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Recipe for Disaster - How we lost the joy of eating

How we lost the joy of eating by Michael Pollan (copyright)

Do you love your food? Why the energy we invest in our food is just as important in sustaining and nurturing us as the nutrition it contains

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

Perhaps you're suspicious of an approach that can be summed up in just seven words - but that injunction to "eat food" is not quite as simple as it sounds. It used to be that food was all you could eat, but today there are thousands of foodlike substances in our convenience stores and supermarkets. Brightly coloured packages boast of their low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fibre credentials. Ingredient panels for once-simple staples such as bread, mayonnaise or yoghurt have been swollen by lengthy lists of additives - what in a more honest age would have been called adulterants. The result is not just confusion, but a dangerous belief that scientifically endorsed "nutrients" are inherently superior to fresh, unprocessed food.

No other animal has such difficulty deciding what it should eat. True, as omnivores the "What to eat?" question is somewhat more complicated for us than it is for, say, cows. Yet for most of human history, we have navigated the question without expert advice. To guide us we had, instead, culture, which - at least when it comes to food - is really just a fancy word for your mother. What to eat, how much of it to eat, what order in which to eat it, with what and when and with whom was a set of questions long settled and passed down from parents to children without a lot of controversy or fuss.

But over the past several decades, mum lost much of her authority over the dinner menu, ceding it to scientists and food marketers and, to a lesser extent, the government, with its ever-shifting dietary guidelines and food-labelling rules. Think about it: most of us no longer eat what our mothers ate as children or, for that matter, what our mothers fed us as children.

My own mother grew up in the 1930s and 1940s eating a lot of traditional Jewish-American fare, typical of families who had recently emigrated from Russia or eastern Europe: stuffed cabbage, offal, cheese blintzes, dumplings filled with potato or chicken liver, and vegetables that were often cooked in rendered chicken or duck fat. I never ate any of that stuff as a kid, except when I visited my grandparents. My mother, an excellent and adventurous cook whose own menus were shaped by the cosmopolitan food trends of New York in the 1960s (her influences would have included the 1964 World's Fair, the food writers Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, Manhattan restaurant menus and, of course, the rising drumbeat of food marketing) served us a rotating menu that each week completed a culinary world tour: boeuf bourguignon or beef stroganoff on Monday; coq au vin or oven-fried chicken (in a Kellogg's Cornflakes crust) on Tuesday; meat loaf or Chinese pepper steak on Wednesday; spaghetti pomodoro with Italian sausages on Thursday; and on her weekend nights off, a Swanson's TV dinner or Chinese takeaway. She cooked with Crisco or Wesson vegetable oil rather than chicken or duck fat and used margarine rather than butter because she had absorbed the nutritional orthodoxy of the time, which held that these more up-to-date fats were better for our health. (Oops!)

Nowadays I don't eat any of that stuff - and neither does my mother, who has moved on too. Her parents wouldn't recognise the foods we put on the table, except maybe the butter, which is back. Today in America, as in much of the western world, the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented - and dizzying.

What is driving such relentless change? One force is a multibillion-dollar food-marketing machine that thrives on change for its own sake. Another is the constantly shifting ground of nutrition science that, depending on your point of view, is advancing the frontiers of our knowledge about diet and health or just changing its mind a lot because it knows much less than it cares to admit. Part of what drove my grandparents' food culture from the dinner table was official scientific opinion, which, beginning in the 1960s, decided that animal fat was a deadly substance. The food manufacturers, meanwhile, stood to make very little money from my grandmother's cooking, because she was doing so much of it from scratch - up to and including rendering her own cooking fats. Amplifying the "latest science", they managed to sell her daughter the virtues of hydrogenated vegetable oils, the ones that we're now learning may be, well, deadly substances.

I write as an American and, because I know them best, I use many American examples, but the story I have to tell is no longer just an American story. The epidemic of chronic diseases - obesity, diabetes, heart disease and several types of cancer - that can be traced to the modern diet may be more advanced in the US, but today the American way of eating is spreading around the world. Rates of obesity in Europe are rapidly approaching those of the US, and increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease are certain to follow.

