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Eat Food without Labels

For decades, the consumption of news has complicated our consumption of food. So says Michael Pollan, professor of science and environmental journalism. He explains how health studies, the reporters who love them and especially food labels have left us poorly fed and informed.

For decades, the consumption of news has complicated our consumption of food. Nowadays what we buy to eat is determined by shifting health studies. Carbs are good for you. No, they’re bad. Fats make you fat. No, they don’t. And food labels only increase our confusion.

Michael Pollan argues in his book In Defense of Food, out next week in paperback, against nutritionism, an ideology that sees foods as mere packets of nutrients whose interactions must be interpreted by scientists.

He says we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by studies or news reports or, especially, food labeling. Humans can thrive on all sorts of diets. Some live healthy lives on nothing but cattle or seafood. In fact, he told us last year, only one diet has consistently proved hazardous to our health.

People who have done ethnographic research around food have found an astonishing array of different traditional diets on which people have been extremely healthy. But there is one diet that it appears that we are poorly adapted to, and that is what we call the western diet. The diet makes people fat and diabetic. It gives them heart disease. It gives them an assortment of cancers. It’s just very toxic to our bodies.

In the early ’80s the American supermarket underwent a kind of transformation. Packages now talk about how much cholesterol or how little cholesterol, how much fat, how much sugar – a whole lot of science. The whole discourse surrounding food underwent a revolution, and that’s where we are today. We speak about food as if they are a collection of nutrients and the nutrients are what matters.

Let’s talk about guidance. Some of the rules for healthy eating are: don’t eat anything that doesn’t rot, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, don’t eat anything that has an unfamiliar, unpronounceable name, don’t eat anything with high fructose corn syrup, don’t eat food that features health claims on their labels.

That might seem a little counter-intuitive, but the reason that health claims should be avoided is by looking at the kinds of products that carry them. You find health claims on processed foods. Fruits and vegetables, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have the packaging. The healthiest food is silent.

Bore back through the science to the native wisdom that we once had. Tradition around food is not just turning back the clock. It’s the distilled wisdom of the group. What people eat is the result of generations upon generations of essentially dietary trial and error to figure out what keeps people healthy and happy.

The nutrition science on which all these dietary recommendations are based is very well meaning but it’s also very crude. The media and the consumer should take it all with many, many grains of salt, and watch it and be interested in it but not change behavior based on the latest nutritional study, because it’s simply not strong enough as a guide. The media has done a disservice by over-promoting whatever the newest wrinkle is in health studies and not examining the quality of the research or reminding us that science is an incremental process. Small bits of knowledge are advanced and then they’re overturned. And that’s not an unusual thing, but the media tends to kind of lock everybody into a position.

Worry about the new rating systems that are poised to take over the supermarket. Very soon there will be these ratings of 1 through 100 trying to help you distinguish whether Nilla Wafers are better than Chips Ahoy. What science will those ratings be based on? Will they be based on the old-think about dietary fat or the new-think about carbohydrates? And what will they do in five years when the new-think is now the old-think?

Eaters must take back control over their diets and not be baffled and intimidated and daunted by experts.

Michael Pollan’s book is In Defense of Food.

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