Michael Pollan on Nutritionism

The wonderfully articulate Michael Pollan has written another book. Although he presents little new to anyone who read his previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A natural history of four meals, he is such a wonderful writer, with such clever ways of seeing the world, that I couldn't resist this new, less ambitious book.

The new book is In Defense of Food: An eater's manifesto.

As in Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan reminds us that we've lost contact with real food, foods that our great grandmother would recognize, not the just-add-water, dried, pulverized, sweetened, high-fructose, hydrogenated, shrink-wrapped, artificially-colored products that pass as foods in the grocery store.

In particular, Pollan attacks what he calls the ideology of Nutritionism. "The widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Put another way: Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts." He calls this "Nutritionism."

In the section called "Nutritionism comes to market," he uses margarine as the prototypical product of this philosophy:

"No idea could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon. Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing. This of course is the story of margarine, the first important synthetic food to slip into our diet. Margarine started out in the nineteenth century as a cheap and inferior sustitute for butter, but with the emergence of the lipid hypothesis in the 1950s, manufacturers quickly figured out that their product, with some tinkering, could be marketed as better--smarter!--than butter: butter with the bad nutrients removed (cholesterol and saturated fats) and replaced with good nutrients (polyunsaturated fats and then vitamins). Every time margarine was found wanting, the wanted nutrient could simply be added (Vitamin D? Got it now. Vitamin A? Sure, no problem. But of course margarine, being the product not of nature but of human ingenuity, could never be any smarter than the nutritionists dictating its recipe, and the nutritionists turned out to be not nearly as smart as they thought. The food scientists' ingenious method for making healthy vegetable oil solid at room temperature--by blasting it with hydrogen--turned out to produce unhealthy trans fats, fats that we now know are more dangerous than the saturated fats they were designed to replace. Yet the beauty of a processed food like margarine is that it can be endlessly reengineererd to overcome even the most embarrassing about-face in nutritional thinking--including the real wincer that its main ingredient might cause heart attacks and cancer. So now the trans fats are gone, and margarine marches on, unfazed and apparently unkillable. Too bad the same cannot be said of an unknown number of margarine eaters."

Anyone who reads and thinks a lot about nutrition will find little new here. But nobody says it better than Pollan. While Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories) is the real thinker of our age about nutrition, Michael Pollan is the true writer about it.

With books like these making the bestsellers list, I believe that we are gradually seeing rationality return to eating. It makes people skeptical of the glitzy ads that run on TV around the clock. I hope that Pollan's new book will make more and more people leery of the latest health claim that adorn some product. "More omega-3!" "A low-fat snack." "Heart Healthy!" "High in healthy fiber!"

Comments (8) -

  • moblogs

    1/13/2008 9:02:00 PM |

    When I see margarines with added cholesterol lowing plant sterols, all I can think of is a bottle of poison with added sugar.

  • Brandon

    1/14/2008 6:39:00 AM |

    Pollan is overrated. Omnivore’s Dilemma suffered from schizophrenia, saying something in one chapter then saying something else in another chapter that didn’t follow the first thought. Chalk it up to the book being a sum of articles he wrote at different times but that he really should have corrected in editing.

    However, a recent Slate review (The Holy Church of Food) made the same criticism of In Defense of Food where Pollan criticizes the focus of nutritionism, but then goes on to extol the value of omega-3 fatty acids in fish.
    “Pollan's point is that we don't need the science in order to know what to eat. (He'd be more convincing on this issue if he hadn't fallen head over heels for omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient he treats as lovingly...” Laura Shapiro of Slate takes a few other jabs at Pollan that I tend to agree with. Slate’s Daniel Engber calls some of Pollan’s romantic notions into question and Tyler Cowen offer’s a realistic economist’s critique. Finally, I held agreement with sharp ethical criticisms from B. R. Myers review of Omnivore’s Dilemma in the Atlantic before the article was even published. Again (similar to Myers), I based judgments not upon on my own metric while reading, but upon what Pollan establishes in his own book at some points and then seems to dismiss or forget at others. Because of this general lack of consistency, Pollan’s writing fall far short of compelling.

