Pollan’s Food fallacies


Food Rules, by Michael Pollan“Don’t overlook the oily little fishes,” is rule 32 in Michael Pollan’s small book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (Penguin Books, 2009). I recently acquired a copy. I’ve read Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and have his In Defence of Food on my shelves for summer reading and have two other titles by him on my wish list. I’ve enjoyed his work so far. Maybe not so much this time around.

I am skeptical about any attempt to reduce any subject to a set of basic rules because life is way too complicated for that sort of ideology. I have a particular disdain for self-help books and life-coach videos as being intellectual pablum. Pollan’s book is self-described on the back cover as “a definitive compendium of food wisdom.” Hyperbole like this always makes me cautious and raised my skeptic’s hackles.

As the New York Times points out in its review of the book, is a professor of science journalism in the USA, not a biochemist or nutritionist or even a renowned chef. But Pollan is a good writer with credentials, so I decided to give it a chance.

As someone interested in eating and food – from many aspects: historical, social, botanical, zoological, industrial, cooking and ethical among them – I am always keen to learn more and read what others say about eating. In Food Rules, Pollan offers sixty four rules with a brief explanation of each (you can read the whole list here). It’s described on the book jacket as as “indispensable handbook” full of “straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely.”

Well, I beg to differ. Yes, it has some wisdom – especially for the junk-food-sugar-pop-and-energy-drink-pizza-and-doughnut crowd. But some of it is the same sort of ideological, anti-science claptrap you get from the Food Babe or the anti-GMO crowd. Diaphanous piffle, some of it. And way too arbitrary – at least when you read just the rule without bothering to delve into his (sometimes too brief) explanations that follow it.

Like this one:

2. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food

My great-grandfather (the only one I recall) died when I was quite young, but I remember a visit with him in his Toronto home when I was around four or five. I was later told that he refused to eat bananas, because he didn’t like the look of them.

I understand: he was born in the mid-1800s: before refrigeration and antibiotics. He would have had a cold cellar or maybe an ice box in the decades before electricity or natural gas powered homes. Before the automobile, too. He didn’t have the luxury of having food trucked from California, or transported overnight from the tropics. Anything that did arrive would likely have since passed the optimum ripeness we prefer. He wouldn’t have had access to fresh vegetables during winter as we do. And fish – he wouldn’t have seen nearly as many fish in his markets as we have because they couldn’t be kept fresh that long.

A banana – when he could get them – might have been soft, brown and not very appealling. He would have developed his habits and tastes based on what he grew up with, foods that were accessible to his family.

My great-grandparents would not likely have recognized star fruit, kiwi fruit, edamame beans, lemon grass, avocado, eel, tilapia fillets or maybe even Brussels sprouts, which weren’t even planted in North America until the 1920s. Kale, on the other hand, they would recognize.

They wouldn’t have eaten Japanese, Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Thai, Vietnamese or Indian food – all of which are common comestibles in any mall food court today. In fact, my maternal grandparents never even ate Japanese until we took them to a wedding dinner at a Toronto Japanese restaurant in the mid-1980s – when they were in their 90s.

Today’s technology to transport, process and store food is light years beyond what my great-grandparents knew. What they recognized as food and what I do is equally distant.

6. Avoid food products that have more than 5 ingredients

Which basically means I can’t eat bread, even bread I bake myself. Wheat flour, water, salt, yeast, corn meal, oats, agave syrup, olive oil or butter: that’s eight items for the plainest bread I make. I sometimes have more than one flour, molasses, eggs, extra gluten, diastatic malt powder, milk, wheat bran, hemp hearts and extra grains. Okay, Pollan explains he knows its arbitrary: he’s really focused on processed foods, which tend to have long lists of ingredients to enhance freshness, taste, consistency, mouth feel, shelf life and so on.

Sure, packaged food may be over-processed and over-chemicalized, but without some of that, we’d not have any shelf life for foods. In my house a loaf of my all-natural no-chemicals-added bread lasts less than a week until it grows a mold colony. Even the artisan breads we buy from the supermarket last only a day or two longer. Thanks to these chemicals, we have a longer-lasting, greater variety of food products available to us.

Also, food companies don’t necessarily dictate popular tastes. They often cater to them. So those ingredients to make something taste super sweet or super salty are there because people WANT sweet and salty foods. And if one product doesn’t provide that, they’ll buy another that does. Sure, I try to avoid salt and sugar in our diet and the lowest in whatever processed foods we get (we’re both avid label readers), but some is inevitable.

This also goes along with:

7. Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

Which is utter hogwash the like of which we expect from wingnut conspiracy fadists like Food Babe. The name or the pronunciation of same is irrelevant. Names are, like many rules here, arbitrary. On that basis, who would eat Solanum lycopersicum? Or Allium cepa? Ocimum Basilicum? Cholecalciferol or Ergocalciferol? Halite? Saccharomyces cerevisiae? Vitis vinifera? All of which are common items in your food (look them up!). Unless you’re a botanist or a chemist, you use more common words like tomato, Vitamin D3 or onion. The pronunciation has nothing to do with the content.

