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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Expert nonsense

Endless nutrition fads ignore the obvious

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

The year is 2173. Milo Monroe (Woody Allen) is being slow-thawed on a table surrounded by doctors. "Has he asked for anything special?" "Yes, this morning for breakfast. He requested something called wheat germ, organic honey, and Tiger's milk." (Laughter). "Oh yes, those were the charmed substances that some years ago were felt to contain life-preserving properties." "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or creamed pies or hot fudge?" "Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true." "Incredible." (Sleeper)

Babies born the year I was, 1951, have the distinction of having entered the world at the lowest ebb of breastfeeding on record. My mother said the nurses made the rounds of the maternity ward handing out pills to dry up their milk.

It was the beginning of the cult of the food experts. I think of a cult as the kind of devotion to an idea or leader that has the capacity to blind its adherents to the obvious. There is little in life more obvious than the connectivity between a baby's mouth and a woman's lactating breast. Faced with that gargantuan medical goof, we have the choice now of two conclusions: "Boy, were people stupid in the old days!" Or, "I wonder what nonsense the experts have foisted on us in our own days."

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The subtitle of Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food is "eat food, not too much, mostly plants." He is a little embarrassed about this simple prescription (as you would have been in 1951 telling a maternity ward of new moms to use their breasts): "That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy."

I'm grateful that Pollan slugs it out for another 200 pages, because I would not have learned how food got politicized, professionalized, industrialized, governmentalized, and otherwise "expert-ized" to the point that you have to define food. Pollan: "When corn oil and chips and sugary breakfast cereals can all boast being good for your heart, health claims have become hopelessly corrupt. The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice's Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich."

The problem is that things your grandmother pushed-like apples and broccoli-don't make money for the food industry or nutritional science or those journalists who tout new products. "Who wants to hear, yet again, that you should 'eat more fruits and vegetables'? And so like a large gray cloud, a great Conspiracy of Scientific Complexity has gathered around the simplest question of nutrition-much to the advantage of everyone involved." Processed food can be endlessly engineered to keep in sync with the endless new fads of nutritionism. (Today fat is bad, tomorrow carbs.)

But even apples and broccoli are not what they seem. The same decades that hospital doctors were plugging laboratory formula over mother's milk, industry was selling farmers on chemical fertilizers that "completely overlooked the importance of biological activity in the soil"-those teeming microbes and other as yet undiscovered X-ingredients God put into dirt, that our reductionistic science considered unimportant. In 2009 "you have to eat three apples to get the same amount of iron as you would have gotten from a single 1940 apple."

Just to make it a perfect storm, the government "food pyramid," hijacked by special interests (a saga in itself), became a fourth accomplice to bad dietary advice. All of which would be a mildly entertaining subject, good for a 700-word throw, except that it has everything to do with the present health crisis, and therefore with the health insurance crisis. Tinkering with health insurance reform while chomping on Big Macs has the déjà vu feel of white-clad nurses in '50s baby wards, and doctors surrounding a thawing Milo Monroe.

Woody Allen spoke better than he knew.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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