Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Annals of the Anthropocene: when commercial science tries to replace food

food is healthy.jpg
Unfortunately, I experience Michael Pollan as a scold. The popular food writer and activist has vital insights into our contemporary relationship with the stuff we eat. His prescription -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. -- rings true to me. But I don't like being lectured about what I eat and I catch an undertone from Pollan of wishing women were available to return to the labor-intensive food prep practices that our horrid commercial industrial pseudo-foods have rendered obsolete.

Thus conflicted about this author, I figured I had better read one of his books. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto was sitting around, so that's where I started. Nothing in it changed what I've just said.

But Pollan is good at what he is good at and his brutal take-down of commercial science's replacement of food with "nutrients" is worth reading.

If you spent any time at all in a supermarket in the 1980s, food was gradually disappearing from the shelves. … Where once the familiar names of recognizable comestibles -- things like eggs or breakfast cereals or snack foods -- claimed pride of place on the brightly colored packages crowding the aisles, now new, scientific-sounding terms like "cholesterol" and "fiber" and "saturated fat" began rising to large-type prominence. …

Vitamins did a lot for the prestige of nutritional science. These special molecules. which at first were isolated from foods and then later synthesized in a laboratory, could cure people of nutritional deficiencies such as scurvy or beriberi almost overnight in a convincing demonstration of reductive chemistry's power. …Beginning in the 1950s, a growing body of scientific opinion held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meat and dairy products, was responsible for rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century. …In January 1977, the [Senate Select Committee on Nutrition] issued a fairly straightforward set of dietary guidelines, calling on Americans to cut down on their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm of criticism, emanating chiefly from the red meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee …Henceforth. government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, but would instead arrive dressed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans … really understood but that … lack powerful lobbies in Washngton. ...

So the nutrients won out over the foods. … In doing so, the 1981 National Academy of Science's 'report helped codify the official new dietary language, the one we all still speak. Industry and media soon followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids, flavonols, carotenoids, antioxidants, probiotics, and phytochemicals soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible material formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.

According to Pollan, once industrial food producers and sellers succeeded in drafting science in support of their wares, most of our subsequent dietary monstrosities followed.

I'll accept that. But where I part company with Pollan is that I can't believe that a move away from pseudo-foods processed for profit can be achieved by lecturing people and shaming them into trying to emulate a leisured elite. We get to a better society by taking back science from the capitalists and using it to the benefit of all.

It's a good thing that food is ever cheaper and less labor intensive to prepare. Those are humane values for a sustainable society, not a sign of moral turpitude. We are letting food be corrupted by profiteers, but we're not wrong to want abundance and ease.
I post this on a day when I usually write about climate change, a "warming Wednesday," because the example of how the modern western diet has failed at replacing older food sources and customs is a good cautionary tale. Scientific invention is the key to human survival in the Anthropocene, but doing no additional harm along the way is part of what we must do, as is organizing societies as humanely as possible. Lots of work ahead.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

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