Saturday, May 24, 2008

Deep in the Soul of Carrots

Last night the Australian Broadcasting Service had an interview with Michael Pollan, American and bestselling author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food." Pollan writes a lot about things like processed food and the way food is marketed as "nutritious" to get us to buy it. One small bit:
KERRY O'BRIEN [interviewer]: You talk about nutritionism as opposed to nutrition, what do you mean?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, that's key distinction. I mean nutrition and nutritional science is important work and it needs to go on and be perfected. Nutritionism is an ideology, it's a way of looking at food, it's a lens, and basically it encourages us to think about food as a collection of nutrients and that if you get the nutrients right you'll be fine, you know, avoid saturated fat, eat omega 3s and it divides the world into blessed nutrients that if we ate enough of them we'd live forever and satanic nutrients we're trying to drive from the food supply.

There's a couple of problems with nutritionism. One is if the nutrient is the important unit in food and not the food, and only scientists can see nutrients with their microscopes, have you ever seen a nutrient or tasted one? No. You need experts to tell you how to eat and so that we have a priesthood of telling us how to eat and I think that's proved to be very unhealthy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: To illustrate your point of how science gets it wrong, you tell the story of the humble carrot.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, there's a great example. We know carrots are good for you, right? People have been eating them for a long time and the assumption was that what was good in cancer preventing in the carrot was the beta carotene, what makes it orange. So we extracted that and we made these supplement pills and we gave them to people and low and behold in certain populations like people who drink a lot would get sicker, were more likely to get cancer on beta carotene and the scientists kind of scratched their head. There is a couple of explanations. We don't know. But one may be that the beta carotene is not the key ingredient. You know there are 50 other carotenes in carrots.

Food is incredibly complex. It's a wilderness, you know, we don't know what's going on deep in the soul of a carrot. And we shouldn't kid ourselves to think we can reduce it to these chemicals. It also may be some synergies between different thing. Beta carotene is also found in the company of chlorophyll, maybe it's that combination that contributes to health.

The point is we don't, as eaters, need to know what makes carrots work. We can eat carrots, they taste good, they're good for you. It's that simple. This reductive approach to food that's been pushed by the scientist, and they need to think reductively, no question, they need to isolate variables to test them. But to take that very sketchy information and start marketing food and supplements on the basis of it, it's very misleading. I'm not anti-science, I think nutrition science is very important and eventually they'll get it right but the way I look at it is it's a very young science, it's kind of like where surgery was in the year 1650, okay. Very promising, very interesting, but not quite ready to guide you in your own health decisions.

The rest of the interview can be found here, as both a transcript and video. I really recommend it.

Pollan was so interesting I looked around online and found in another interview a great analysis of Whole Foods.
I use the term “supermarket pastoral” for the experience of shopping in a place like that. Whole Foods, they’re brilliant storytellers. You walk into that store, and it just looks like a beautiful garden, and there are pictures of organic farmers up on the walls, and little labels that describe how the cow lived that became your milk or your beef, and the cage-free vegetarian hens who got to free range.

They’re creating in your minds an image of a farm very much like the ones in the books you read as children—with a diversity of happy animals wandering around the farmyard.

It’s very cleverly designed, but unfortunately like a lot of pastoral forms of art, it’s based on illusions. Not entirely, but if you go to the farm depicted on those labels, you find that in fact, things look a little bit different.

Organic milk might be coming from a dry organic feedlot where 500 cows are milling around and never get to eat a blade of grass. I have a feeling that’s not what the consumer thinks they’re getting.

Free-range chickens—I did go visit a large organic chicken producer here in California, and if you look at their label, there’s a farmstead with a little silo and a farm house and a farmyard and chickens running around, but if you go to the farm, the chickens are grown in these huge barracks as long as a football field. They’re indoors, there are 20,000 of them in a house, and running along this barrack is what looks like a little front lawn—mowed, maybe 15 or 20 feet deep.

There’s a little door at either side of the barrack where, theoretically, chickens could step outside and take the air. But they don’t. One reason is that the doors are closed until the chickens are about five weeks old.

The farmers—if you can use that word, the managers—are concerned that the chickens might catch their death of cold or pick up a germ, so they don’t open the doors until the chickens are five weeks old. They smother them at seven weeks; so it’s not exactly a lifestyle. It’s more like a two-week vacation option. And the chickens don’t avail themselves of this option because they’ve never been outside before. They’re terrified of going outside. First of all, it’s not big enough for the whole flock. Second of all, the food and water is inside; they’re not used to it; they weren’t brought up this way. They’re like the cat in the Manhattan apartment; when you open the door they just stand there in terror wondering about the other dimension of reality outside that door.

Free range is a conceit. It’s to make us feel better about these chickens. It’s not doing anything for the chickens, as far as I can tell.

Yes, that organic chicken is still a better product, I think. It’s getting better feed, it’s got a few more inches of legroom than a conventional chicken, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.