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There is no FOOD in your food…

May 18, 2009

During lunchtime, I often repeat to my middle school students, “There is no food in your food.” When they take out their packaged lunches, packages wrapped in colored plastic, their food becomes an advertisement for preservatives. As a teacher, I get to witness the big sort– the distribution of what children eat vs. what came in the brown bag. My classroom has a microwave, which means I get an interesting display of packaged dinners, loaded with chemicals and sodium. Paired with trendy drinks, the students lunch on additives on top of additives, and not a fresh veggie in sight. When people wonder about the health of American youth, I immediately think of micowavable paninis and the loss of handmade sandwiches. The students always laugh when a colleague of mine regularly searches through lunch bags, finds an interesting specimen, and holds it up in horror and reads the ingredients. Because of their Health class, taught by the same fantastic teacher, they can regularly chat about ingredients and organics. In fact, my high school students are pretty picky eaters and have a gourmet palate, with understandable lapses in teenage judgment. It is trendy to know what you are eating and try new things, and being urban students they can seek out many affordable outlets for good, real, food. They understand there is no food in their food, but why don’t most adults know this?

The phrase, there is no food in your food, could describe the new book by In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan. An easy read, I picked up the book at the airport last night and finished seventy pages in an hour. Although he does not need to convert me, reading Pollan’s research behind the legislative and advertising industries, which created a movement away from real food into the realm of processed food, delineates an interesting argument for changing how we eat. In particular, I enjoy his hesitancy to be self-righteous. Pollan admits to eating processed foods, but he creates a fascinating exploration into how we got to where we are, and why we are in the position to change what we eat. For Pollan, the separation of the nutrient from food opened the Pandora’s box for the food industry. If they can advertise a certain food as containing a nutrient, or lacking so-called bad nutrients, then consumers will grab the flashy new item. We become alienated from food, because food is a part.

Now, I want to bring your attention to a certain portion of Pollan’s argument. He feels that since we focus on subtracting ingredients, such as fat or carbs, we end up not focusing on the right problem. The studies on heart disease, which conflict on the issues of fat, don’t examine the type of food people are consuming, just the ingredient. Despite the research on animal protein’s connection to heart disease the public focuses on the bad nutrition ingredient, saturated fat. Perhaps, cutting down on meat, and filling our plates with vegetables might help lead to a healthier lifestyle. Pollan’s not a vegetarian, but he does raise wonderful points about hormones in our food, and how this could be another link to health issues. He does my favorite approach to statistics, break them apart to show the fallacy of numbers. In the case of saturated fat, it could be hormones in meat and dairy, lack of vegetables or exercise, smoking or drinking, or cultural factors, etc. As he says, “We just don’t know. But eaters worried about their health needn’t wait for science to settle this question before deciding that it might be wise to eat more plants and less meat.” Stop focusing on the nutrient, and eat a diversity in types of food: Real food, no chemicals. We all should have food in our food.

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