Tag Archives: Michael Pollan

The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology

We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods.  According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation.  Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint: “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”

Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

There you have it.  This relatively simple change allowed Sara Lee’s engineered bread-like edible substance to compete with the freshly baked bread from your local baker (see ingredient comparison).  More important, it allowed manufactured foods to take on the “nutritional orthodoxy” of the day and compete effectively against traditional and real foods on the grounds of latest nutritional fad.  I highly recommend reading Pollan’s In Defense of Food to get a better understanding of the “Age of Nutritionism.”

While I may be stretching the importance of this single event,when combined with other forces you can see with near clarity how we got into our current mess.  Just consider this short list of things that have also been happening over the last 30 years:

  • Concentration of agriculture around large-scale feed and live stock (consolidation of acres and influence)
  • Proliferation of monoculture crops to serve as low-cost raw ingredients in food manufacturing (esp. sweeteners and oils; consumed acres)
  • Federal policies and regulatory frameworks that favored monoculture crops and large-scale food production (pushed small, specialty crop farms to edge)
  • Tens of billions of dollars spent annually on marketing by leading food companies, as well as millions more on lobbying (convinced consumers to buy fake food)
  • Nutrient-based research providing health claims for “imitation” food products and fad diets (kept consumers from easily understanding what they should eat)
  • Plus…those things highlighted in previous posts on unsustainable food and industrial food

What you end up with is concentrated power in agriculture and food, the rapid proliferation and marketing of “edible foodlike substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan), a confused consumer base, and a complex problem to solve.

The question is what can we do about what appears to be daunting odds.  Tomorrow, I will post 10 Ways to End the Ideology of Nutritionism, which I hope us test more boundries and identify where we can concentrate our energies to have the biggest positive impact.

Stay tuned…


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30 Years of Messing Up Food

Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.  Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.

King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems.  As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.

At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):

  1. Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs.  I am sure there were other contributors.  Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream.  Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit.  With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
  2. U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
  3. 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act –  This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label.  Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades.  Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980.  That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline).  What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.

The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food.  Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, increasing amounts of  our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat.  If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.

Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality.  Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.

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Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients

A funny thing has been happening to American consumers over the last couple decades regarding what they eat.  Actually, its not really that funny, and it reminds me of old “The Boiled Frog” story, which goes something like this:

If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. But, if you put it in a pot filled with cool water, and then gradually turn up the heat until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. 

Keeping in mind that this is a parable, and not factually correct (according to Fast Company), it still makes a great point; like the frog, our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.

Throughout history, humans have not needed to consult others to figure out what to eat.  We figured it out.  We learned what to look for, especially nature’s markers for “danger.”  And, we did it all without the benefits of industrialized food.  But, with industrial food’s so-called revolution, things started changing.  Like so many things related to food, I really like how Michael Pollan describes what has been happening:

“No idea [nutritionism] could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon.  Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.” –In Defense of Food

The evidence supporting Mr. Pollan’s statement above is steadily rolling in, including Marion Nestle’s latest post on Food Politics: “Antioxidants as a marketing tool.”

“Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year…

Like the frog in the “Boiled Frog” parable, we can continue being slow-cooked by large food manufacturers. Or, we can wake up to the reality they have created, discount the onslaught of nutrient claims (and counter claims) associated with highly processed food, and begin experiencing the wholesome goodness of natural and organic foods.


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Will the Real Bread Please Stand Up?

With all the excitment around Victory Gardens, including the Obamas putting in a vegetable garden at the White House for the first time since the 1930s, why not inject “Victory Ovens” into the public forum?

The pitch should be simple:  “American consumers have been eating fake bread for over 30 years. Its time to take back the ovens.”

Since the early 1970s, bread-like food products, which had been required to be labeled “imitation” prior to a change in legislation, have been competing directly with Real Bread in the nearly $17 billion bread product market.  Here is an example of what Sara Lee is offering consumers, according to Michael Pollan in his latest book “In Defense of Food” (pages 150-154).

Here’s the complete ingredients list for Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread (Wait a minute – isn’t “Whole Grain White Bread” a contradiction in terms? Evidently not any more.)

