In Defense of Food is a close examination of the rise of nutritionism in our culture, and a historical account of the industrialization of food. An expert in food ecology, author Michael Pollan takes a look at the way in which the food industry shifted our dietary focus from “food” to “nutrients,” and thus narrowed the objective of eating to one of maintaining physical health – a goal it did not accomplish.
Think back to the last time you wanted to start following a healthier diet. Did you think, “I’ll start eating carrots and cucumbers and stop eating beef and cheese”? Or did you think, “I need to cut out saturated fats and starchy carbohydrates, and eat lots more vitamins and minerals instead”?
If you’re like most people, the details of your new diet were expressed in the language of nutrients, rather than specific foods.
But when did this shift in focus happen? And why?
In the second half of the twentieth century, the food industry and the US government shifted their focus from food to nutrients.
Around 1950, a number of scientists believed that the consumption of fat and cholesterol (i.e., meat and dairy products) was responsible for the rise in heart disease. They called this the lipid hypothesis.
Then, in 1968, the US government set up the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which produced a report in 1977, “The Dietary Goals for the United States,” based largely on the lipid hypothesis.
One goal of the committee was to advise people to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products in order to prevent heart problems. However, the head of the committee, senator George McGovern, happened to own many cattle ranches. Recommending that people should cut out red meat would have been damaging both to his interests and those of the powerful food lobbyists.
So, the wording of the committee’s recommendations was changed. Where they’d previously advised “don’t eat meat and dairy products,” they were instead coerced to advise people to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” Such a recommendation was a much smaller threat to the food industry.
And with this, the discourse of diets began to change: we started to talk about healthy eating not in terms of what foods to eat but in terms of nutrients.