Monday, September 19, 2016

Food (and Technology) as a Relationship—Book Review of In Defense of Food

In the previous post, I recommended the book Cooked, by Michael Pollan.
With recent reports about the sugar industry manipulating nutritional science and health policy, now may be a good time to recommend one of Pollan’s earlier books, because it illustrates another great insight about food—and about technology for making food.

(Image from Amazon)

In Defense of Food is my favorite of Pollan’s writings because it gets to the heart of what food truly is.  Right now our culture tends to think of food as a bunch of nutrients (e.g., carbohydrates and proteins, fats and vitamins).  Pollan calls this kind of thinking “nutritionism.”  In contrast, he proposes thinking about food in a different way: as a relationship.  In his words,

"What would happen if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?  In nature, that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains, or food webs, that reach all the way down to the soil.  Species coevolve with the other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of interdependence: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes.  A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for an animal." [1]

Now before you dismiss this line of thinking as hippie talk, consider the evidence Pollan draws upon.
For example, he draws upon what scientists David Jacobs and Lyn Steffen call “food synergy”: 
food is more than just nutrients; it also includes synergies between nutrients.


Basically, this means that nutrients don’t act in isolation; they interact and cooperate with each other and with the biology of a person when they are digested.  In other words, it’s not just the nutrients in the food but the food as a whole that affects our health, which may explain why whole foods are healthier than artificially processed foods.  Someone who eats whole foods will be healthier than someone who eats artificially processed foods, even when those two kinds of foods have the exact same amount of nutrients! [2]
We’re not exactly sure why yet, but some kind of “synergy” between nutrients is at work.  For instance, the way a nutrient interacts with other nutrients in the digestive process seems to matter as much, if not more so, than just consuming the nutrient alone.  Consuming omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids matters less than having a balanced ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Michael Pollan
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

So does this research support Pollan’s proposal to think about food as a relationship?
Well, on one hand, Pollan may be overstating his case.  There’s some truth to nutritionism:
a balanced intake of carbs, proteins, omega fats, and vitamins probably matters.
On the other hand, that’s not the whole story, and nutritional science can be problematic: there are few reliable measures of nutritional data; [3] and there are so many variables that impact health that it’s often questionable to draw reliable conclusions about those data. [4]  Pollan spends much time in his book showing the limitations of nutritional (pseudo)science, and respected researchers and statisticians (such as Archer et al. and Ioannidis—see footnotes) have made related critiques about nutritional and health data.
Hence, the title of Pollan’s book—In Defense of Food (defending food against nutritionism).
Pollan gives a seven-word maxim as an alternative to obsessing over nutrients:

Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.

You can listen to him explain these seven words in this short PBS clip.
Pollan is an excellent writer and throws some provocative ideas out there, so I'll just add a final thought.

Like food itself, the technologies we use to make food are more than meets the eye.  From simple gardening tools to agricultural machines, the technologies we use to produce and consume food are not just things; they embody our relationship to nature.  Tools and machines used by family farms, for instance, entail a different relationship to the land and animals than, say, megamachines used by factory feedlots.

[1] Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), 102.

[2] David R. Jacobs and Lyn Steffen, “Nutrients, Foods, and Dietary Patterns as Exposures in Research: A Framework for Food Synergy,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003; 78 (suppl): 508S-13S.

[3] Archer E, Hand GA, Blair SN (2013) Validity of U.S. Nutritional Surveillance: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Caloric Energy Intake Data, 1971–2010. PLoS ONE 8(10): e76632. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076632.

[4] Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124.

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