by Patrick Baker
What is food? It’s kind of like asking, ‘what is fire?’ The answer seems obvious until you are forced to think about it. So what is fire? From antiquity to the early modern period the answer was easy. Fire was one of the four basic elements, along with earth, air, and water. But the situation became problematic once scientists discovered that these supposedly elementary substances were composed of smaller units: water a compound of oxygen and hydrogen, air a mixture of several gases, and earth a composite of various minerals. But what about fire? Was it solid, liquid, or gas? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Composite or elementary? As it turned out, fire is none of these. It is a process of combustion, a release of energy in the form of heat and light. Okay, so what is food?
As becomes clear in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, this is as difficult a question as the one about fire. For it, like the other, is a question mal posée. Fire defied human understanding as long as it was treated as a substance whose essence was to be sought in component parts; only once this assumption was abandoned could fire be accepted for what it actually is, a form of energy. Food has been misunderstand for over a century, ever since it became an object of scientific inquiry. Until then it had been a beloved but uncontroversial aspect of culture. Enter the science of nutritionism, which decided to search for the secret of food in component parts called nutrients, including everything from vitamin A to what we now call omega-3 fatty acids, and beyond. The idea was to make food better, but nothing short of catastrophe ensued. For although we have been blessed with the convenience of prepackaged foods (some of which could outlast cockroaches), we are also saddled with proneness to fatal illnesses like heart disease and type-2 diabetes, an obsession with ever-changing diet fads, and an iron-clad uncertainty about what we should eat. Oh yeah, and we don’t know what food is anymore either.
Through about two hundred pages of prose that are at least as enlightening as they are entertaining (and among the best that journalism has to offer), Pollan argues that food is more than the sum of its parts. It is not, as nutritionists think, a delivery device for a collection of nutrients. No, it is a vital, synergistic phenomenon that has its greatest effect through culture and in social situations. Food is something to be enjoyed, not analyzed, grown, not developed in a laboratory. It must be composed of recognizable organic substances. And it must be recognizable to your great-grandmother as food. Thus, one of the rules of thumb set out in Pollan’s third and final section, “Getting Over the Western Diet,” recommends: “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.”
Other tips include: “Avoid food products that make health claims,” “get out of the supermarket whenever possible,” “buy a freezer,” “eat more like the French,” “have a glass of wine with dinner,” “pay more, eat less,” “eat meals,” and, perhaps best of all, “consult your gut.” All of these pieces of advice seem either childishly obvious or hopelessly counterintuitive. And that, for Pollan, is one of the major problems with the way we Americans now approach food. When it comes to thinking about health, we disregard criteria that should be obvious, such as taste, satiety, enjoyment, common sense, and keeping a stock of truly good food on hand. Instead, we give in to the pseudo-scientific claims of the “food industry,” which is far more devoted to making money than to nourishing us. It would have us buy food as far removed from the earth as possible, i.e. in packaged form from a supermarket. It wants us to eat food in a way cut off from culture, i.e. on the move or on the side, and as preprepared as possible. And it fills so-called “food” with a bunch of stuff that, whatever it might be, is simply not food. Real food seldom has eight syllables.
But In Defense of Food is far more than a compendium of tips on eating. Following on the heels of Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and delightfully not covering any of the same ground, it is a hard-headed investigation of how we Americans approach food and why. Before getting to his advice, Pollan offers two sections devoted to the origin and development of modern thought about nutrition and to the ill effects of the Western diet, respectively. In the former he exposes the shaky scientific basis of the original health fad, nutritionism, and the reasons for which its proponents can’t get their heads around what food really is. In the latter he addresses the elephant in the room, namely the undeniable fact that the Western diet simply makes everyone who adopts it sick, including us Westerners. It’s the modern smallpox, except it kills the settlers too.
But the good news, according to Pollan, is that the outlook is far from bleak. Once we abandon the viewpoint of nutritionism, namely that what is important about food is some magic-bullet combination of nutrients, and focus on making moderate, good-tasting whole meals out of fresh food, it is actually quite hard to go wrong. And if that’s too hard, we can at least start with the advice on the book’s cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”