Michael Pollan: Forget Nutrition Charts, Eat What Grandma Said Is Good for You
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The green revolution, for example, is the application of these technologies to the developing world: hybrid seed, fertilizer, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and irrigation techniques, and growing in monocultures. There're a lot of very good intentions. There was a serious goal of feeding the world, but over the long term, it's been a disaster.
So, a lot of these technologies are double-edged swords. They're wonderful and powerful, and they're horrible and disastrous.
HK: And what happens, it seems, is a loss of checks and balances, that we don't continue to monitor the process and, as more information comes along, think about what the implications are. Is journalism at fault here, because we have no language to address the problems?
MP: Journalism could play a more aggressive role in assessing these things, but, in the end, journalism reflects the political culture of a country. One of the reasons we didn't have a debate about genetically modified crops before we introduced them in this country is because both the Republicans and the Democrats supported Monsanto and GMO technology, and when both political parties are on the same side, there's no space for journalists to operate.
When you're introducing technologies, you need a public discussion, and you need to think through what are the benefits and what are the risks. And that must be decided publicly, not privately.
I think a lot of our problem is that we assume all technologies are innocent until proven guilty, in this country especially. We're technological utopians, and we think you're a party pooper if you raise questions about genetically modified crops. There's a lot of money and potential in it, a lot of interesting intellectual property for a lot of people, and you're a Luddite if you raise any kinds of questions. And then forty, fifty years later we deal with the possible impacts. It's not to say that synthetic fertilizer was something we should not have done, but had we applied more of a precautionary science to it, we might have anticipated some of the problems and been able to mitigate them before they got too serious. So, I think it's a society problem.
HK: You've written about 'nutritionism' as a kind of ideology that purports to be a science--tell us more about that.
MP: We've adopted the reductive language of nutrition from the scientists: we all talk about saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup. It's fascinating to listen to Americans talk about food today. They sound like a bunch of amateur scientists. They don't talk about foods; they talk about nutrients. It's bizarre when you think about it, and it's been a fascinating phenomenon to watch.
"Nutritionism" is an ideology about food that's become general, and it's got four basic principles. The first is: foods don't matter, nutrients do. A food is essentially the sum of its nutrient parts, and a food, like steak, is a vehicle for carrying protein and saturated fat, because that's what matters.
The next premise is that you can divide the world into good and bad nutrients. There's always an evil nutrient that we're trying to rid from the food supply--trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, or saturated fat--and, on the other side is a blessed nutrient: if you could just get enough of that you'll be fine, you'll live forever. And that, of course, was fiber for a long time; now it's antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids.
A third principle is if the important thing in food is a nutrient, and nutrients are invisible to normal people, then you need experts to tell you how to eat.