, author of the critically acclaimed “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” our confusion about food reveals a profound disconnection from our food’s ecological and cultural contexts. Pollan’s new book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin, 2008), cuts through the noise and confusion and presents some welcome common-sense rules for eating. Claire Hope Cummings also argues that we have taken culture out of agriculture and warns us that if we don’t pay attention to how a handful of powerful corporations are secretly re-engineering DNA, we could face an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. Her book, “Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds” (Beacon, 2008) is a masterful treatment of corporate hubris and the need for a tough but reverent response to the privatization and marketing of seeds. Seeds, she says, are sacred because life begins with seeds. 

According to Pollan, we lost our way along the food aisle when a Congressional committee chaired by George McGovern asked why Americans are so prone to heart disease and concluded we eat too much red meat. Ka-boom! McGovern was viciously attacked by the food industry and its lobbyists, forced to recant, and soon driven from office. By taking McGovern out and shooting him in front of the others, Big Ag guaranteed that no policy-making politician would ever dis a food group again. The revised message was that “saturated fats” were the problem, not beef. Henceforth, the public dialogue about food would focus on nutritional components like calories, cholesterol, vitamins, fiber, antioxidants, carbohydrates, aminos, and so on.

This suited the food industry because you can’t make more money by adding value to whole foods. Broccoli, carrots, oats, apples and such are as good as food gets just by being themselves. But if you can take that cheap bag of rolled oats and process it into Cheerios, that’s a money-maker that sells for much more. Then add vitamins to make up for all the nutritional value you extracted by processing the simple oats into digestible little tires of oat powder, and you can tell consumers it’s better for them than the original whole food, even if it’s not. Add colors, coatings, trinkets, and advertisements for the latest cartoon movie, and those plain oats could star in their own reality show called “Pimp My Breakfast.”

The bottom line for the food industry is that processed foods are much more profitable than whole foods and can be endlessly crafted into new food-like substances in the lab and then marketed to targeted groups. Thus, busy workers on the go get cereal bars they can eat while commuting, overweight secretaries get low-carb microwave lunches in boxes, and constipated seniors get little cans of high-fiber drinks to snack on before napping. And if the malnourished masses object, hey, let them eat Twinkies.

F-ST_Ward_twinkie.jpgThis drive towards lab-born, market-tested, amalgamated, food-like items was facilitated by an ideology Pollan calls “nutritionism.” Not a science but an ideology, nutritionism assumes that the key to understanding food is to understand the nutrients within the food. There are good nutrients like antioxidants, for example, and bad nutrients like cholesterol. Nutrients become fashionable, too. Fiber was once the rage but now the omega oils are trendy. Nutritionism tells us that we eat in order to maintain and promote body health. If this seems like a no-brainer to you, then and you have so successfully incorporated nutritionism into your worldview and, like all powerful ideologies, it has become transparent.

Because nutrients are invisible, we need experts to tell us what to eat. We no longer eat what our culture tells us to eat like we did for hundreds of years when we ate according to this or that traditional ethnic diet, instead we eat according to the findings of the latest studies. The processed food industry takes this information and manipulates us into believing that the chocolate-covered cereal you feed to your kids is okay because the marshmallows in it are “fortified” with the good stuff that the experts have identified and endorsed.

The flaw in nutritionism is that real foods—whole foods—are more than the sum of their nutrient parts. The distinction between a whole food and a food-like product, say between an apple and a hotdog, disappears when the focus is on nutrients alone. The nutrient focus also obscures food’s other contexts – whether, for example, it was produced in a fair and sustainable way or whether its production contributed to soil depletion, feedlot pollution, wasted water, shredded biodiversity, exploited farm labor, and so on. We have identified only a fraction of the nutrients available in food and we are not sure how those nutrients interact with one another within the foods we consume. We have often misunderstood how those nutrients are absorbed into our bodies once we eat them. For example, when we realized that high levels of cholesterol in our bloodstreams are harmful, we cut back on foods that contain cholesterol. But now we find there may not be a link between the cholesterol we eat and the levels in our blood. Nutritional science, Pollan claims, is about where surgery was in 1650.

Is all this “science” making us healthier? No. The Western diet is clearly linked to an obesity epidemic, skyrocketing rates for diabetes, and those familiar killers, cancer and heart disease. Americans suffer those chronic illnesses more than others in the world and when traditional cultures abandon their diets for ours, they also experience a sharp increase in those maladies.

If you unpack the prevailing empire of belief about food and diet, here’s what you find in the center: reductionism. Reductionism holds that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. So if you want to understand something, break it down into parts, farther and farther. You can then reassemble those pieces into unique new products. That, after all, is what we do with a barrel of crude oil or a lump of coal. Unfortunately, this philosophy—this habit of perception, if you will—serves us better when we pour the result into our cars than into our stomachs (or, considering global warming, does it even do that?). And if you take reductionism to its max, you get genetic engineering that treats plants and animals as if they are nothing more than a collection of genes to be broken apart and reassembled for profit and convenience without regard for boundaries, context, or caution.