Sooner or later, everything solid we've been told about the links between our diet and our health seems to get blown away in the gust of the latest study. Consider a few recent findings. In 2006 came news that a low-fat diet, long believed to protect against cancer, may do no such thing - this from the massive, federally funded Women's Health Initiative, which has also failed to find a link between a low-fat diet and the risk of coronary heart disease. Indeed, the whole nutritional orthodoxy around dietary fat appears to be crumbling.

In 2005 we learned that dietary fibre might not, as we'd been confidently told for years, help prevent colorectal cancers and heart disease. And then, in the autumn of 2006, two prestigious studies on omega-3 fats came to strikingly different conclusions. While the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences found little conclusive evidence that eating fish would do your heart much good (and might hurt your brain, because so much fish is contaminated with mercury), a Harvard study brought the hopeful piece of news that simply by eating a couple of servings of fish each week (or by downing enough fish oil tablets) you could cut your risk of dying from a heart attack by more than a third. Taking their cue from Harvard, food scientists are now rushing to micro-encapsulate fish and algae oil and blast it into such formerly terrestrial foods as bread, pasta, milk, yoghurt and cheese.

By now you're probably feeling some nostalgia for the simplicity and solidity of the first few words of this article.

The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutrition science, and - ahem - journalism, three parties that have much to gain from widespread confusion about the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without professional guidance - something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees - is seriously unprofitable if you're a food company, a definite career loser if you're a nutritionist, and just plain boring if you're a newspaper editor or reporter. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, that you should "eat more fruit and vegetables"?) And so like a large grey cloud, a great conspiracy of scientific complexity has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition - much to the advantage of everyone involved, except the supposed beneficiaries of all this nutritional advice: the eaters. For the most important thing to know about the campaign to professionalise dietary advice is that it has not made us any healthier. On the contrary: most of the nutritional advice we've received over the past half-century (and in particular the advice to replace the fats in our diets with carbohydrates) has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter.

It is time to reclaim our health and happiness as eaters. To do this requires an exercise that might at first blush seem unnecessary, if not absurd: to offer a defence of food and the eating thereof. That food and eating stand in need of a defence might seem counterintuitive at a time when "overnutrition" is emerging as a more serious threat to public health than undernutrition. But I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it - in the car, in front of the television, and, increasingly, alone - is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilisation has long understood the term. Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century gastronomist, drew a useful distinction between the alimentary activity of animals, which "feed", and humans, who eat, or dine - a practice, he suggested, that owes as much to culture as it does to biology.

As eaters we find ourselves increasingly in the grip of a nutritional industrial complex comprising well-meaning, if error-prone, scientists and food marketers only too eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus. Together, and with some crucial help from officialdom, they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the "nutrient"; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health. Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try to eat "scientifically" - by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts.

If such an approach to food doesn't strike you as the least bit strange, that is probably because nutritionist thinking has become so pervasive as to be invisible. We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity. Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world and about expressing our identity.

That eating should be first and foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and destructive idea - destructive not just of the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. The scientists haven't tested the hypothesis yet, but I'm willing to bet that when they do they'll find an inverse correlation between the amount of time people spend worrying about nutrition and their health and happiness. This is, after all, the implicit lesson of the French paradox, so called not by the French (Quel paradoxe?) but by Anglo-Saxon nutritionists, who can't fathom how a people who enjoy their food as much as the French do, and eat so many nutrients deemed toxic by nutritionists, could have substantially lower rates of heart disease than others on elaborately engineered low-fat diets. No people on earth, by contrast, worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than Americans - and no people suffer from as many diet-related health problems.

I don't mean to suggest that all would be well if we could just stop worrying about food or the state of our dietary health: Let them eat Twinkies! There are in fact some very good reasons to worry. The rise of nutritionism reflects legitimate concerns that the world's diet has changed in ways that are making us increasingly sick and fat. Four of the leading 10 causes of death in the US and the UK today are chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer. Yes, the rise to prominence of these chronic diseases is partly due to the fact that we're not dying earlier in life of infectious diseases - but only partly. Even after allowing for age, many of the so-called diseases of civilisation were far less common a century ago - and they remain rare in places where people don't eat the way Britons and Americans do.

