In Defense of Food is a delightful book! Chapter by chapter, Michael Pollan studies the history of food production and food guidelines over the last century. He emphasizes that food sold in the supermarket is not real food, it is a 'food like substance' produced by industrial processing with the inclusion of myriad chemical compounds.
Several decades ago, food guidelines were in terms of real substances like bread, grains, fruits and vegetables. Nowadays, food guidelines are in terms of invisible substances like carbohydrates, fats and vitamins, collectively called 'nutrients'. How did this shift in thinking occur? Michael Pollan traces the history of this phenomenon in Chapter 1 ('From Food to Nutrients'). An excerpt from that chapter:
Beginning in the 1950s, a growing body of scientific opinion held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meat and dairy products, was responsible for rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century. The "lipid hypothesis," as it was called, had already been embraced by the American Heart Association, which in 1961 had begun recommending a "prudent diet" low in saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products. True, actual proof for the lipid hypothesis was remarkably thin in 1977 — it was still very much a hypothesis, but one well on its way to general acceptance.
In January 1977, the committee issued a fairly straightforward set of dietary guidelines, calling on Americans to cut down on their consumption of red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm of criticism, emanating chiefly from the red meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee's recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about actual foodstuffs — the committee had advised Americans to "reduce consumption of meat" — was replaced by artful compromise: "choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake."
Leave aside for now the virtues, if any, of a low-meat and/or low-fat diet, questions to which I will return, and focus for a moment on language. For with these subtle changes in wording a whole way of thinking about food and health underwent a momentous shift. First, notice that the stark message to "eat less" of a particular food—in this case meat—had been deep-sixed; don't look for it ever again in any official U.S. government dietary pronouncement. Say what you will about this or that food, you are not allowed officially to tell people to eat less of it or the industry in question will have you for lunch. But there is a path around this immovable obstacle, and it was McGovern's staffers who blazed it: Speak no more of foods, only nutrients. Notice how in the revised guidelines, distinctions between entities as different as beef and chicken and fish have collapsed. These three venerable foods, each representing not just a different species but an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as mere delivery systems for a single nutrient. Notice too how the new language exonerates the foods themselves. Now the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless—and politically unconnected—substance that may or may not lurk in them called saturated fat.
An excerpt from Chapter 3, in which Michael Pollan traces the history of food additives:
By now we have become so inured to fake foods that we forget what a difficult trail margarine had to blaze before it and other synthetic food products could win government and consumer acceptance. At least since the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the "adulteration" of common foods has been a serious concern of the eating public and the target of numerous federal laws and Food and Drug Administration regulations. Many consumers regarded "oleomargarine" as just such an adulteration, and in the late 1800s five states passed laws requiring that all butter imitations be dyed pink so no one would be fooled. The Supreme Court struck down the laws in 1898. In retrospect, had the practice survived, it might have saved some lives.
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-noticed but momentous step that helped speed America down the path to nutritionism.
'Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Much' is a lovely slogan by Michael Pollan which summarizes his philosophy. First, eat 'food', not 'food like substances' being sold in superstores. Second, eat mostly plants. Michal Pollan is an advocate of plant based diets, like Ornish, Esselstyn, Barnard, McDougall and Fuhrman. He is an omnivore, so he does not recommend that animal products be eliminated. However, he recommends that most of the calories should be derived from plants. Finally, his guideline is to eat less via calorie restriction and portion control. In contrast, plant based diet advocates put such restrictions only on nuts and seeds. For other ingredients (whole grains, beans & lentils, vegetables and fruits), they impose no restrictions because these foods are not calorie dense, so we naturally feel full quickly.