    Taubes did the same thing in his article What If It’s All a Big Fat Lie? Early in the article he states, “This then leads to a research literature so vast that it's possible to find at least some published research to support virtually any theory.” Taubes then goes on to present his theory from the vast research literature while ignoring facts that don’t support his hypothesis. Taubes faults the establishment for oversimplifying “fats make you fat” -- which is largely a media creation and a strawman argument for him to slay -- but he goes ahead and produces his own oversimplifications as a solution, “carbs makes us fat”. It may or may not be entirely true, but thanks to his setup and delivery, the reader should already be skeptical.

    Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but if a food journalist and a science writer (professional writers!) can’t convey their message without painting themselves into corners, color me a skeptic as they have already failed at what they are supposed to be good at -- apart from making catchy articles and selling lot’s of books of course.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t have any personal grudge against these guys, I’m just being critical. They are certainly very intelligent and make some good points, I would even like to believe them that's initially why I've been interested in what they have to say. I’m just baffled as to why they are so careless with simplistic literary logic within their own writings.

    Regarding Pollan, according to a recent interview in USA Today he won’t be such a loud voice in the food movement much longer anyway.

  • Dr. Davis

    1/14/2008 12:59:00 PM |

    But step back for a moment and see what's happening: Lay authors are bringing a level of conversation and interpretation of scientific data that previously had been the exclusive province of scientists and physicians.

    I did enjoy both Pollan and Taubes and felt they were both effective writers, each in their own style. But I am especially impressed that they represent the start of a movement of self-empowerment, of taking healthcare and the delivery of its messages out of the hands of those in healthcare and into the minds and hands of the public.

  • David Brown

    1/16/2008 6:04:00 AM |

    Brandon makes a good point about oversimplification. However, his suggestion that Taubes' hypothesis might be wrong because he "chose" to discuss only certain research is off target. Perhaps what is needed is a more inclusive hypothesis that reconciles seemingly divergent hypotheses. On the one hand, there are those who lose weight by consuming fewer fat calories and fewer refined carbohydrate calories and by exercising more. On the other hand are those who successfully lose weight by adding fat calories, by subtracting carbohydrates of all kinds, and by eliminating refined carbohydrates altogether. Which is the correct approach? Perhaps both are; but for different reasons.

    Variations in biochemical and physiological makeup dictate the appropriate approach to weight loss, not preconceived notions about what will work. So my advice  (with apologies to Michael Pollan) is: Eat nutrient rich food, as much as you like, of the appropriate kind.

    If one's food intake is both nutritionally adequate and biochemically appropriate, BMI and fitness are of secondary importance.

    For further discussion I recommend "Biochemical Individuality" and Nutrition Against Disease" by Roger J. Williams, PhD and "Nutrition and Your Mind" by George Watson, PhD.

    David Brown
    Nutrition Science Analyst

  • Bix

    1/16/2008 12:06:00 PM |

    brandon makes some good points.  I also found contradictions in Pollan's and Taubes' writing.  (Pollan disses reductionist science but hails it when desirable, Taubes' leans on research to support his theory, but questions its believability generally.)  But I don't mind this.  They're both excellent writers and do outstanding research.

    Also, as Dr. Davis says, they throw these ideas into the public discourse.  I love listening to talk shows that have these authors as guests ... not so much for what they'll say, but to listen to the insights of people who call in.  People are so informed anymore.

    It's a little sad when I hear the FDA justifying decisions to remove labels from food (milk: rBST, cloned meats) by saying these labels are "confusing to the public".

  • Anonymous

    1/17/2008 6:35:00 PM |

    There is a nice interview of Mr. Pollan in the NY Times' Well Blog:

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 3:09:56 PM |

    Anyone who reads and thinks a lot about nutrition will find little new here. But nobody says it better than Pollan. While Gary Taubes (Good Calories, Bad Calories) is the real thinker of our age about nutrition, Michael Pollan is the true writer about it.