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Lifestyle

Lost in the supermarket

Forget everything you’ve heard about food in the last 30 years -- including what it is

Art by Christian Tedeschi
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Published 4/11/2007

Food ain't what it used to be. At least not in the last 50 years. And we'd better face up to it.

In the West, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetic engineering (with generous government subsidies) has produced more food more cheaply than at any time in the history of the world, particularly in the form of cheap corn grown on millions of acres across the United States' heavily subsidized corn belt. But this bounty comes at a price. The price is dear enough that a significant number of us are willing to pay a premium to opt out of industrial food production. And suddenly we face a dazzling array of perplexing choices — not just fast food versus health food, but organic, macrobiotic, raw, whole and slow. Ostensibly a move back to fundamentals, eating healthfully has never seemed more complicated.

Perhaps that's why an essay about the state of food by journalist Michael Pollan seems so refreshing, offering this simple advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That's it: succinct, but surprisingly controversial.

This January, in the provocative 10,000-word New York Times Magazine article, "Unhappy Meals," the best-selling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, calls "nutritionism" an ideology, or a system of beliefs undergirded with commonly shared but unexamined assumptions. He also argues that 30 years of fretting over nutrients hasn't made us healthier or helped us enjoy food more, and posits that many products probably shouldn't be called food at all.

And what are these edible non-foods? You'll find them in every glossy food magazine, only not in the recipes but right next to them in the ads. Opposite the tips and instructions on preparing fresh, wholesome food will be ads for processed food products from companies like Unilever and Kraft, with 17,000 new products — items like "go-gurt," breakfast-cereal bars, nondairy creamer — being introduced each year. Pollan argues that these processed products have, in many ways, replaced the actual food we used to buy, completely changing the way we eat.

What's more, he describes how "big food" benefits from the nutrition game, in which every few years we binge on a popular new nutrient, or avoid one formerly considered healthful, as with our current carbophobia. When good eating is a matter of getting the right mix of chemicals, large companies can alter the product to suit the latest health craze and slap on a sticker promoting this year's nutrient on the box.

We don't eat nutrients

Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian and a Detroit-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, says of these products, "Do they have macronutrients or micronutrients? Maybe a few. Does it use ingredients that started out as food? Yes." Thayer points out that with enriched foods, processors strip away the nutrients then add the ones we know about back in, depending on what people are most concerned about.

What we end up with is a faddish attitude toward the pleasures of the table, as nutrients go in and out of vogue, advertised and touted at great cost, and healthful food is banished to the corner of the supermarket where it sits quietly. Ultimately, the casualties of this system are our health and our happiness.

Pollan traces the story back to the late 1970s, when nutrition experts found their advisory niche. After political pressure kept public health bodies from urging people to eat less meat, nutrition experts promulgated guidelines urging people instead to avoid food high in saturated fats. That may have appeased the beef lobby, but putting things in terms of nutrients doesn't help people eat better, Pollan argues, because we don't eat nutrients, we eat food.

Thayer describes the confusion this nutrient-centric view causes.

"I think from what I've seen when I'm working with people, they tend to get bogged down by the nutrients. They hear something great about a phytochemical or polyphenols and so they're more interested in what's a good source of those, or they're much more likely to purchase a product that's advertised as being a good source of those nutrients."

Given Pollan's dismissal of "nutritionism" as an "ideology," you'd expect a defensive posture from a nutrition expert. But, surprisingly, Theresa Han-Markey, a lecturer on human nutrition at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, sees merit in Pollan's arguments, especially when it comes to our poor eating habits.

Though she sees signs of hope, she concedes, "The way we have educated and researched nutrition and presented it as nutrients has not promoted a healthier nation."

The national low-fat and low-carb binges have had a much greater effect on the public diet than careful nutritional guidelines. Telling people to eat three servings of vegetables a day simply isn't glamorous or sexy. "That's a non-nutrient, non-nutritional statement," Han-Markey says, "And only 3 percent of the nation takes in three servings of vegetables a day. That's all."

In fact, Pollan contends that the cautious wording of federal dietary guidelines aggravated the problem. In his article he explains, "by framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message ... to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did."

We end up eating more food, not less, to get healthy. Instead of eating less meat, people tried heroically to eat less fat. Instead of avoiding fried foods, people grew concerned about what frying oil was used. In the nutrient-oriented view of food, actual foods are infinitely complex, and are therefore poor candidates for scientific conclusions. Scientists need to isolate variables for study, but our bodies don't need to understand food to digest it.

The problem with this view of eating, Han-Markey says, is "When you study individual nutrients, the problem is that nobody eats like that."

And healthful eating isn't enough to ensure health. She points to a quote from New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle that appears in Pollan's article: "The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet, and the diet out of the context of lifestyle." In fact, fixating on nutrients can make people uncertain about traditional ways of eating that are healthier.

For instance, the national diets of France and Italy were developed over centuries through complex active relationships between people and plants and animals. Our susceptibility to the latest study often causes us to dine a la carte when scientists think they've found another magic bullet.

"Because Western culture is a melting pot," Thayer says, "we pick out the pieces of national cuisines that we like best, not necessarily those that are the healthiest. ... But a culture is much more than just food. People talk about how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, but it's about more than just adding olive oil to your food. What we seem to do is to take what we want out of traditional food and ignore the other pieces of it."

