The Perils of Nutritionism: or, how the food industry pimped my breakfast

By Chip Ward

Nutritional science is about where surgery was in 1650, says Michael Pollan. At its center is the belief in reductionism: that the whole equals the sum of its parts. Taken to extremes, you get genetic engineering. The integrity of the natural world must be respected, asserts Claire Hope Cummings, who writes about GM foods and indigenous cultures. Eating is an ecological act that determines how we use our land and water.
by Chip Ward

F-ST_Ward_cereal-wild.jpgWe seem to have no rules about food anymore. If yousurvey the planet, it’s pretty clear that given the diversity of habitats andcultures, just about anything goes—if it’s edible, it will be eaten. From fisheggs to frog legs, from calf nuts to hog heads, and from grubs to slugs, almostanything 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-evidentthat they would never be broken. Like “never eat anything bigger than yourhead” and “never eat anything that is neon-colored, especially if it isblinking,” and, of course, “don’t eat anything that is actively looking atyou.” But now I am not so sure. Ten minutes in Costco and it’s clear we regularlyeat things bigger than our heads. How else do you explain gallon jars ofmayonnaise and 70-ounce boxes of Cocoa Puffs? You can get gummy bears inpillow-sized sacks now and – there goes another rule — they’re neon.

I sometimes wish my groceries came with an owner’smanual. (ED. Or a MSDS, Material Safety Data Sheet) Intuitively I know that“Yellow-2” can’t be good for me, but I heard that guargum is okay even thoughit 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 itcomes from everywhere. When you were two and you picked up that Dorito youfound on the park bench, your mom said, “Don’t eat that, you don’t know whereit’s been.” Well, that’s pretty true of all our food today. As evidenced bythose recent news videos of sick cows, covered in their own excrement, beingfork-lifted through the slaughterhouse doors, where your food has been is stillimportant. We also don’t know who grew it or who processed it, though if youfind a severed finger in your can of beans, you can bet some lawyer will findout real fast. And we don’t know how our food was grown.

According to Michael Pollan, author of the criticallyacclaimed “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” our confusion about food reveals a profounddisconnection from our food’s ecological and cultural contexts. Pollan’s newbook, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin, 2008), cuts throughthe noise and confusion and presents some welcome common-sense rules foreating. Claire Hope Cummings also argues that we have taken culture out ofagriculture and warns us that if we don’t pay attention to how a handful ofpowerful corporations are secretly re-engineering DNA, we could face anunprecedented ecological catastrophe. Her book, “Uncertain Peril: GeneticEngineering and the Future of Seeds” (Beacon, 2008) is a masterful treatment ofcorporate hubris and the need for a tough but reverent response to theprivatization and marketing of seeds. Seeds, she says, are sacred because lifebegins with seeds. 

According to Pollan, we lost our way along the food aislewhen a Congressional committee chaired by George McGovern asked why Americansare 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, forcedto recant, and soon driven from office. By taking McGovern out and shooting himin front of the others, Big Ag guaranteed that no policy-making politicianwould ever dis a food group again. The revised message was that “saturatedfats” were the problem, not beef. Henceforth, the public dialogue about foodwould 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 moremoney by adding value to whole foods. Broccoli, carrots, oats, apples and suchare as good as food gets just by being themselves. But if you can take thatcheap bag of rolled oats and process it into Cheerios, that’s a money-makerthat sells for much more. Then add vitamins to make up for all the nutritionalvalue you extracted by processing the simple oats into digestible little tiresof oat powder, and you can tell consumers it’s better for them than theoriginal whole food, even if it’s not. Add colors, coatings, trinkets, andadvertisements for the latest cartoon movie, and those plain oats could star intheir own reality show called “Pimp My Breakfast.”

The bottom line for the food industry is that processedfoods are much more profitable than whole foods and can be endlessly craftedinto 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 constipatedseniors get little cans of high-fiber drinks to snack on before napping. And ifthe malnourished masses object, hey, let them eat Twinkies.

This drive towards lab-born, market-tested, amalgamated,food-like items was facilitated by an ideology Pollan calls “nutritionism.” Nota science but an ideology, nutritionism assumes that the key to understandingfood is to understand the nutrients within the food. There are good nutrientslike antioxidants, for example, and bad nutrients like cholesterol. Nutrientsbecome fashionable, too. Fiber was once the rage but now the omega oils aretrendy. Nutritionism tells us that we eat in order to maintain and promote bodyhealth. If this seems like a no-brainer to you, then and you have sosuccessfully incorporated nutritionism into your worldview and, like allpowerful ideologies, it has become transparent.

F-ST_Ward_twinkie.jpgBecause nutrients are invisible, we need experts to tellus what to eat. We no longer eat what our culture tells us to eat like we didfor hundreds of years when we ate according to this or that traditional ethnicdiet, instead we eat according to the findings of the latest studies. Theprocessed food industry takes this information and manipulates us intobelieving that the chocolate-covered cereal you feed to your kids is okaybecause the marshmallows in it are “fortified” with the good stuff that theexperts have identified and endorsed.

