Eat Food: Food Defined
Part two of this Getting Over Nutritionism series, which was introduced in my post For You Were Bought With a Price, So Glorify God in Your Body, discusses chapter two of part three in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In the introduction of this series I discussed the importance of taking care of our bodies, and in Part 1, I explained why nutrition isn’t exactly all it’s cracked up to be.
Image credit: Austin Kleon: A Writer Who Draws.
Pollan’s first rule on how to escape the Western diet and get over nutritionism seems simple: Eat Food. But although this seems like a simple concept, it is easier said than done in a world where supermarkets are filled with food-like items that are more products of industry rather than nature (even in the produce section, at times). Because of this difficulty, Pollan defines food in this chapter in order to help us choose foods and meals that are, in fact, food. He gives practical advice on how to figure out what is real food and what isn’t.
- Don’t eat anything your great (or great-great) -grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
It is important to be in the mindset of a time before the advent of most modern foods. Your great-great-grandmother knew/knows of yogurt as a food simply made up of milk with a bacterial culture, but would she believe us if we tried to tell her that yogurt bought at supermarkets today contain high-fructose corn syrup, modified cornstarch, kosher gelatin, carrageenan, tricalcium phosphate, natural and artificial flavors, vitamins, etc.?
It is true that for many years foods have been processed through things like pickling, fermenting, or smoking – these things were done in order to preserve the foods. Unfortunately, industrial processing does more than simply extending shelf life; they attempt to sell us more food by using our evolutionary instincts – our preferences to sweetness, fat, and salt. These three things were hard to find in nature, but were needed and sought after by our ancestors. The sweet taste and smell in things like berries helped our ancestors know if foods were poisonous or good to eat. The fat helped sustain, and salt helped preserve. All of these things were very important needs for our ancestors and therefore we have a natural desire for these three things. Although sweetness, fat, and salt were rarities in nature, they are easy for food scientists to deploy; causing us to eat much more than is good for us. “Tastes great, less filling!” should be the slogan for processed foods; they contain much less water, fiber, and micronutrients – and generally much more sugar and fat – causing them to be eligible for the slogan, “More fattening, less nutritious!”
- Avoid products containing ingredients that are: Unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup.
Although your great-great grandmother might see a loaf of bread or a wedge of cheese and think that they are actually bread and cheese, it is important to look at the ingredients list (NO, NOT THE NUTRITION FACTS, DO NOT BE CONFUSED BY THE TWO – I NEVER LOOK AT THE NUTRITION FACTS, BUT ALWAYS THE INGREDIETS LIST). All of the characteristics listed in this rule are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed; so much so that they are no longer what they claim to be – they are no longer food, but food products.
Your great-great grandmother can make a loaf of bread with four ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But unfortunately, even whole-grain bread made by the food industry has become extremely complicated. The ingredients list for Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread (which contradicts itself right there in the title) contains about 40 ingredients: “Enriched bleached flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin Bj), riboflavin (vitamin B2 ), folic acid], water, whole grains [whole wheat flour, brown rice flour (rice flour, rice bran)], high fructose corn syrup [hello!], whey, wheat gluten, yeast, cellulose. Contains 2% or less of each of the following: honey, calcium sulfate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed oils), salt, butter (cream, salt), dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: m o n o – and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides,ascorbic acid, enzymes, azodicarbonamide), guar gum, calcium propionate (preservative), distilled vinegar, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate), corn starch, natural flavor, beta- carotene (color), vitamin D3 , soy lecithin, soy flour.” This product fails every test in rule number two: unfamiliar ingredients, exceeds the max of five ingredients (by roughly 36), and it contains high-fructose corn syrup.
Food science attempts to make traditional foods healthier, but instead complicates them and fails at making them better for us. In order to lower the fat in dairy products, one cannot simply remove the fat. Scientists must include food additives in order to maintain the creamy texture. Skim milk, for example, is usually made by removing the fat and adding powdered milk, which contains oxidized cholesterol – which is actually much worse for our arteries than regular cholesterol, as scientists believe. Because of this, antioxidants are added at times, which complicates even further this originally one-ingredient food. Drinking milk helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, but removing the fat makes it much harder for your body to absorb these vitamins. “All these counterproductive food science processes are done in the name of our health – so that products can be wrapped in a label claiming they are a “good source of whole grain” or the magic words “low fat.”
- Avoid food products that make health claims (and/or are packaged).
In order for a food product to be able to make a health claim, it must first have a package, which is also an indication that it is more likely to be processed than be a whole food. Products of food science make bold health claims, but often they are incomplete and invalid. Here are some examples of foods that are far from being whole foods, but make bold, yet invalid, health claims:
- a) trans-fat-rich margarine was one of the first industrial foods to make the claim that it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced – unfortunately it turned out to give people heart attacks.
