As I am writing this, I am sitting at a Coffeehouse called Verite Coffee. Their coffee is good, their cupcakes are even better. I visit here often because it’s convenient, and the product they sell (coffee, cupcakes) are quite good. I have a fair amount of faith that if I hand over my six dollars, I’m going to be rewarded with a pleasant experience.
The key word in the above paragraph is the word “faith”. I didn’t blindly give it to the proprietors of Verite. They had earned it through a fair amount of repetition of experience.
It’s this word “faith” that I latched onto when I was reading Michael Pollan’s piece Unhappy Meals in the most recent New York Time Magazine. My mind acknowledged the major thesis of his article, but still found it lacking a decent foundation from which the thesis is based.
The overall idea in the article is that “nutritionism” (a word coined by a sociologist) has played a large factor in the over processing of processed food.
In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.
But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.
It’s an interesting idea, and one that sounds correct at it’s core. But the nutritionism is an effect, not a cause.
The key time frame that nutritionism entered into the industrial food world is roughly between 1975 and the late 1980′s/early 1990′s. This era roughly coincides with the rise of two very major socio-economic trends – single parent households and dual income households. And what’s the one resource in demand in both of these types of families?
The “nutritional” food explosion of the era in question didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened as a result of the marketplace not knowing what was in their food anymore, and not having the time (nor inclination) to find out. And as such, they turned their faith and trust over to food producers, in hopes that the food they purchased would be healthy, delicious, and convenient. And if two of those three properties aren’t available, please oh please let the food be convenient above anything else. One can see this in the rise of fast food, pizza delivery and single serving packaging.
The question on the table is now, did some industrial food companies abuse that trust? Of course they did, often by giving an allusion towards healthiness or deliciousness where none truly existed. The “All Natural 7up” and the low-fat ice cream are all the same strategy from the same playbook that has been around since Coca-Cola was sold as a health tonic.
Pollan does address this in his article.
The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating. You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat. The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? The answer by now should be clear.
With so much riding on diets, there’s only one person you should trust in your food decisions – yourself. If you find yourself lacking in information, find the time in your week to do the necessary research. It doesn’t matter if your primary choices are based on convenience, taste or health – it is you that has to live with the consequences of your choices. Faith in faceless institutions, especially in food companies whose primary goal is to increase their stock prices, is always an iffy proposition.