In “Uncertain Peril,” Claire Hope Cummings explains how a handful of self-regulating corporations like Monsanto are threatening the all-important diversity and integrity of seeds by re-engineering their genes, patenting them, and then controlling access. Their Faustian efforts go beyond the mere hybridization of seeds because they are willing to violate species barriers, crossing animal and plant genes, for example, in what amounts to a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled and uncontained scientific experiment that cannot be recalled if something goes awry. So-called “terminator” and “suicide” seeds are designed to produce plants that have sterile seeds so that farmers, the traditional seed-keepers and guardians of agricultural biodiversity, have to buy them each year from their corporate overlords.

There are few regulations governing such experiments. The unchecked tyranny of GM (genetically modified) food corporations is so complete that when pollen from GM foods contaminates neighboring non-GM crops, the owners of the tainted crops can be sued for patent infringement or theft. Even if the experimental monsters in Monsanto’s Pandora’s box do not escape and threaten ecological integrity and public health, and there is plenty of evidence that genetic drift and damage have already become widespread, genetic engineering is bad policy. It puts control of our seeds and the fundamentals of agriculture into the hands of a few self-interested corporations. Consumers can’t tell if they are buying GM foods because, thanks to Big Ag’s lobbyists, labeling is not required. GM foods may be linked to allergies, so labeling is important.

Although the advent of GM foods has been described and criticized before, “Uncertain Peril” is the most coherent, complete, compelling, and well-written account yet. Cummings brings to her treatise a wealth of experience with indigenous farmers in Vietnam, Hawaii, and Mexico. She knows the cultural origins and importance of food as well as the hard science. At the heart of her treatise is a moral conviction that the integrity of the natural world must be respected and that we have a fundamental right to choose what we eat and to know what is in the food we eat.

Readers will come away from her book outraged and alarmed but also hopeful. Across the planet, an amazing array of creative and determined people are building sustainable food systems that challenge the assumptions and methods of industrial agriculture. Local agriculture is coming back. Bioneers like Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas are finding ways to grow and harvest food without depleting soils by using prairie ecology as their model. Food consumers are waking up and taking a second look at what they eat, how it was grown, where it was grown, and its impact on the natural world. Farmers markets are sprouting across America like mushrooms after a hard rain.

Where Cummings offers a hopeful vision of agriculture restored, sustainable, diverse, and democratic, Pollan offers practical advice. He sums this up in a seemingly simply statement: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” By food, of course, he means whole, natural, real food. There are a few commonsense guidelines that indicate whether a food is real. If your grandmother would not recognize it, chances are it’s a modern food-like invention. If it contains high-fructose corn syrup and has more than five ingredients, some of which are hard to pronounce, it’s probably processed. If it advertises it is “healthy” for you, chances are it is processed and those so-called “good” nutrients have been added. If it doesn’t rot, it ain’t real food. You are more likely to find the real food at the periphery of the supermarket than in the center isles and, of course, at a farmer’s market. Organic foods may cost more but are probably a better value because they are more nourishing and taste better. Locally grown food is fresher, supports local farmers, checks sprawl, and promotes food security and autonomy.

Scientists may disagree on why plants are better for us – fiber? antioxidants? omegas? – but they agree that plants, especially leaves, are good. Plants are “energy dense.” Vegetarians and so-called “flexitarians” for whom meat is a side-dish tend to be healthier than carnivores. So, adopt a traditional ethnic diet that balances meat and plant consumption in favor of vegetables. The Japanese, French, Greeks and many others have been eating the way they eat for a very long time and have survived nicely, untroubled by high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. There is wisdom in traditional cuisine that has been gained over many hundreds of years. Eat less. Longevity is associated with modest intake. 

Ultimately, both Pollan and Cummings are saying that food is not a “thing,” not a mere commodity made up of other things called nutrients or genes, but a relationship. Foods co-evolved with the people who ate them. Mexican farmers, for example, developed thousands of varieties of corn, each adapted by trial and error to local microclimates and soils, each with its own special tastes and recipes. Taste, smell, and pleasure once guided usm and because we ate locally and either grew our own food or knew those who did, we belonged to a food web. Food was a relationship that was intimate, traditional, and sure, not a collection of things studied, processed, invented, mediated by experts, engineered, and marketed.

If we are what we eat, then we decide that daily, meal by meal. This is not a simple matter of building cells and feeling fit. It’s about who we are as a people and our relationships to teach other and to the ecosystems that enfold us. It’s about what we value, our priorities, and perhaps even our survival as a species. Although we have become accustomed to eating thoughtlessly and casually, eating is an ecological act that determines how we use our land and water. It is a moral decision that shapes our world. When you eat your next meal, act like you are eating for dear life. Because whether we are conscious of it or not, that’s what we are doing. The future of nature and the nature of our future are on our plates.

Chip Ward is a former public library administrator and grassroots activist.

This article was originally published on July 3, 2008.