American Society For Nutrition

In Defense of Food Science and Nutrition

In Defense of Food Science and Nutrition

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Posted on 03/22/2010 at 05:47:24 PM by Student Blogger
By: Rachel K.

After watching and enjoying The Botany of Desire, a PBS special based on a book by Michael Pollan, I was very interested to read his book entitled In Defense of Food.  I consume a healthy variety of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, make many meals from scratch, compost my own food waste, grow herbs and vegetables in my garden, and subscribe to a local Community Supported Agriculture farm.  Based on the food mantra printed on the cover (eat food. not too much. mostly plants), I thought the book would be closely aligned with my personal food philosophy.

However, I am sorry to report that I have been quite disappointed.  The first section of the book consists of a series of attacks on both the food industry and nutrition science.  The author is quick to blame both for the current state of chronic disease in the U.S.  More disturbing is Pollan's attempt to analyze scientific literature on everything from omega-3-fatty acids to the relationship between cholesterol and heart disease.  While he does interview a few notable nutrition scientists, he largely relies on his own interpretation of select scientific articles.  He fails to take the entire body of literature into account, instead choosing to highlight an article here or there which supports his argument.  In fact, a comprehensive analysis of the entire body of nutrition literature is what is used to shape the current dietary guidelines.  In section two, the food industry takes another hit.  The author makes no mention of the advantages of having a food industry – namely a sterile, safe, and nutritious food supply all year long.  Since everyone doesn't have to be a farmer and grow his own food (and depend on his skills to preserve this food and keep it free of pathogenic bacteria), we are free to pursue our passion and contribute to society in complementary ways.  He also incorrectly claims that all processed food is less nutritious and has lost nutritional value in processing.  He claims the nutritional value of food has dropped since the 1950's (he blames industrial agriculture), failing to recognize that the analytical methods used to assess nutrient value have improved dramatically over the past 60 years. In other words, the data he is using to make this conclusion is innacurate.    Section three lists his “prescription” for eating a healthier diet, where he also provides his own creative explanations as to why the food you purchase at your local grocery store may not be healthy (for example, he claims that cattle are given antibiotics because if they eat too much corn they get sick).

In the end, it is important to remember that Pollan is in fact a journalist, not a scientist.  While I agree that every field has its flaws (including food science and nutrition), this book presents a one sided, and often factually incorrect, interpretation of scientific data.    Consequently, I would strongly encourage anyone who chooses to read this book to read it with a healthy sense of skepticism.
4 Comments
Posted Mar 25, 2010 4:07 PM by Calvin

I think your comments reflect many nutrition scientists' thoughts about Pollan- you have to remember he's a journalist and not a scientist. He's out there to sell books.


I've been saying this for a while now. The trouble is that food scientists and working nutrition science professionals never answer the claims he makes, which lends them credibility. When he is on the Daily Show or the Today Show, people representing food science and nutrition should be on either right after or along side Pollan to counter claims he makes. This is not someone to ignore since there is a large subset of people that are ready to take what he says as the truth.


Posted Mar 29, 2010 11:12 AM by Harini Sampath

Nice post. I agree with the commenter above, that unfortunately, sensationalism sells. It is not often that someone who offers a balanced view on a topic is invited to participate in televised interviews. And even when you do have people offering such views, the media is quick to seek a 'bottom-line' or a catch-all phrase that rarely does justice to the complicated messages generated by science.


Posted Apr 23, 2010 11:01 AM by Susan Long

I read his book (as a layman) and it changed my life for the better. I finally "got" why most processed food is not really food, and why in the 21st century, eating 21st century food, I am at risk for heart disease and diabetes, whereas if I had been born in 1800, I probably would not be. The points you highlight seem to me to be details - I understand even after reading the book that not all processed food is "bad" - it means I have to read the labels more carefully. I'm also quite aware I would not survive without having a grocery store nearby. I think Michael Pollan has highlighted the issues in such a way that the country is now more able than ever to address them.