Saturday, July 31, 2010

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan--and nutty dressing for broccoli salad

"What should we eat?" is a question that we ask more and more. We have a huge range of choice: food and products from every country and for every budget. This month's Kitchen Reader book was In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan, which seeks to answer this question.

First, Pollan investigates the idea behind nutritionism. Science, over the last few decades, has been trying to identify the nutrients in food, and now a food is described in terms of the nutrients it contains. But this is a dangerous way to describe food for several reasons. "When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in food (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear," Pollan argues. With our focus on nutrients rather than foods, some processed foods (which Pollan calls "edible foodlike substances") can look even more healthy than natural foods. "It's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound 'whole-grain goodness' to the rafters."

What's wrong with processed foods? Lots, as it turns out, especially for US farming. (Feel free to read more about this for yourself. As I'm not in the US I read those sections with less interest. Pollan gives a well-detailed account of the Farm Bills and industrial agriculture in the States.) Regardless of where we live, large-scale farming means more pesticides and other chemicals in our food and soil, and as a result, less healthy food to eat. This food is processed into "edible foodlike substances" by adding and subtracting nutrients and more chemicals.

Foods with additives like this lie to our body because they are hard to understand with just our senses of touch, taste, sight, and smell. Chemicals found in food are often meant to make them taste better to us while not being a real food we are being taught to avoid: like margarine that tastes buttery but isn't butter or sweet drinks that don't contain real sugar, but a chemical sweetener. "Their artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the numbers, consulting labels rather than our senses."

Furthermore, processing food mimics some of the processes that our bodies do when we digest food. Food is broken down in factories into its constituent parts just like our stomachs break down food. Factory food is then recombined into new food products, but the complexity of the food is gone. Industry can fortify foods (like "enriched" flour that was first stripped of its natural goodness, then receives some synthetic nutrients) but these can't interact with each other in the complex way the whole food acted. "As the whole-grain food study suggests, science doesn't know nearly enough to compensate for everything that processing does to whole foods.... Destroying complexity is a lot easier than creating it." This explains, I think, the sense of GI values, since they describe how much work is done by the body to digest a food. Industrial food production has stolen from our bodies their job of digestion. As a result, what we eat is far less nutritious; Pollan says we are "overfed and undernourished" in our Western abundance of food products.

Additionally, our undernourishment is related to the stripping of the health of our soil. The more monoculture farming is done, and with more chemicals, the less replenished the land is. As a consequence even the food that is produced on farms is getting less nutritious. So the foods are damaged in two ways: "robbing nutrients from the soils the foods had been grown in and then squandering those nutrients by processing the foods."

The first two sections of In Defense of Food lay out these detailed arguments against the Western Diet that is full of processed foods. The final part of the book gives advice about what we should eat. It can be distilled into only a few words: "Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This mantra has been Pollan's cry for several years now and has led him to write extensively about food. (Here's a link to some more food mantras he has collected.)

He gives a few guidelines on how to recognise real food: for example, to imagine if your great-grandmother would recognise it as food, whether there are more than five ingredients, whether you can pronounce all the ingredients, to avoid food products that make health claims (and even packaging), and to shop outside of the supermarket. We should concentrate on plants for our food, especially leaves, and foods grown in healthy soils. "I no longer think," Pollan writes, "that it's possible to separate out bodily health from the health of the environment." And we ought to eat food mindfully, and not too much. This includes eating slowly and saying grace, a ritual which helps us avoid eating thoughtlessly or hurriedly. We should be thankful for the healthy food we eat and enjoy.

This book, which I actually first read several months ago, was one of the catalysts for starting this blog. I love fresh whole foods, especially vegetables, and I wanted to share my recipes with others. I want to make eating plants more tasty, enjoyable, and desirable. Michael Pollan provided plenty of impetus for me to focus on healthy and delightful ways of eating. The more we concentrate on eating real food, the more cooking we need to do, and this blog aims to help you (and encourage me) to do just that.

Broccoli Salad with Nutty Dressing
dressing inspired by Veganlicious
serves 1

for the salad:
half a head of broccoli, cut up into bite-sized pieces
half an orange bell pepper, diced
half a carrot, thinly sliced
a handful of cashew nuts

for the dressing:
1/3 c (80 ml) tahini
1 t soy sauce
1/4 t paprika
1 t lime juice
1 T olive oil
3 T water
salt and pepper

Combine the salad ingredients on a plate.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients and pour over the salad.

Thanks to Margaret of Tea and Scones for choosing this fantastic book for the Kitchen Reader group. Head over to the Kitchen Reader main page to see what others in the group thought of the book.


Friedel said...

That dressing looks great! It reminds me of the one that we recently discovered: broccoli & tahini sauce. I have a feeling you'd like the post that goes along with it too.

Sarah said...

Brilliant, Friedel. That article is written by the author of stonesoup, which I also read. (Maybe I found it through you.) Great stuff. I have been practicing putting down the cutlery between bites.

Charlene said...

In Defense of Food is a great book - I am currently reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by the same author.

TeaLady said...

It was hard to decide which part of Pollan's book to discuss. Glad you chose the change to nutritionism. Nicely done.

Friedel said...

I couldn't help but think of this post, and the recipe, as I took 2 kids to Europe's biggest playground yesterday - only to be faced with a dire lunch, where the main ingredients were grease, e-numbers and processed meat. Blech. Going to make this today as a detox!

Anonymous said...

nice post...
thank you for sharing..

Sarah said...

Charlene, let me know what you think of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I have started it but it's got pushed to the side recently. I don't find it as easy to read as In Defense of Food.

Friedel, I read about the playground--wow, I bet those kids had fun! I shudder at some of the the things parents feed their kids, even lots of well-meaning and intelligent parents. Let me know how your salad goes, if you try it.

Anonymous said...

The salad sounds delicious! I'm glad that I like eating fruits, veggies, and "real" food, and I'm trying to be more aware of it.

Sarah said...

Hi Jill, yes, I like eating healthy food, too, and the more I eat fresh things the more my body likes them. :-)

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