Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Michael Pollan - Unhappy Meals

In the january 28, 2007 New York Times Michael Pollan has a lengthy article called "Unhappy Meals." I'm not sure why he chose this title, because it leads you to believe that the article will be about the animal suffering that happens in the meat industry. Instead it's about nutritional claims and why "big beef" and "big agriculture" go to so much trouble to make nutrition confusing when all you really need to know is that you should, as Pollan says, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
P.s. by food he means real food, like a radish. Not a food product which probably comes wrapped up in packaging which spouts various health claims.

Pollan by the way is the author of the fairly new Omnivore's Dilemma which I have sitting on my desk, but haven't started reading yet.

anyway, this is a excerpt from the New York Times article. This is the kind of "big business sucker punching consumers so that they can make more money" crap that drives me batty. It's like the tire, oil and car companies in the 1920's buying up light rail public transit systems so that they could tear them down and make everyone pay for tires, gas and cars to get to work.

Unhappy Meals
Michael Pollan 28 January 2007 New York times
10382 words



No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet -- including heart disease, cancer and diabetes -- a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called ''Dietary Goals for the United States.'' The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Naively putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee's recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food -- the committee had advised Americans to actually ''reduce consumption of meat'' -- was replaced by artful compromise: ''Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.''

A subtle change in emphasis, you might say, but a world of difference just the same. First, the stark message to ''eat less'' of a particular food has been deep-sixed; don't look for it ever again in any official U.S. dietary pronouncement. Second, notice how distinctions between entities as different as fish and beef and chicken have collapsed; those three venerable foods, each representing an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves; now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless -- and politically unconnected -- substance that may or may not lurk in them called ''saturated fat.''

The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue McGovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein sitting in the middle of its plate. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington. This was precisely the tack taken by the National Academy of Sciences when it issued its landmark report on diet and cancer in 1982. Organized nutrient by nutrient in a way guaranteed to offend no food group, it codified the official new dietary language. Industry and media followed suit, and terms like polyunsaturated, cholesterol, monounsaturated, carbohydrate, fiber, polyphenols, amino acids and carotenes soon colonized much of the cultural space previously occupied by the tangible substance formerly known as food. The Age of Nutritionism had arrived.

1 comment:

Karen Stilwell said...

I remember reading that article when it first came out. It is excellent. That line "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." stuck with me. Although, in my head, I transposed "leaves" for "plants" for some reason. But anyway, excellent article!