Natural and Processed Food, Nutritionism and Pollanisms

Posted on 29 Mar 2011 19:59

There has been a lot of support for Michal Pollan's books for the last few years (he was on Colbert ) and his books "In Defense of Food" as well as his earlier book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" are both very popular. I even saw Mike Boyle singing the praises of Pollan while imagining he knew more about nutrition than "nutritionists" by virtue of having read Pollan's books. Even though, strictly speaking, Pollan is not a nutritionist but a journalist. But hey, I've also seen Mike Boyle and others sing the praises of Mercola, so go figure. I would hesitate to get my nutrition information from a strength coach or a journalist. That is not to say that I would not take their advice, but only that I would hesitate to consider that advice as seriously as I would consider the advice of someone who is a nutrition specialist.

Many people blame processed foods and, by extension, so-called "unnatural foods" for the obesity epidemic, a rise in heart disease, and pretty much every other health problem known to man. In a general sense it's a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. You can certainly blame the processed food industry (in all it's definitions) for a lot of things and make arguments about it's impact on the environment, etc..

But I find Pollan's books a bit sensationalistic for my taste and his pretense to "science" is particularly annoying to me. Attacking science while trying to sound scientific is just plain silly.

I have often used "American cheese" as an example of a not so valid assumption about processed foods. Not all American cheese products are the same but let's assume I'm talking about Kraft American cheese…the original.

The automatic assumption is that American cheese is "bad" just because it is processed. But from a purely nutritional standpoint and if you know how it is made…it can be considered pretty sound. It has a better protein to fat ratio and it DOES start with cheddar cheese to which whey and such is added. There are some additional preservatives that many foodies would scream about but they haven't been linked to any health effects. "Real" cheese has mold inhibitors added.

But here is the biggest fallacy. CHEESE is as PROCESSED as you can GET! The whole reason cheese was invented was to PRESERVE milk. That is, it is a way of processing milk in order to preserve it.

Yet, Michael Pollan, on Colbert, mentioned American cheese and how terrible it is. But he also said how he supported regular "natural" cheese.

As is typical he made a statement that he obviously hadn't researched much. Offhandedly, he mentioned that American cheese has like 40 ingredients! I would have advised him to check a label before making such a statement on national television. It depends of course on what particular product we're talking about but in truth, it has about a quarter that number.

There may be some "processed cheese foods" out there that have that many ingredients but there are actual legal definitions as to what can be named American cheese, etc..

  • Pasteurized process cheese (100% cheese which includes "American Cheese" and "Pasteurized process American cheese"), (e.g., "Kraft Deli Deluxe American Cheese", "Land o Lakes American Cheese", "Laughing Cow").
  • Pasteurized process cheese food, which contains at least 51% cheese.
  • Pasteurized process cheese product which contain less than 51% cheese and cannot be advertised as cheese under FDA regulations (e.g. "Velveeta, "Kraft Singles")
  • Pasteurized process cheese spread

Pollan, I would suppose, does not like waste. Well, regular cheese making produces a lot of scraps and leftovers that would be WASTED unless they were used in making the "processed cheese". And look at whey, which is added to American cheese. That is a byproduct of the cheese industry!

Cheese is simply a processed food and American cheese is further processed cheese to give it certain advantages. None of which should be automatically assumed to be unhealthy as compared to regular cheese. But 'regular' cheese is "natural". Right?

I am not saying that Pollan has not done his research when it comes to big food in general. He obviously has. But like many sensationalist journalists, he tends to steer away from the type of research that would not support his assumptions and beliefs. If you were to visit a puppy mill you might be left with a very bad impression of dog breeding, for instance. But not all dog breeding is evil.

Nutritionism, according to Pollan, is the idea that it is the individual nutrients in food, as discovered by science, which determines their dietary value. He say's that through this kind of thinking we have become separated from the natural food chain (there's that natural word again) and have lost our eating instincts. For instance, our instincts governing food intake. We have become increasingly reliant on nutrition experts and since nutrition science cannot completely understand how food affects the body, relying on nutrition science is a fallacy.

Pollan says this is the downfall of food and of our health. Nutritionism, according to Pollan, is what nutritionists do. I am seeing more and more nutrition bloggers pick up this term as if it is meaningful and use it as an umbrella attack against any nutrition concept they disagree with. Arguments against "nutritionism" are so vague and indistinct I don't see how any mindful blogger can take them seriously.

The argument against so-called nutritionism is that we can't know the full, synergistic effect that "whole foods" have and not looking at the whole picture creates unhealthy dietary trends based on food "parts" rather than food as a whole. In fact more often than not, I see people who think like Pollan doing the opposite while nutritionists are looking at the big picture. Probably because the "foodies" are so busy attacking rather than coming up with solutions they are blind to their own contradictions.

The Rule of Falsifiability

I'll be honest. I am not sure that Karl Popper's famous "rule of falsifiability" deserves to be an absolute test of scientific legitimacy, but I do think that claims which can never be falsified tend to be less logically valid than other claims.

It is funny, that relying on science should be a fallacy, but relying on a vague concept like "nutritionism is bad" is not. It's funny because the entire argument represents a scientific and logical fallacy. It certainly violates our rule of falsifiability.

Examine the above explanations. There does not exist a set of arguments that you could possibly find that could ever counter them. Try it. Try to come up with a valid counterargument. You can't do it because it is a claim that cannot be falsified. Oh, you say, well then it must be true! You know better than that.

