Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts.

So I finally finished Michael Pollan's most recent book In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto, a follow-up to  The Omnivore's Dilemma. In this new book Pollan explores what we should eat now and sums it up in seven words -- Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

However, more important than his conclusion of what to eat are Pollan's discussions of "The Age of Nutritionism." Nutritionism, coined in 2002 by the socialist, Gyorgy Scrinis, is a reductionist look at food -- understanding food in terms of its nutritional content.  

Many years ago I saw a movie called Mindwalk, one of the most philosophical and thought-provoking movies I have ever seen. The movie is based on the teachings of Fritjof Capra, a physicist and system theorist, and his book The Turning Point where he discusses the flaws of reductionist, Cartesian dualism, Newtonian paradigms and shows how modern society needs to develop holistic theories to solve today's problems. Basically the movie shows us that the way society looks at everything (global warming, deforestation, water pollution, etc.)  is by taking the issues apart piece by piece, mechanistically, and that we need to look at social issues as a whole rather than the sum of its parts.

Well, we are seeing this type of thinking with the rise of 'nutritionism' in the food we eat, and the way food science is trying to get us to think.  For example, walk down the aisles of the supermarket and you will see hundreds process food packages touting some nutrient or lack of nutrient claim -- now with antioxidants, vitamin rich, calcium added, low fat, no sugar added, low carb, no carb, low sodium, no trans fats...the list goes on.   (For a great commentary on these claims, read Mark Sisson's Daily Apple post on Ridiculous Health Claims, Mark's Daily Apple goes to the Grocery Store.) 

As Scrinis states, "Processed foods are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, or stripped of some of their fat, to enable such nutrient-content claims to be maid.  Nutrient claims on the labels of processed foods and drinks conceal the fact these foods are typically high in added fat, sugar, salt, chemicals, additives and reconstituted  ingredients, and have often been stripped of a range of beneficial micro-nutrients and food components. " (Sydney Morning Herald, Op-Ed, 2006

Our society has completely reduced the way we look at food into the nutrients or micronutrients -- whether good or bad.  Doing so has blurred the distinction between whole foods and processed foods.  A perfect example is Diet Coke Plus, diet soda with added nutrients.  Come on, diet soda with nutrients?  Who are they trying to fool?  So now we are getting our nutrients from a no-calorie drink?

We are now looking for processed foods for our "nutrients!"  Have we have completely forgotten how food grows?  Why fresh food, from the ground, grown without petroleum-based pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers is better for us than processed junk?

We need to remember the lessons of Capra and systems/holistic thinking.  Its connectedness and relationship to the earth, soil, sun, water, humans, etc.  It's a system that works as a whole and cannot be reduced to its smaller parts. Humans, plants, animals and the environment are a community that all work in concert with each other.  When we change one part, we change the perfect system. 

As Pollan state, " reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not but each of them dependent on the other, all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. ...the relationship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the food.  It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by." (In Defense of Food, pp. 200-201)

So the next time you go to the supermarket and are about to buy Baked Lays or Kellogg's Whole Grain Pop Tarts, think about it for a moment before putting it into your cart.  Think about the provenance of the pop-tart.  Think about its components.  How they got there, how they were processed.  Think about all the energy needed to make something that's not "natural."  And finally think about if you want you, your family, your kids and your community to to be eating this stuff.

If have not had a chance to read In Defense of Food, read The New York Times Magazine, Unhappy Meals by Michael Pollan that is basically an overview of the book.

1 comment:

brenda said...

I grew up in the sixties with the phrase"you are what you eat".......still a good phrase to guide your choices in the food realm.

All the info you are putting out is wonderful......keep it up!