Instead, many experts on nutrition suggest an ambitious departure from habit. It's exciting advice. Get out of the supermarket. Get out into the garden. Be prepared to pay more to eat a bit less. Eat local. The suggestions are unscientific, but appealing: Instead of fretting over calories, carbs and fats, the answer may lie in our attraction to pleasures. A healthy food culture could actually encourage enjoying and sharing food. And finding joy in eating and socialization might make people healthier than a dour life of munching organic oat bran.

A return to eating food

The answer, according to dietitian Thayer, is simple: "Eating food, eating a variety of kinds of different food. The challenge is helping people include that variety in their diet, and how to get them closer to the farm."

And, despite soaring rates of diabetes and obesity, Han-Markey is cautiously optimistic about the future of eating in the United States.

"I can't deny that we've been focused as a nation on specified nutrients. That said, I think as a nation we're seeing a movement back toward whole food — and you're seeing that in the slow foods movement: It's really trying to get your food supply closer to your consumer."

Heritage Foods co-founder Todd Wickstrom is part of "slow food," a movement defending traditional food cultures against global, homogenized fast food. His company provides farm-raised whole food for chefs and restaurants, and he has experienced his share of anxiety over the years. "It's never easy. Years ago we introduced organic chicken. Now we have to worry about what breed it is. I mean, where is it going to stop?

"But once you've woken up to the realities of the food system, you say, 'Oh, my god, what am I going to eat?' And there aren't a whole lot of options. It's very difficult to do things the right way and the deck is stacked against those who try to."

Instead of government guidelines, legislative controls or tough inspections, Wickstrom says the best path to good eating is being a demanding customer. "The solution isn't more government controls, it's stronger relationships with the individual farmers who grow our food. That's the piece that's gotten so far removed, growing the food, where it comes from."

Though we Americans spent almost a quarter of our income on food 60 years ago, today we spend less than 10 percent, the lowest amount in the industrialized world. Paying more to eat less will be a hard sell for most of us.

It's something Wickstrom struggles against daily "What we've done in this country is make everything fast, cheap and easy, taking whatever shortcuts we can."

But enough consumers are putting their money where their mouths are to support fledgling businesses like Wickstrom's. At Ann Arbor's premier slow-food restaurant, Eve, the staff can describe the origin of all the food that shows up on their plates. Owner Eve Aronoff says, "It's very important to us, but it's surprising not everybody thinks that way. For me it's a given. We care, we like to think our customers care, but it's not on everybody's mind. When you go to a store and they don't know the story of the food, that's not a good sign."

But this kind of discriminating dining requires a great deal of education, another cost borne by the small businesses trying to eke out a living. You need customers who know what questions to ask. Wickstrom says, "What does grass-fed mean? What is pasture-raised? To do things right costs money, but if people can't interpret what they're buying, they go back to buying by price."

The food science of local eating is actually on the side of producers like Wickstrom. Han-Markey notes, "Does bagged spinach from California in January have the same nutrient content as spinach grown in Michigan during Michigan's growing season? No. We know it's different."

Though the evidence is out there, it's often frustrating to be up against a public that's unwilling to pay more for healthful food. "The food that they're eating is killing them," Wickstrom says. "People don't stop and think, it doesn't register in their mind how you can sell a chicken breast for 49 cents a pound. Where does all this money come from? What do they eat? It's very difficult to understand there's got to be something wrong with that picture.

"But things are changing, people are starting to wake up and realize where their food comes from."

Listen to your body

For a meat-and-potatoes culture, this is heady stuff. Just how heady? In Pollan's final analysis, food isn't even a thing so much as it's a relationship with nature. And health is the full expression of that relationship, which we may never completely understand.

Thayer agrees: "Food is made up of many different chemicals. We've identified what they are but we don't know how they work in concert together."

But perhaps it's best left as a mystery. If anybody knows how people learn to eat well, George Gize should. As co-owner of Ferndale's Assaggi Mediterranean Bistro, Gize knows the culinary map that stretches from Cadiz to Lebanon, reputed to be one of the world's healthiest regions.

But instead of holding forth on the topic of eating well, the question is so elementary it stops Gize in his tracks. As if explaining something painfully obvious, he says, "It depends on how you are exposed to it in your family. That's where it starts. ... I'm not a health adviser. Your system tells you what you want to eat."

He admits other factors: "your region, your social life, your activities, your lifestyle."

He also points out the pleasures of the table, whether that means flirting with company or enjoying the rhythm of the service. Behavioral research shows that people eating alone won't have as varied a diet, are likely to eat processed food, will eat on the fly, won't make time to sit down and enjoy the food, and often won't realize they're full.

But ultimately, Gize says, the answer is within us. It's as satisfying as it is simple. "Listen to your body," Gize says. "Do you want something sweet? Something acid? Good? Fresh? Balanced? You'll have a varied diet."

 

POLLAN'S RULES

1.    Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

2.    Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims. They're apt to be heavily processed, and the claims are often dubious at best.

3.    Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.

4.    Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won't find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmer's market; you also won't find food harvested long ago and far away.

5.    Pay more, eat less. Paying more for food well grown in good soils contributes to everybody's health. ''Calorie restriction'' has been shown to slow aging in animals, and many researchers believe it offers the single strongest link between diet and cancer prevention.

6.    Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what's so good about plants, but they do agree that they're probably really good for you and certainly can't hurt.

7.    Eat more like the french (or the Japanese, Italians, Greeks, etc.) People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are.

8.    Cook. And if you can, plant a garden. To help provide our own sustenance is the antithesis of fast food.

9.    Eat like an omnivore. The greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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