For something to be valid then a logical counter-argument or set of arguments that would make it invalid MUST be conceivable. Otherwise, it is meaningless. According to James Lett:

"The rule of falsifiability is essential for this reason: If nothing conceivable could ever disprove the claim, then the evidence that does exist would not matter; it would be pointless to even examine the evidence because the conclusion is already known — the claim is invulnerable to any possible evidence. This would not mean, however, that the claim is true; instead, it would mean that the claim is meaningless."

You can read more on that in A Field Guide to Critical Thinking.

Emotive Statements, What Ought to Be, and Worldview

See, Pollan's statements are not scientific ones, or even logical ones, at all. They are instead his emotional declarations about how things "ought to be". They make no claims which can be examined evidentially or which can be disproven. So, in effect, what Pollan says are his own personal value statements. For the critical thinker, it is essential to learn to recognize the difference between a factual statement, which is one that can possibly be falsified, and a value statement. In this blog, I have written about value statements many times.

He says that being separated from our 'hunter-gatherer' origins and thus the natural food chain, which led us to eat by our instincts, is what has made us unhealthy. This statement falls under what Lett describes as the undeclared claim which is "a statement that is so broad or vague that it lacks any propositional content". The undeclared claim is basically unintelligible and consequently meaningless."

Since there is no one definition for the term instinct and certainly no real scientific understanding of how our instincts affect our eating or any of the other vague allusions in Pollan's arguments then there is nothing with which to counter them. I cannot use nutritionism to defend against an attack such as this on nutritionism itself. Therefore the attack itself is completely pointless. What does it mean to be 'separated from the food chain'? What does it mean to 'eat by our instincts'? How would we be able to tell when we are doing this? When we are not? Can a lack of instinctual eating somehow be observed in the body? The fact is, these claims are so vague that anything that happens to human health can be used to defend it. Everything fits, thus nothing fits.

There may be something, somewhere, to what Pollan is saying about nutritionism but to my way of thinking there is not much to be gained in vague philosophical arguments about the food chain and instinct.

That is, there is not much to be gained that informs us about our health. There is much to be gained in terms of the damage the global food market does to our environment. And it is certainly true that this contributes to our cultural eating habits in unhealthy ways. But knowing that will not miraculously result in some kind of idealized eating culture and thus idealized health.

The ad-hominem attacks on nutritionists, as a whole, are unfounded and show a profound lack of understanding about what nutritionists do as opposed to what biochemists and the like do. Attacking the other side without a clear understanding of what the other side is up to not only shows your arguments to be invalid but displays your lack of depth when addressing your chosen subject. However, the widespread use of the credential "nutritionists" by dodgy quacks certainly creates a problem. It is a title that can be used by anyone, anywhere. But this does not mean that you can trust information from someone just because they attack nutritionists!

For instance, when plant extracts in supplement form have been given in clinical trials, such as the antioxidant polyphenols in pomegranates and blueberries, there is very little result. Many nutritionists are quick to note that if there is any protection against disease from the compounds found in foods, that this protection probably comes from a great many compounds working together. Probably thousands of compounds. Their conclusion? Eat whole foods, mostly colorful vegetables. The same conclusion as Pollan but coming from a different direction. Except that nutritionists would never tell you that simply eating by your "instincts" is a magical ticket to health and if they did they would probably be a "Naturopath" or some other kind of wanna-be doctor.

I think that many people confuse the "health, nutrition, and well-being" industry with nutrition science. And I think many people confuse "nutritionists" with nutrition science. There are some individuals who call themselves nutritionists who are very good and use science with a high degree of expertise. And there are others that fit the bill of Dara O Braian's quib "Dietitian is to nutritionist as dentist is to toothiologist". But to lump all of this group into the dietary supplement and "natural health" caegory is an unfair assumption. These industries inflate, misinterpret, and outright lie, about the results of nutrition research to sell their products. They make conclusions that the researchers themselves disagree with, and quite often. Did nutrition science help to create these industries, by giving them a perfect marketing resource? You bet.

But it is naive to think that savvy business people would not be able to take advantage of ANY and ALL trends in food culture to create hugely profitable industries. History shows that they can and will. Where do you think granola came from? Or Quaker Oats.

Funny as it may seem, I would recommend the book, In Defense of Food, for it's first chapter. I just don't think it is anywhere near a complete treatment of the subject.

One very important message that Pollan relates is that "organic" does NOT mean "sustainable". And even when we are making healthy choices we can still, by many people's view, be making wrong ones because of the stranglehold that multi-national corporations have on the food market.

For a more varied perspectives on food culture I urge you to check out the Food, Culture, & Society Journal. You can view a sample issue at the website. Check out The French Paradox, the Healthy Drinker, and the Medicalization of Virtue by Jessica Mudry while it is still available. I cannot link it directly as the journal uses session ID's which would expire. In this paper Mudry explains how wine drinking has become "scientized" and the drinker has become a patient, concerned with the relationship between illness and health. The paper is a good example of the kind of thing that Pollan tries to do but is unable to due to lack of objectiveness. This is much in line with my recent statements concerning "scientific" viewpoints about strength training in which strength training has become "corrective exercise" and the trainee has become a patient.

Also check out the work of Jack Kloppenburg, JR. and the book, Food and the Mid-Level Farm: Renewing an Agriculture of the Middle

To finish up this very long and rambling post, here is Pollan on Colbert back in 2009. Keep your ears opened for another unscientific statement from Pollan about high fructose corn syrup.

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This page created 29 Mar 2011 19:59
Last updated 20 Mar 2018 19:47

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