In defense of food, part 1

by guest blogger Rich Baringer,

In defense of food_PollanI first heard of Michael Pollan while organizing a screening of the film Fresh a few years ago. There were a lot of great points made by a lot of interesting people in that film, but his stood out to me and made me think about not only how important eating “real” food is, but how it impacts so many parts of our lives–the environment, the economy, health care, etc.

I recently read his 2008 book, In Defense of Food and it was eye-opening. If you are at all interested in how food can affect our lives and health, then this is a must read.

In my mind as I read the book, I was going to write a blog entry about it. But there are so many interesting and worthwhile topics that he discussed in the book, it’s hard to just choose a couple. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’ll revert back to my junior-high-book-report-writing days and try to summarize what Pollan’s book is all about. It’ll take more than one blog entry, but hopefully, it’ll whet your appetite (pun intended) to read the book.

I admit that after reading the book, I look at everything that I eat in a different light. His ideas are thought-provoking and make a lot of sense. The last parts of the book are his tips and suggestions for how to eat. Some of them are things that I already do–and maybe should do more of. Some, admittedly, are just not practical–for me, at least. I want a Coke or a Tastykake once in a while. But just getting people to think about these things will help to change the food culture in this country, which is at the root of our eating problems.

Part of what Pollan tries to do in the beginning of the book is to define what “food” is. Food is not necessarily anything we eat. In his definition, we eat a lot more than “food”. He writes:

But I contend that most of what we’re consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we’re consuming it–in the car, in front of the TV, and, increasingly, alone–is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term.

Eating is so much more than just ingesting food. It’s about pleasure, communion, family, culture. I recently wrote about how important eating as a family can be to the development of a family–especially the children. (Click here for that post.)

But despite how we in this country are eating–filling ourselves with non-nutritious foods on the run–we seem to want to eat healthily. Pollan talks extensively about how we have become “a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” An interesting thought, huh?

Think about it. We are inundated by ads for weight loss, nutritional supplements, vitamins, fish oil, on and on and on. Walk through a supermarket and look at all the items with some sort of nutritional claim–whole grain, fortified with vitamins and minerals, low-fat, low-sodium, added antioxidants, etc.

This is “nutritionism.” The idea that eating is simply taking in nutrients–with little or no regard for anything else. And our country’s obsession with this idea has helped it to grow.

Milk cartonsPollan tells about a 1938 Act that required the word “imitation” on any food that was in any way changed from the traditional or common form of the food. Milk with added vitamins and the like. If anything was changed, it was “imitation.” But in 1973, the FDA repealed this rule while passing new food labeling laws. Now, as long as the food was not deemed “nutritionally inferior” to the “real” version, it was not “imitation.”

With that, the regulatory door was thrown open to all manner of faked low-fat products: Fats in things like sour cream and yogurt could now be replaced with hydrogenated oils or guar gum or carrageenan, bacon bits could be replaced with soy protein, the cream in “whipped cream” and “coffee creamer” could be replaced with corn starch…

Not imitation in the government’s eyes, but imitation nonetheless. And in most cases, less healthy, despite what is told to us by the producers of these items. It was the beginning of the confusion of food labels that is meant to draw us in with all those promises.

Read In Defense of Food, part 2 here.Read In Defense of Food, part 3 here.

Rich Baringer is a personal chef and owner of Dinner’s Done. He lives in Blooming Glen with his wife, Mary Beth, and son, Jake. He is a strong supporter of local food and sources locally for his clients. And his food is really good. Check out his website for more about him.

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