On a side note: do you know what an aguacate is? Would you recognize it as food? How about an alligator pear? A persea americana? Would you refuse to eat one simply because your third-grader couldn’t pronounce an alternate name for the avocado?

3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry

This is what James Kennedy calls “chemophobia.” He describes it as:

Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals. It includes the fear of sugar in food, formaldehyde in shampoo and aluminium in vaccines. Fitness bloggers, quack doctors and even small cosmetic companies take advantage of these quirks to sell fake-natural products at elevated prices. Almost always, the same people who spread a fear of ‘chemicals’ also have ‘chemical-free’ products for sale.
Some companies sell “natural”, “organic” and “chemical-free” products to combat the supposed onslaught of chemical pollution in conventional consumer products. Most of these alternative products are no less synthetic, and no safer, than conventional versions despite commanding much higher prices.

Gizmodo did a piece on Kennedy’s counterpunch back in 2014, titled, “What if natural products came with a list of ingredients?” It has great images of lists like this:
Ingredients in an egg

Most of us wouldn’t recognize these chemical names and, thanks to wingnuts selling their own products and fuelling irrational food fears, a lot of people think that anything with a chemical name is evil or synthetic. The same nonsensical logic applies to GMOs (another popular fear item for the tinfoil hat crowd).

17. Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans
18. Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap
19. If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

Luddite thinking. Handmade foods, artisan kitchens and farmers’ markets are wonderful (if they obey modern hygiene standards), but they simply cannot feed the world. And those caps are meant to keep human hair and dander out of the food. They’re for health and sanitary reasons to protect consumers; not like Darth Vader’s helmet, a symbol of evil.

When I go to an Italian restaurant here in town, the food is cooked by humans, but the pasta is made in an Italian factory where people where caps and hair nets. The pesto sauce, too. As much as I enjoy making my own pasta, the same applies: the flour was ground in large mills where people wear protective gear. The milk, the eggs – there’s no escaping it. Nor do I want to. I prefer my food with less of someone else’s hair in it.

As much as I’d love to grow and mill my own wheat, raise my own cows and chickens for the milk and eggs, dig down into the earth for my water and tunnel into a mountain for my salt, sometimes that bag of manufactured, dried pasta made in a plant where people wear hair nets is a whole lot easier and much more convenient.

37. The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead

This is a one of those maybe rules. Yes, nutritionists claim the supermarket white bread is basically sliced cake with little to no nutritional value. But like all generalities, it’s false. A 2017 study in Israel was reported on in The Independent:

Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science monitored the gut bacteria and levels of fat, cholesterol, glucose and essential minerals such as calcium and iron in 20 healthy people. Half the participants were given a higher-than-average amount of fresh whole-wheat sourdough bread to consume for a week, and the others were given the same portion of processed, packaged white bread.

Surprisingly, researchers found, “… no clinically significant differences between the effects of these two types of bread on any of the parameters that we measured,” Okay, it was a small sample, but the key statement in the report was that, “…different people react differently to the same foods, depending on the blend of microbes in their gut.”

I bake with unbleached white flour because the standard “all-purpose” flour isn’t as tasty, but also because using only whole wheat flours are more difficult to work with. I add grains, wheat germ and other non-white flour to the mix, but too much and I get a brick, not a loaf. So my breads are not as white as supermarket breads, but are a lot whiter than, say, a rye or pumpernickel or even a store-bought brown bread.

Whiteness in bread is not an absolute but a relative quality to consider: a lot of those brown supermarket breads have as many artificial ingredients and added sugar as their white counterparts.

Not to trash all of Pollan’s rules. he does have a lot of commonsense ones:

5. Avoid food products that have some form of sugar (or sweetener listed among) the top three ingredients
8. Avoid food products that make health claims
22. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
36. Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk
41. Eat more lie the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks.
43. Have a glass of wine with dinner
49. Eat slowly
54. Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like pauper

and others. I especially like number 43. But interspersed among them are others like:

42. Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism

Traditional for whom? See rule 2, above. Pollan is taking aim at artificial products (particularly those with soy isoflavones and similarly processed ingredients), but the rule isn’t itself that clear likely to be taken too literally. One of the joys of life is trying non-traditional things. Imagine going through life not enjoying a falafel, or a plate of sushi, green tea ice cream, ginger marmalade, or aguacate rellenos con camarones simply because they weren’t “traditional” in your family’s background.

I don’t dismiss this book entirely, but rather the seemingly rigid ideology on which it – and so many nutrition fads – are based. There’s good in it, but a lot – too much for my taste – of vague, mushy notions and sometimes outright piffle. I take his rules like I try to take most everything in my life: with a little moderation and a lot of skepticism.

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