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