Tuesday, January 15, 2008

History and a Lesson in Trust

I've been reading Michael Pollan's new book, In Defense of Food. About fifty pages in, I got a jolt to the memory. Like stumbling onto an old to-do list and finding a couple really important things I still hadn't done.

The first section of the book describes nutritionism, the blend of science and food industry efforts that have gotten us lost as eaters. The primary example he was using to explain this theory was the rise and fall of trans-fats and the resulting "low fat" diet era.

Some of it was not new information. In fact, in 2004 I had read an article about one researcher who, in the 50s spoke out about the dangers of trans-fats. She was "encouraged" by the food industry not to pursue this topic. (Wish I could find the article, it was in a food magazine and I have turned the house upside down looking for it. If you know the one I am talking about, please leave me a comment!). Pollan's information suggests that this researcher was not the only one who had doubts about using trans-fats. I've thought about that article over and over while writing on food. It was my first glimpse at the little man behind the curtain and the myth of food marketing and the food industry acting in the interest of my health.

So, here's where I am going, here's the jolt:

Reputable researchers knew there might be a serious problem with trans-fats fifty years ago. The food industry not only ignores this but discourages the research. They didn't stop and say, "Whoa! This is going in food, we should be sure it's safe first."

No, instead we got a massive onslaught of margarines that were "better" for you than butter and entire aisles in the grocery store dedicated to low fat crackers, cakes and cookies. Brands were created solely on the basis of being healthy snack options. Consumers listened. Consumers ate tons of this stuff. Trans-fats were in everything processed, just as HFCS is today.

It's fifty years later. The researchers were right. Trans-fats are being banned by entire cities just like smoking — for the same reason of being a major health hazard. And I wonder, how many consumers ate the wrong thing blissfully believing it to be a "healthy choice?" How much damage was done in fifty years? Could lives have been saved? Are we going to see a lawsuit like that with the tobacco industry in the next decade? Dare I hope?

In a discussion at a mom community, we were commenting on new research linking meat consumption to cancer. I raised the question of the possible differences between grassfed beef and CAFO, or industrial, beef. But, I said, I don't have a lot of research to link to on that.

One of the women called me on it, on not having enough research. Well, I am not going to make research up, and the reality is, if the research is not linked to potential capital gain, it's not as likely to get funded. There just isn't going to be the same amount of studies done. Think about it. A handful of companies dominate meat packing, and even the feed that goes into the animals. A closed loop with the farmer trapped in the middle.

If research shows that naturally-raised and fed animals are vastly superior to industrial ag's unnatural methods, well, that would put a handful of very powerful companies in danger of losing billions of dollars. It's self-preservation, or you can call it greed. But it's the same reason these companies have such a choke hold on Washington.

I'm not paranoid, just pragmatic. I took the red pill. Even the research that is done, is not always reliable. For many reasons. The most relevant to this discussion is a brief reference in Pollan's book to a study that showed when food research is commissioned by industry, the research usually finds results that are favorable to the industry who funded the project. In fact, I read the abstract, it is 95 percent more probable that paid research will find an outcome that favors the industry providing funds.

So, good, independent research is not always heeded by the industry. But is still needed to prevent malnutrition issues. The food industry ignores potential serious threats to your health, historically, and this has not changed much given the record number of meat and food recalls of 2007. Bought research is not reliable. This leaves you, standing at the supermarket, food product in hand, wondering if you can believe the health claims. And many of those claims are questionable as well. How do you know? Who do you trust?

I'm not going to rewrite Pollan's new book here with my own examples and links. It's a good book, a better one than I could write. Yet as I turn the pages, I think about all of the information on food I've read and posted in the last couple years. The book is less revelation than affirmation. Like a sign post reminding me that I am on the right road. Or, the found to-do list that keeps me on track.


mpg said...

I just ordered this book last night and am looking forward to reading it.

No matter what the research says, I really think that the best bet is just to avoid prepared, packaged food as much as possible. It's funny because I think my family always did this instinctively when I was growing up and of course, I resented all the homemade bread. But now I'm grateful that this was the "normal" in our house.

We are not completely off the grid at our house, but it's enough that I feel comfortable and can live with the granola bars and corn chips that we do eat. Today I'm going to make homemade chile (with grass-fed beef), bechemel sauce for a butternut squash recipe that I'm making tomorrow (got to get that squash out of the basement) and pistachio-date bars. Let the corporations lobby - here at our house, they might as well not even bother.

mollyjade said...

I do think our food system is sick. But I also think it can be easy to idealize the past. For instance, nutrition science has virtually eliminated pellagra in the US. Before niacin was added to most flour, pellagra was a huge problem in the poor American South. And we've greatly reduced neural tube defects by adding folate to processed flour. Spending 25% of your salary on food just won't work in a world where you're spending 40% on housing and 20% on healthcare.

I guess I just don't want to idealize 1950s food the way we've idealize 1950s families. Every food system has its problems, and I don't think we can fix ours by going back to the past.

Pollan's solution that we each just buy the "right" food isn't enough when not everyone has access to gardens, markets with fresh produce, and organic, grass-fed meat. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I'm just worried that Pollan's newest book will make this a personal issue when it's both personal and political.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Agreed. The image was a very meat and potatoes diet, not perfect, but at least recognizable foods.

Nutrition science is good, as long as food industry and special interests stay out of it.

It is both personal and political, the food system does need to be fixed and I think, called to task on the lies that have been told to fuel processed food sales. We also need to fix the availability issue for lower income families.

It will be a long road forward from here.

Janet said...

There's research to back your grassfed claims. Check out eatwild.com for some examples.

Ali B. said...

Great post, and I can't help but think of all the men I know who died of heart attacks during the margarine-is-best era. Blair's dad among them. I mean, who knows - we'll never know. But I really have been wondering.