- b) Frito-Lay claims that eating their chips is good for your heart.
- c) Corn oil, chips, and refined-sugary breakfast cereals (such as Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix), Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich all brag about being good for the heart (with the help of the American Heart Association).
None of these (in a, b, or c) are real foods, and scientists are beginning to realize that dietary sugar plays a big part in heart disease than dietary fat. Genuinely heart-healthy whole foods are quietly lying in the produce section while these processed foods are changing and being modified to suit the health claims in the nutrition. “But don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health. Bogus health claims and food science have made super markets particularly treacherous places to shop for real food, which suggests two further rules.”
- Shop at the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
In most supermarkets, the center aisles are made up almost completely (if not totally) of processed food products, while the walls are lined with more fresh foods such as dairy, produce, meat, and fish. If you stay away from the center of the store, remaining on the outskirts of the isles, you will be more likely to find and buy real food. Be careful though to look at things like yogurt that might have high-fructose corn syrup. In order to make sure that it is impossible for you to buy products like this, visit the next rule:
- Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
There will be no high-fructose corn syrup at any farmer’s market, nor will there be any processed food products, packages with unpronounceable ingredients or health claims, and there will be no food that has come from across the world. Instead, going to a farmer’s market you will see fresh whole foods picked at the prime of their nutritional quality – foods that are easily recognized as just that, foods. The most reliable way to escape from the Western diet is to steer clear of the places it has dominated: the supermarket, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants. It is very difficult to eat unhealthily from a farmer’s market, a CSA box, or from your own garden. Fortunately, farmer’s markets have doubled in number over the past ten years, therefore they are much easier to find presently.
When shopping at a farmer’s market, you must buy foods that are in season, because that is all that is being sold; when foods are in season, they are in their most fresh and nutritious time of life (more than when canned or frozen), and will therefore be tastier as well. Eating only foods that are in season also brings diversity to your diet, causing you to broaden your cooking and meals. CSA boxes, for example, are boxes that farmers themselves put together for you full of a variety of in-season foods. Pollan says, “whether it’s a rutabaga or an unfamiliar squash, the CSA box’s contents invariably send you to your cookbooks to figure out what in the world to do with them.” Pollan goes on to explain that cooking is an extremely important consequence that comes with eating healthy; when cooking, a person does not use ethoxylated diglycerides or high-fructose corn syrup.
But what about the organic produce that comes from the supermarket? We are led to believe that all organic foods are healthier than all nonorganic foods. This isn’t the case. It is most likely that the organic produce sold in your supermarket has come from industrial organic farms from California or even China (one study states that the average organic produce sold in the supermarket has actually come further than the nonorganic produce sold in the supermarket). Although organic foods guarantee no fertilizers or synthetic pesticides have been used, many small farms who sell at farmer’s markets are actually organic, but simply do not hold the official title. If you are curious about the chemicals used by the farmers, simply ask the farmer how pests and fertility are dealt with on their farm – that is the beauty of the farmer’ market: conversation between the producers and the consumers; it is the best guarantee of good quality food. The problem with industrial food chains is the wall of ignorance that is built between the consumers and producers, creating carelessness on either side. When a farmer sells his food in a farmer’s market directly to the consumer face-to-face, he is reminded that he is growing food for real people who really eat his food; while the consumer is reminded that growing good, real food takes much care and work – we are able to know who grew the food, where it was grown, and how it was grown. “Food reclaims its story, and some of its nobility, when the person who grew it hands it to you. So here’s a sub clause to the get-out-of-the-supermarket rule: Shake the hand that feeds you.” When you able to shake the hand of the farmer who grew your food, there is a good relationship there, instead of a list of regulations or labeling. When we shop at a farmer’s market, we are reminded weekly that we are part of a food chain in which our health is dependent; dependent on the people, soils, and integrity of where we get our food.
“Eating is an agricultural act.”
I hope that these tips are helpful to you in your start to change your lifestyle of eating. Taking all of these rules at once can be daunting, so try one or two at a time and after a while try to make one more change. Currently, my husband and I struggle with the last rule, staying out of the supermarket. We are living in Finland until June, so it is difficult to find a farmer’s market here since everything is in Finnish (and we know barely any Finnish); but even while we were in the States we struggled with this rule simply because of convenience. Because we have pretty much mastered the first four (after a couple years of researching and making changes), we have made the decision to work on this last rule next. When we return to the States, we will be buying from the farmer’s markets as much as we can.
Once you start making even a couple of changes, you’ll be surprised at how easy and freeing it is to know what real food is when you see it (or the ingredients list) and to not have to be chained to nutritional facts.
Glorify God in Your Body.
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Page 147. Page 148-149. Page 150. Page 150. Pages 150-151. Page 153. Page 154. Page 155. Page 156. Page 157. Page 157. Pages 157-161. Pages 158-159. Page 160. Page 160. Page 161.