Sunday, January 28, 2007

Truth is Almost Always Inconvenient

Michael Pollan does a superb job of summing the state of play in our Western Food Culture. Unfortunately he observes that we are losing.
From the IHT:
The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you're a food company, distinctly risky if you're a nutritionist and just plain boring if you're a newspaper editor or journalist. (Or, for that matter, an eater. Who wants to hear, yet again, "Eat more fruits and vegetables"?) And so, like a large gray fog, a great Conspiracy of Confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition — much to the advantage of everybody involved. Except perhaps the ostensible beneficiary of all this nutritional expertise and advice: us, and our health and happiness as eaters.
Rather than admit that we really don't know why what we eat nourishes or murders us we turn to Convenience Science, which I define as studies that support the hypothesis despite the data, to comfort us. Convenience science is a handmaiden of big money. It is meant to justify the activity of he who pays the piper. Lysenko was as much a convenience scientist for Stalin as the latest good-lipid/bad-lipid study is for a major drug company with a new anti-lipid drug that designed and paid for it. But nowhere is convenience science more broadly marketed than in the American Food Industry. Pollan tells the tale from the 1970's forward. Yet our culture's obsession with food as health begins far, far back. Before Mr. Kellog and Mr Post and their miracle cure cereals of the late 1800's there were the spas of North America and of Europe with their water and bath courses with various high and low diets all guaranteed to cure the patient's complaint -- if all directions were faithfully followed. Sometimes it seemed to work. In any case the successes were lionized and the failures quietly buried. Marketing carried the day for the pirates.
The inconvenient truth that emerges from Mr. Pollan's exegesis is that it is the mix of what, when, how and how much we eat, admixed with our manner of living, that determines our health -- maybe. Because how we eat and live changes -- so does our health. Some of us change faster than others. Those slow to change have less 'health' and may die before adaptation occurs. Hard cheese for those of us in that category.
Go read the whole article if only to marvel that this bit of clarity appeared in a major newspaper. Then again, reading the article just might move you in the direction that will change your whole life.
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