Enriched bleached flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid], water, whole grains [whole wheat flour, brown rice flour (rice flour, rice bran)], high fructose corn syrup [hello!], whey, wheat gluten, yeast, cellulose.  Contains 2% or less of each of the following: honey, calcium sulfate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed oils), salt, butter (cream, salt), dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, ascorbic acid, enzymes, axodicarbonamide), guar gum, calcium propionate (preservatives), distilled vinegar, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate), corn starch, natural flavor, beta carotene (color), vitamin D3, soy lecithin, soy flour.

Check out Cooking Up A Story blog for its primer on decoding bread labels.

Then there is the “Victory Oven” (home-baked) version, in this case King Arthur Flour’s Classic Sandwich Bread. This white bread recipe doesn’t try to confuse people with “whole grain” claims, but does offer substituting 100% white whole wheat flour for “added whole-grain goodness.” The basic ingredients include:

Unbleached flour (or whole wheat flour); milk; water; butter, margarine or vegetable oil; sugar; salt; yeast

That’s it!

Seems like a pretty straightforward decision.  And for those people that don’t have the time or inclination to spend time in the kitchen baking bread (the smell alone is incentive in our home), there are likely many small bakers in your community baking real bread every day.

I choose REAL BREAD!


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Is Organic Food the Answer?

After recently posing a question on Twitter regarding people’s opinions on whether organic or sustainable food was more important, it became clear that our food problems are far bigger than this limited characterization.  Simply put, we must find innovative ways to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of the food people eat.

For example, a relatively small, but fast growing segment of the population is connecting with local farms to learn about where their food comes from through weekly farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.  While these rich and educational interactions are nearly ideal, they are not available to a vast majority of people who spent $535 billion at nearly 35,000 supermarkets across the country in 2007.  And it is unrealistic to assume farms could handle interacting with over 300 million Americans stopping by every week, even if we significantly increased the number of farms or expanded the size of current farms.

To reach mainstream America, we need new and innovative ways to connect consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. That will require redesigning much of today’s conventional food system; a system designed from the ground up to meet the financial needs of America’s leading food businesses (regardless of what they tell us).

I propose we start the redesign at the point where food and eaters meet and buying decisions are made – the retail channels, e.g., supermarkets.

First, we need to significantly reduce the number of food products offered to consumers, currently estimated at 45,000 items in the average supermarket. Reducing the massive amounts of visual information, including conflicting and (intentionally?) confusing messages associated with marketing and nutritional claims, will benefit consumers that are finding it nearly impossible to make their way through the aisles without picking up a lot of strategically placed, highly processed, unhealthy food products.

And even when shoppers make a list before entering the store, which research shows 70 percent of shoppers do, only 10 percent adhere to the list, according to Marion Nestle in What To Eat.  Ms. Nestle goes on to say, “Even with a list, most shoppers pick up two additional items for every item on the list.”  Such impulse purchases, which are highly profitable for the store, are no accident, nor are the confusing messages or lengthy aisles.  Today’s supermarkets are expertly designed to maximize what consumers see in order to maximize what they buy.  This simple formula has been refined over decades to a profit-generating science

Next, we need to introduce an entirely new in-store labeling methodology that visually helps consumers easily characterizes the overall sustainability of a food product in terms of its health (including nutritional information), environmental, economic and social impacts. Some customer may equally value all of these aspects of sustainability, while others may emphasis only one or two.  For example, someone concerned with global warming would look for products with the highest Environmental grade when making their purchase decisions.  Getting as many products in a store labeled in such a way will help consumers quickly find the raw and processed food products that best match their needs.

Finally, implementing these ideas will require an entirely new, consumer-oriented retail experience, one with far fewer products, especially highly processed and prepared foods, in a much more intimate space.  Within such a store, you would also rethink displays to ensure that the intelligent, easy-to-understand labels were clearly visible for every product.  This new retail experience will fit in a significant scaled down store when compared to today’s mega stores, with a median size of 47,500 square feet in 2007, according to the Food Marketing Institute, representing a complete departure from the more products, more product lines, bigger footprint mentality that has dominated food retail for decades.

What we end up with, after a lot more hard work (and a few waves of our magic wand), are intimate, consumer-friendly food stores in every neighborhood in America helping people to eat like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other leading voices in the food movement recommend.



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