Michael Pollan, esteemed writer and noble defender of the dinner table, has been a leading crusader for real food, most recently in favor of GMO-labeling and against California's Prop 37. He is undeniably right, but we should be wary of demonizing all science surrounding nutrition in the publics' eye. In his book, In Defense of Food, he asserts that nutrition research is "reductionist science" investigating only the singularly existing nutrients of food, rather than the food as a whole. His thesis is that by examining only the component nutrients of food, we lose the value and trust in the whole food itself.
This perspective misses the mark, however, because Pollan ignores the fact that we live in a world made of chemical components, a world in which nutrition scientists examine at the molecular level to draw more precise conclusions regarding the nutritional value of foods. The reality is that we live in world in which the majority of food we eat is actually manipulated at the molecular level, whether we know it or not, and has been for thousands of years. These manipulations have had consequences, both good and bad, and we must have an intricate scientific knowledge of these components so that we can understand the interaction between the food we prepare and eat and the tissues in our bodies. So while we would all love to "eat the way that Grandma did," this is not a viable option for real people living in the modern-food world, and we do ourselves a disservice if we do not encourage nutrition scientists to engage in a rigorous scientific process so that we may all better understand the foods we ingest every day.
Forty-eight percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug. At the most clinical level, we must be concerned with how the food we eat interacts with the drugs that we take. In a recent New York Times article, grapefruit was cited to cause negative, sometimes deadly, interactions with at least 85 commonly prescribed drugs on the market (many more than the original blood pressure and cholesterol drugs initially implicated). However, thanks to nutrition scientists, we also know exactly where this interplay between food and body occurs - the detoxifying enzyme called CYP3A4. Without this knowledge, it would not be possible to develop safer drugs, nor would we understand which future drugs may cause similar dire interactions. This is why so-called "reductionist science"--known to researchers as "basic science"--is a necessity.
One of the food-body interactions that has caused considerable concern among the general public recently is gluten intolerance (which can manifest as a simple allergy or much more serious Celiac Disease). According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, approximately one in 133 people in the USA have Celiac Disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder in which the gluten in wheat products affects the digestive processes of the small intestine. Without nutrition scientists, this disorder would not only have never been isolated, but treatment would have been haphazard and anecdotal. By isolating the interaction between gluten and the gut tissue, we are able to not only treat Celiac patients so that they achieve full health, but can use this valuable research to discover potential causes and cures.
Even the recent diet crazes of the last decade cannot escape the alteration of our modern day food supply. Dr. Lauren Cordain, anthropologist founder of the Paleo Diet, states that his nutritional system is "the diet to which our species is genetically adapted." When, in fact, there is practically no food recognizable to our paleolithic ancestors in our modern food supply. Buying broccoli from the produce section, no matter how "organic" or "non-GMO" it currently is, it is not the roughage of the cave-man. The broccoli of today has been genetically manipulated for thousands of years to be larger, greener, and more nutrient-dense. It is different than the greenery our genes have evolved to deal with, a fact which is overlooked by the critics of nutrition science, but which is inescapable in our modern food supply.
In his recent post, "The Raw Food Diet, Overcooked," Dr. David Katz writes,
All too often, opinions about nutrition are disseminated with religious zeal, as if gospel... Nutrition IS science... We tend to honor this implicitly in almost every science but nutrition. Unsubstantiated opinions about how to build a suspension bridge, perform neurosurgery, or accelerate atoms are of no particular interest. We recognize in these disciplines that expertise matters...Somehow, though, we make an exception for nutrition.
Repeatedly, the science behind investigating the world's new food gets lost, or translated into something complicated, inconvenient or unsavory. In truth, this scientific discipline enables the modern human to be saved from our own creations in our food, by using our own technologies in discovery. While this science often yields the "inconvenient truth" behind the box labels, magazine headlines, and television commercials, it is a truth we very much need to have present and available in our culture.
Michael Pollan is right, we should eat food. Real food. But, in the high-tech, supplemented, fortified, genetically modified food-world we live in, we are not afforded the luxury of sitting back to a dinner spread with Mom's home-cooked meatloaf and cornbread, grown and harvested on the neighbor's farm. The truth is that the cow was given antibiotics and fed candy and the corn is only a genetic derivative of its true self. Unless you planted it yourself, saw it grown, or know the person you are getting it from, there is no "just real food" available in the marketplace. The best defense we have is knowledge -- in the form of science -- to empower the consumer to make the most educated food choices they can in the best interest of their health.
Yet, even despite the knowledge we glean daily, in the end, there is no panacea. There is no single, concrete nutritional answer for longevity and health that cures every person. Because as we scientists look deeper, we discover the complications of genetic variance, and environmental influence, and the ever-changing chemical make-up of the food we put into our mouths. The answers bring more questions, as is true in all scientific fields. However, without the science of food--nutrition science--we leave ourselves vulnerable to the chemical world we live in, naïve to its dangers. So, however complicated or futuristic or "reductionist", I know I for one, would rather be privy to the secrets of Grandpa's chili recipe now, in an effort to avoid dealing with potential negative consequences later.