That is the elephant in the room whenever we discuss diet and health: "the western diet." All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most westerners can be traced directly to the industrialisation of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy. These changes have given us the diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything - except vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

That such a diet makes people sick and fat we have known for a long time. Early in the 20th century, an intrepid group of doctors and medical workers observed that wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating, there soon followed a predictable series of western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. They called these the western diseases and, though the precise causal mechanisms were (and remain) uncertain, these observers had little doubt these chronic diseases shared a common etiology: the western diet.

What's more, the traditional diets that the new western foods displaced were strikingly diverse: various populations thrived on diets that were what we'd call high fat, low fat, or high carb; all meat or all plant. Indeed, there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine. What this suggests is that the human animal is well adapted to a great many different diets. The western diet, however, is not one of them.

Here is a simple but crucial fact about diet and health; yet, curiously, it is a fact that nutritionism cannot see, probably because that reductionist approach to diet developed in tandem with the industrialisation of our food. Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the western diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place. Nutritionism is, in a sense, the official ideology of the western diet and so cannot be expected to raise radical or searching questions about it.

But we can. We can begin to develop a different way of thinking about food that might point a path out of our predicament. In doing so we have two sturdy - and strikingly hopeful - facts to guide us: first, that humans historically have been healthy eating a great many different diets; and second, that most of the damage to our food and health caused by the industrialisation of our eating can be reversed. Put simply, we can escape the western diet and its consequences. There are some simple rules of eating that are conducive not only to better health but also to greater pleasure in eating, two goals that turn out to be mutually reinforcing. For example, I'd suggest that you eat meals, not snacks; eat wild foods whenever possible; and avoid any product whose ingredients are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or more than five in number.

These recommendations (to which I shall return in tomorrow's G2) are a little different from the dietary guidelines you're probably accustomed to. I'm not interested in telling you what to have for dinner. No, these suggestions are more like eating algorithms, mental devices for thinking through our food choices. Because there is no single answer to the question of what to eat, these guidelines will produce as many different menus as there are people using them.

These rules of thumb are also not framed in the vocabulary of nutrition science. Indeed, one of them is to avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication that it's not really food. Science has much of value to teach us about food, and perhaps someday scientists will "solve" the problem of diet, creating the nutritionally optimal meal in a pill, but for now and the foreseeable future, letting the scientists decide the menu would be a mistake. Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or did until we allowed the nutrition experts and the advertisers to shake our confidence in the testimony of our senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.

Not that we had much choice in the matter. By the 1960s or so it had become all but impossible to sustain traditional ways of eating in the face of the industrialisation of our food. In the US particularly, but to a lesser extent throughout the developed world, if you wanted to eat produce grown without synthetic chemicals or meat raised on pasture without pharmaceuticals, you were out of luck. Convenience stores and supermarkets had become the only place to buy food, and real food was rapidly disappearing from their shelves, to be replaced by those highly processed foodlike products. And because so many of these novelties deliberately lied to our senses with fake sweeteners and flavourings, we could no longer rely on taste or smell to know what we were eating.

Forty years ago, escaping the western diet would have meant either escaping the west itself or going back to the land and growing all your own food. Not any more. Thanks to the resurgence of farmers' markets, the rise of the organic movement, and the renaissance of local agriculture, stepping outside the conventional food system is once more a realistic option. And the more eaters who vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such food will become.

Eaters have real choices now, and those choices have real consequences, for our health and the health of the land and the health of our food culture. That anyone should need to advise people to "eat food" could be taken as a measure of our alienation and confusion. Or we can choose to see it in a more positive light and count ourselves fortunate indeed that there is once again real food for us to eat.

© Michael Pollan 2008.

- Extracted from In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating by Michael Pollan, published by Allen Lane on January 31 at £16.99.

 

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