A Fork in the Road

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Eat food that is capable of rotting. As unappetising as this may sound, it could be the essence of journalist Michael Pollan‘s latest book, In Defense of Food.

In Defense of Food debunks food science, "nutritionism" and much of the medical advice we’ve accepted for the past 30 years. But don’t expect the magic bullet for a longer, healthier life: Pollan singles out the Western diet as the greatest threat to our health.

Why? Because the Western diet (not to mention the size of the portions we eat) consists largely of processed foods, including refined carbohydrates, excess fructose and additives which may be responsible for decreasing our average life expectancy. Pollan identifies this increased reliance on processed rather than whole foods as the critical shift in our diet.

Pollan is cynical of labels such as "healthy" or "high technology" on processed foods. Instead, he champions the virtue of the simple, unmodified foods which, without effective lobby groups, are rapidly disappearing from our shopping baskets and our kitchens.

Food’s journey from the farm to the kitchen was followed in Pollan’s previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which highlighted the growing disconnect between consumers and the food they eat. Pollan is concerned that the old skills each culture used to negotiate humans’ relationship with the natural world – whether that be farming through trial and error, or finding ways to make inedible soy beans edible – have been lost in the name of modern science.

An example of this phenomenon? Margarine.

Margarine was the first major synthetic food to enter the Western diet, in the early 20th century. With scientific opinion in the 1950s linking the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol with heart disease, food manufacturers tinkered with margarine. It was sold as better – or smarter – than butter, replacing bad nutrients (cholesterol and saturated fats) with good ones (polyunsaturated fats, vitamins, omega-3 and so on).

Food scientists may defend this approach as improving on mother nature, delivering beneficial nutrients in a convenient, efficient format. Pollan sees this as reductionist, pinpointing a specific component of food and linking it to "proven health benefits".

(Remember the oat bran fad of 1988, when everyone tried to consume as much oat bran as possible? The food industry capitalised on this by adding oat bran to as many processed foods as possible.)

Pollan acknowledges that the cheapest calories are soy and corn based ones – both heavily subsidised in the US. These are rife in popular food products such as bread, soft drink and TV dinners, found in formats such as soy lecithin, corn starches and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCP). When asked how we can be expected to eat better when the cheapest and most accessible food is largely unhealthy, Pollan says he sees the growth of farmers markets as critical. Although he doesn’t suggest subsidising the production of perishable foods such as carrots and broccoli, he does believe policymakers should subsidise their cost to consumers.

Another strategy is learning to cook. Regardless of social class, studies indicate that people who cook their own food are healthier than those who don’t. Education on better eating is important but what about education about the (less healthy) foods we currently eat?

Recently, a Sydney local council voted to ban trans fats (found in chips, burgers and other fried foods) from cafes, restaurants and take-away outlets, but without any similar State or Federal legislation, are still reviewing their legal options. Thus the council’s initial plan is to educate consumers on the dangers of trans fats. Pollan doesn’t believe trans fats should be banned, arguing instead that "compulsory labelling of products will encourage companies to stop using hydrogenated oils".

Many of the tips In Defence of Food offers on what (and how) to eat may seem like fairly common sense, but after reading what and how people consume in countries like Australia, it is clearly time to stop and re-think our eating habits.

One tip Pollan offered during his session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival was "pay more and eat less". The motivation is this: by eating better quality, whole foods, you will save on the health costs of obesity and type two diabetes. A child in the US deemed at risk of either of these faces seven years off their life expectancy, $14,000 per year in additional medical care, and an 80 per cent chance of heart disease.

These are frightening possibilities, but perhaps the spector of the dialysis machine is not as intimidating to Australians as it was 10 years ago. As a $33 billion bohemoth adept at marketing, the food industry is already creating products for the growing diabetic market, in effect allowing consumers to eat "normal foods" (such as chocolate, pizza and icecream) with a range of diabetic-specific products.

As Pollan puts it, we find ourselves "at a fork in the road: we either change the way we eat, or we become nations where dialysis machines are as common as McDonald’s on every street corner."

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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