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Michael Pollan's "In defense of food" - a critique

Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food’ has been a global best seller within the genre of books on food and health. It appears to be extremely popular among journalists since it bashes conventional wisdom on food. Twice, correspondents for the Irish Times chose to feature this book and marvel at its wisdom. Pollan’s book is peppered with half-truths, circular arguments and highly selective supporting material. His fundamental point is that we should focus our dietary choice on foods and not bother too much, if at all, with all of this nutritional advice that abounds today.

Pollen’s belief that health is the driver of food choice in the modern era is a cornerstone of his argument. Take for example the statement he makes: “That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new, and I think, destructive idea”.  As I pointed out in my blog of April 2nd, the interest in healthy eating is as old as civilisation and this obsession is the pursuit of a relatively minor section of society[1]. The vast majority chooses food that they plan to enjoy and, in making those choices, take care to get some level of balance as regards to their personal health. Every study that has examined the drivers of food choice have come away with the conclusion that the “go – no go” part of food choice is whether the consumer likes the food.  Pollan’s assumption that it is the pursuit of health that drives food choice is an opinion based his personal reflections and observations. However, our own research, published in peer-reviewed journals shows the opposite. In a survey of over 14,000 consumers across the EU, some 71% either ‘agreed strongly’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement: “I do not need to make changes to my diet as my diet is already healthy enough”.  Figure that Mr Pollan!

The putative obsession with food and health of modern consumers that Pollan puts forward arises from the dogmatism and doctrine, which he calls “nutritionism”. He argues that nutrition has reduced the food and health issue to nutrients. In his view, nutritionists see foods solely as purveyors of nutrients and summarises their view thus: “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts”.  He quotes his fellow food saviour and author Marion Nestle who says of nutrition: “…it takes the nutrient out of the food, the food out of the diet and the diet out of the lifestyle”. Eloquent, but utter baloney! This needs to rebutted along several lines. In 1996, I chaired a joint WHO-FAO committee that issued a report entitled “Preparation and use of food-based dietary guidelines”. The notion behind this was that many developing countries did not have detailed data on the nutrient content of their food supply, that they didn’t have nutritional surveys and that we should encourage the development of healthy eating advice in terms that consumers can understand. Indeed, statistical techniques such as cluster analysis are widely used to study food intake patterns and moreover, there are many examples of systems that score food choice for their nutritional quality. To write a book based on the impression that nutritionist see foods solely in terms of nutrients is simply daft.
Let me go a little further with this. Take the disease spina bifida, which is one of several forms of neural tube defects (NTD) that occur early in pregnancy. Extensive human intervention studies have shown that an increased intake of the B vitamin, folic acid, will significantly reduce the re-occurrence of an NTD birth in women who have previously had a child with this condition. This research has led to a threshold value of folic acid in blood above which this reduction occurs and the research shows that in human intervention studies, it is not possible to attain this threshold with normal foods, naturally rich in folate. Such folate has a rather low bioavailability and the threshold can only be reached if the volunteers consumed foods fortified with synthetic folic acid. This has led to the mandatory fortification of flour in the US with folic acid leading to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of new cases of spina bifida.
What is laughable about Pollan’s approach is that he himself engages in his so-called reductionism because he devotes at least almost 11 pages to the argument for and against the polyunsaturated fats from plants (omega-6 variety) and the polyunsaturated fats from fish (omega-3 variety), ultimately favouring the latter and then ends up with the statement: ”Could it be that the problem with the Western diet is a gross deficiency in this nutrient?” Now Michael you can’t have it both ways. You can’t decry nutritionists for studying individual nutrients in relation to health and then proceed to do so yourself! And remarkably, this champion of foods over nutrients goes on to argue that older persons should take multivitamins. Don’t take a bow Michael. Just stop doing summersaults.

The final piece in his jigsaw is to dismiss the modern processed food as though bread, cheese, yogurt, pasta, wine, chocolate, coffee and the like are not processed. Their processing details were worked out long ago and so they don’t qualify for the derogatory tag of “processed”. As I pointed out in a recent blog, the first sugar refinery was built in Crete in 1000 AD and that the Arabic name for Crete, Qandi, gave rise to what we today call “candy”. This process requires the sugar can to be pulped in water, the water filtered through muslin and the water evaporated in the searing heat of the Crete sunshine, which is why Crete was chosen and not Cork. And he makes the inevitable mistake of the agricultural romanticist that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventionally farmed food, which is palpably untrue but let that be next week’s blog.

[1] Sex, obesity and the seven deadly sins


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