Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: Michael Pollan Debunks Food Myths

Michael Pollan Debunks Food Myths
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

The human digestive tract has about the same number of neurons as the spinal column. What are they there for? The final word isn't in yet, but Michael Pollan thinks their existence suggests that digestion may be more than the rather mundane process of breaking down food into chemicals. And, keeping those numerous digestive neurons in mind, Pollan's new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto entreaties us to follow our knowledgeable guts when it comes to figuring out what to eat.

Nutrition science and the food industry have been changing their minds about what Americans should eat for years. Low fat, no fat, low carb, high protein. In In Defense of Food, Pollan argues that all of these fixations amount to a uniquely American disease: orthorexia -- an unhealthy obsession with eating. And as statistics on diabetes and obesity can attest, obsessing doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Pollan takes the reader on a journey through the science of food and reveals how it is that we've ignored our guts and followed the ever-changing tune of food science. At once a scathing indictment of the food industry, and a call for a return to real food, Pollan's latest book reveals how Americans have been dangerously misled into adopting "low fat" as a fundamental food mantra, and how most of the products on our supermarket shelves should be called "imitation."

Pollan recently sat down with AlterNet to explain why cooking from scratch has become a subversive act, and to tell us things our guts probably already knew.


OR: You write that, "Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet." This is in a discussion of the "imitation food rule" -- can you talk about his?

MP: That was another red-letter day in the rise of nutritionism. Basically, the Food and Drug Administration was started in 1938 with the Food and Drug Act and as part of that was this rule that basically held that there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows like bread and pasta and yogurt and sour cream and if you're going to fundamentally change their identity by substituting one nutrient for another, you had to call them imitations. If you look at the ingredients of something like no-fat sour cream, you will find all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sour cream. You will find carrageenan and guar gum. These are parts of seaweed and beans. These are all substitutes for the fat in sour cream. It is not sour cream, and the law used to require you to say as much, but in 1973, the FDA -- without going to Congress -- simply repealed the imitation rule.

They did it at the behest of organizations like the American Heart Association, who thought that this would be a good thing. That the imitation rule was standing in the way of reengineering the food supply to make it contain less fat. Because no one would buy products called "imitation sour cream." Would you buy imitation pasta? No. But "low-carb pasta" might sound more appealing.

Throwing out the imitation rule essentially allowed the food companies to do what they wanted with things like yogurt or sour cream -- fundamentally change the identities of food without having to disclose it. We've moved from real foods like sour cream to edible food-like substances like low-fat sour cream that I refuse to call food. I think we should restore the imitation rule. We still have it for certain products.

So for example, if you want to sell chocolate, you have to use cocoa butter as the fat in the chocolate. But now there's a move to get that changed. The Hershey's Co. has petitioned the government to change the standard of identity of chocolate so that you could use corn oil or soy oil, which would be cheaper. Fortunately, Mars, Inc. is holding out to let chocolate be chocolate. But this is why I felt I needed to write a defense of food. Food is under assault by industry and nutrition science, who think they can improve on the foods we've had for hundreds of thousands of years. My contention is, they can't.

OR: It was interesting that the FDA, and not Congress, repealed this. What's the legality of that?

MP: I think they were acting without authority. This happens more than you may think. It happened with the organic rules. The original legislation in 1990 that began the process that led to organic certification said that you could use no synthetics in organic processed food. It was very clear-cut. But the industry, when they started writing these rules said, we need these synthetics, we can't possibly make all this wonderfully organic junk food without certain synthetic ingredients.

So the USDA's organic standards board just went ahead and created a list of the law of synthetics. This was completely extralegal. Then this blueberry farmer from Maine sued and he won. Then the industry went to Congress and got them to change the law. It would be wonderful if some enterprising public interest lawyer decided to sue to restore the imitation rule. My guess is Kraft, General Mills, Frito Lay and Pepsi-Cola would all go to Congress, and some very obscure provision would be attached to a very obscure spending bill, and we'd be back where we are today.

To Read the Rest of the Interview

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