Simple tastes

<strong>In Defence of Food</strong>

Michael Pollan <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, 256pp, £16.

Readers fretting about Omega-3 deficiency, amino-acid imbalance, or beta-carotene-induced apoplexy won’t find much to feed their anxieties here. Instead, In Defence of Food makes a brave argument about the origins of nutritionism.

Some time in the 1970s, we stopped eating food and started eating nutrients. In 1977, George McGovern led a committee on nutrition that arrived at a simple prescription: eat less meat and dairy produce. This was based on the premise that fatty foods cause obesity and heart disease. Though unproven then and under question now, at least it had clarity.

After pressure from the powerful agribusiness lobby, the government decided it wasn’t the meat that was the problem, but the “saturated fats” it contained. Government food advice has since been couched in the obfuscatory language of a pseudoscience. Worse, its basic message – that we should replace dietary fats with carbohydrates – is probably to blame for the huge rise in obesity since the 1970s. Only the food industry, which has made a killing hawking industrially produced low-fat foods, has benefited.

Pollan suggests that the tenets of nutritionism can be replaced with his simple maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.