Defending food, eschewing substances

After reading In Defense of Food I have been trying, with some success, to follow the Pollan approach to eating, focusing more on fresh fruits and vegetables, cutting back on meat, and avoiding most processed food-like substances, especially products that make elaborate health claims on their packaging.

I do feel better about what I am eating, in part because rather than treat this solely as a health exercise, I have framed it as a competition — me vs. the agro-giants that are out to ruin my health. If you start thinking of Kraft, Nestle, and all the other huge food conglomerates as evil corporations more concerned with their profits than the fact that they are increasing juvenile diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, it is a lot easier to avoid their products. Since said products are custom-engineered to trick your taste buds into thinking they are good for you, the mind-over-matter approach is important to avoiding them.

Articles like this recent one in the Times about salt content are especially effective, at least for me, in engendering loathing and disgust towards packaged foods:

The power that salt holds over processed foods can be seen in an American snack icon, the Cheez-It.

At the company’s laboratories in Battle Creek, Mich., a Kellogg vice president and food scientist, John Kepplinger, ticked off the ways salt makes its little square cracker work.

Salt sprinkled on top gives the tongue a quick buzz. More salt in the cheese adds crunch. Still more in the dough blocks the tang that develops during fermentation. In all, a generous cup of Cheez-Its delivers one-third of the daily amount of sodium recommended for most Americans.

As a demonstration, Kellogg prepared some of its biggest sellers with most of the salt removed. The Cheez-It fell apart in surprising ways. The golden yellow hue faded. The crackers became sticky when chewed, and the mash packed onto the teeth. The taste was not merely bland but medicinal.

“I really get the bitter on that,” the company’s spokeswoman, J. Adaire Putnam, said with a wince as she watched Mr. Kepplinger struggle to swallow.

I think the point here is less about the specific problem (excess salt) and more about what that salt is covering up — the true essence of the food we are scarfing down, a sticky, gray, medicinal extruded corn mash.

I don’t agree with everything Pollan says, and In Defense of Food is less footnoted than I would like. In particular, he is widely critical of food science and nutritionism, but then uses many scientific studies of food and eating habits in making his claims, without adequately explaining why some studies are more reliable than others. But on the whole, I feel the book is well worth reading, and it has had a major impact on me and my eating habits.

One Pollan prescription is along the lines of “if it doesn’t go bad, it isn’t good.” I understand why this is the case, but the consequence is that I keep buying good things and not eating them before they go bad, a problem I didn’t have to deal with quite as much before.