The flaw in nutritionism is that real foods—wholefoods—are more than the sum of their nutrient parts. The distinction between awhole food and a food-like product, say between an apple and a hotdog,disappears when the focus is on nutrients alone. The nutrient focus alsoobscures food’s other contexts – whether, for example, it was produced in afair and sustainable way or whether its production contributed to soildepletion, feedlot pollution, wasted water, shredded biodiversity, exploitedfarm labor, and so on. We have identified only a fraction of the nutrientsavailable in food and we are not sure how those nutrients interact with oneanother within the foods we consume. We have often misunderstood how thosenutrients are absorbed into our bodies once we eat them. For example, when werealized that high levels of cholesterol in our bloodstreams are harmful, wecut back on foods that contain cholesterol. But now we find there may not be alink between the cholesterol we eat and the levels in our blood. Nutritionalscience, Pollan claims, is about where surgery was in 1650.

Is all this “science” making us healthier? No. TheWestern diet is clearly linked to an obesity epidemic, skyrocketing rates fordiabetes, and those familiar killers, cancer and heart disease. Americanssuffer those chronic illnesses more than others in the world and whentraditional cultures abandon their diets for ours, they also experience a sharpincrease in those maladies.

If you unpack the prevailing empire of belief about foodand diet, here’s what you find in the center: reductionism. Reductionism holdsthat the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. So if you want to understandsomething, break it down into parts, farther and farther. You can thenreassemble those pieces into unique new products. That, after all, is what wedo with a barrel of crude oil or a lump of coal. Unfortunately, thisphilosophy—this habit of perception, if you will—serves us better when we pourthe result into our cars than into our stomachs (or, considering globalwarming, does it even do that?). And if you take reductionism to its max, youget genetic engineering that treats plants and animals as if they are nothingmore than a collection of genes to be broken apart and reassembled for profitand convenience without regard for boundaries, context, or caution.

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

There are few regulations governing such experiments. Theunchecked tyranny of GM (genetically modified) food corporations is so completethat when pollen from GM foods contaminates neighboring non-GM crops, theowners of the tainted crops can be sued for patent infringement or theft. Evenif the experimental monsters in Monsanto’s Pandora’s box do not escape andthreaten ecological integrity and public health, and there is plenty ofevidence that genetic drift and damage have already become widespread, geneticengineering is bad policy. It puts control of our seeds and the fundamentals ofagriculture into the hands of a few self-interested corporations. Consumerscan’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 isimportant.

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

Readers will come away from her book outraged and alarmedbut also hopeful. Across the planet, an amazing array of creative anddetermined people are building sustainable food systems that challenge the assumptionsand methods of industrial agriculture. Local agriculture is coming back.Bioneers like Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas are finding ways togrow and harvest food without depleting soils by using prairie ecology as theirmodel. 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 agriculturerestored, sustainable, diverse, and democratic, Pollan offers practical advice.He sums this up in a seemingly simply statement: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Nottoo much.” By food, of course, he means whole, natural, real food. There are afew commonsense guidelines that indicate whether a food is real. If yourgrandmother would not recognize it, chances are it’s a modern food-likeinvention. If it contains high-fructose corn syrup and has more than fiveingredients, some of which are hard to pronounce, it’s probably processed. Ifit advertises it is “healthy” for you, chances are it is processed and thoseso-called “good” nutrients have been added. If it doesn’t rot, it ain’t realfood. You are more likely to find the real food at the periphery of thesupermarket 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 aremore nourishing and taste better. Locally grown food is fresher, supports localfarmers, 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 atraditional ethnic diet that balances meat and plant consumption in favor ofvegetables. The Japanese, French, Greeks and many others have been eating theway they eat for a very long time and have survived nicely, untroubled by highrates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. There is wisdom intraditional 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 foodis not a “thing,” not a mere commodity made up of other things called nutrientsor genes, but a relationship. Foods co-evolved with the people who ate them.Mexican farmers, for example, developed thousands of varieties of corn, eachadapted by trial and error to local microclimates and soils, each with its ownspecial tastes and recipes. Taste, smell, and pleasure once guided usm andbecause we ate locally and either grew our own food or knew those who did, webelonged to a food web. Food was a relationship that was intimate, traditional,and sure, not a collection of things studied, processed, invented, mediated byexperts, engineered, and marketed.

If we are what we eat, then we decide that daily, meal bymeal. This is not a simple matter of building cells and feeling fit. It’s aboutwho we are as a people and our relationships to teach other and to theecosystems that enfold us. It’s about what we value, our priorities, and perhapseven our survival as a species. Although we have become accustomed to eatingthoughtlessly and casually, eating is an ecological act that determines how weuse our land and water. It is a moral decision that shapes our world. When youeat your next meal, act like you are eating for dear life. Because whether weare conscious of it or not, that’s what we are doing. The future of nature andthe 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 2, 2008.