Since the discovery in the late twentieth century of an American “obesity epidemic,” scientists and journalists have explored the question of why the United States, one of the most prosperous and well-educated countries on the planet, should have such a difficult time providing nutritious food for its people or why its people are not making healthy food choices. Responses to this epidemic, and to the food industry that many believe fuels it, have included the international Slow Food movement, which supports small food producers whose work does not harm animals, workers, or the environment, and the so-called locavore movement, which encourages consumers to eat as much locally grown food as possible to avoid the damages caused by shipping, packaging, and mass production.
These movements have also produced dozens of books by well-known chefs, journalists, and activists exploring the question of how to eat responsibly. Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007) and Bill McKibben in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) describe their family’s determination to avoid industrially processed food and instead eat only food that has been produced locally by small farmers and businesses for a year or a season. Both found that eating this way was at first difficult and time-consuming, but both found new pleasures in growing and preparing food, working together as a family, and leaving a lighter footprint on the earth.
Longtime food writer Michael Pollan contributed fascinating information about where the food most Americans eat comes from in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). In that book, Pollan traced common foods back to their sources, focusing on industrially farmed food, organic food, and food he grew, hunted, and collected himself. He demonstrated that most of the processed and packaged foods available in a supermarket contain long lists of surprising ingredients (some form of corn, for example, turns up in almost everything), and that a lot of foods labeled “organic” or “natural” are also mass-produced industrial products.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a best seller, presented enough unsettling information to make consumers wonder about the items in their grocery carts, but, as Pollan reports in the introduction to In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, it did not answer the question on many readers’ minds: “Okay, but what should I eat?” In Defense of Food is a thoroughly researched, nonprescriptive response to that question, and the answer boils down to seven words that begin the book and appear frequently throughout its pages: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
To explain what he means by “food”not to be confused with the “other edible foodlike substances in the supermarkets”Pollan devotes the first two of the book’s three sections to exposing the ideology of “The Age of Nutritionism” and delineating “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization.” After 1977, he explains, when federal dietary guidelines first began to describe nutrients instead of food groups, food labels began touting supposed nutritional benefits. Claims of “high fiber,” “low cholesterol,” or “added vitamins” were featured prominently, and consumers came to believe that they could make healthy food choices by counting one nutrient or another. Today, consumers take for granted that counting calories or grams of particular kinds of fat, carbohydrates, or protein is the key to healthy eating, and they have lost sight of food itself. Even when the conventional wisdom about which nutrient to focus on changes every few years or even every few months, consumers willingly surrender their own good sense about eating to follow the advice of experts.
There are several things wrong with this approach, as Pollan argues. For one thing, the food experts do not know as much as they claim to. They observed, for example, that processing wheat into bleached white flour strips the grain of much of its iron, and they successfully reintroduced iron to create “enriched” flour. However, what hundreds of other micronutrients are removed with the wheat germ, and which ones are important to human health? The answer is, no one really knows.
Another problem is that consumers tend to focus on only one or two nutrients at a time, thinking of each ingredient as good or bad in itself. Someone counting fat grams might buy low-fat cookies and eat an entire box, ignoring the sugar, processed flour, and other harmful ingredients in those cookies. The...
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