Are Popular Food Activists Giving us Good Advice?

In a piece (pdf) for the Summer issue of the Cato Institute journal, Regulation, Dr. Henry I. Miller joins me in questioning whether the advice we get from popular food activists is actually valid.

This matters in terms of policy, since the thought leaders we evaluate often influence laws, regulations, and how federal, state, and local officials spend our taxpayer dollars.  For example, schools in Los Angeles are now instituting “Meatless Mondays”, localities are paying for community gardens to fight obesity, and New York City is giving “free” farmers market vouchers to politically connected community groups, which they in turn give to…well, whomever they see fit. Mayor Bloomberg must think that handouts of locally grown organic heirloom arugula and a large soda ban are the answers to obesity.

For Regulation, we write,

There are plenty of people out there telling us what we should eat—and worse, trying to use public policy to make us live by their opinions. Although many of them may know how to sell books and promote themselves through newspapers and press releases, few know much about the demands of our lifestyles, the economics of food and agriculture, and most important, nutrition. Our advice: Ignore their bluster and eat a variety of foods in moderation. And resist the meddling of the nanny-state food activists inside and outside government.

Some of the food sages advise that we stay away from packaged foods or any product that is made with modern technology. There’s even the popular “Paleo Diet,” based on “eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups that our huntergatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age.” That reminds us of a cartoon depicting a group of denizens of the Stone Age who are standing around, chatting; one of them muses to the others: “I can’t understand it. There’s no pollution, we get lots of exercise and eat unprocessed, natural foods—but none of us lives past 30.”

If you believe the blandishments of the self-styled food police, every food science innovation further contributes to obesity, chronic diseases, and even addiction to fat and sugar. That’s nonsense, of course.

Agricultural economist Jayson Lusk captured the zeitgeist well, observing that some journalists, columnists, celebrity chefs, and cookbook authors have conspired to create a distorted, dystopian picture of modern agriculture by promoting the view that “the prescription for our ailments is local, organic, slow, natural, and unprocessed food, along with a healthy dose of new food taxes,  subsidies, and regulation.” evocative prose | The campaign to demonize the food industry is at the same time both radical and mainstream, which is a recipe for trouble.

Activists’ attacks on those who produce processed food are radical because they are trying to achieve not only a fundamental change in the way we eat, but also, in the words of the movement’s guru, author Michael Pollan, a revolution in “the division of domestic labor.” By that he means that if you don’t have the inclination or time to both shop and cook for yourself—preferably from scratch—the food industry will “exploit” you by selling inherently harmful processed food.Those views are also in a sense mainstream because Pollan’s books are best sellers, influence public policy, and are regular fodder for “food activists.” For example, according to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, Pollan, in his earlier books, “so cogently analyzed production and nutrition.”

To dispel any doubt that a lot of food activism is elitist nonsense, consider Pollan’s rhapsodizing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about the “literary experience” that is part of shopping at Whole Foods. Much of the food, he observes, is:

“certified organic” or “humanely raised” or “free range.” But right there, that’s the point: It’s the evocative prose as much as anything else that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions.

It’s interesting that fats don’t get to share in the literary, heady experience.

Convenience and food elitism inevitably conflict. In his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan calls for a  tax on all “prepared” foods. Bittman, who often functions as an amen-corner and sycophant for Pollan, dutifully echoes, “A tax on prepared food, but not on raw ingredients, is [a] good idea.” Yes,we’ve come that far down the slippery slope: if soda taxes represent public policy that serves the public interest, let’s use the same tool to discourage any non-raw foods sold at supermarkets, which,according to the mantra, are by their very nature harmful.

Fortunately, there’s at least one voice of reason among the food glitterati. Jacques Pépin—chef, restaurateur, TV star, and author of Fast Food My Way—uses “the supermarket the same way you use a prep cook in the restaurant—slicing mushrooms, washing spinach. The supermarket does the work now…. It’s more convenient.” Supermarkets not only slice your veggies when you don’t have time to, they offer choices of ingredients (such as veal stock) or entire meals that tend to be more wholesome than the busy person’s alternative, fast food.

Food technology has been a boon in so many ways, but sometimes it seems that countering opposition to it is like arguing about religion. Pasteurization is a good example. Used to kill bacteria in dairy products, juices, and canned foods, it lengthens their shelf-life and lowers the likelihood of food poisoning. And yet a few diehards insist that pasteurization destroys much of the nutritional value of milk and advocate the consumption of raw milk, although public health authorities are unanimous in recommending against it and it is widely prohibited. (Young children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to the pathogens found in raw milk.)

A less obvious but equally ubiquitous example of technology’s applications to foods is quick-freezing, a process invented by Clarence Birdseye during the 1920s. He commercialized a method for flash-freezing food products in convenient packages and preserving the original taste. Frozen foods have come a long way. Not only are they convenient, but often they compare more favorably to fresh foods nutritionally than one might think. In 2007, scientists in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, reviewed the scientific literature about the effects of food processing on nutrition. A surprising finding was that the “loss of nutrients in fresh products during storage and cooking may be more substantial than commonly perceived. Depending on the commodity, freezing and canning processes may preserve nutrient value.” They concluded that “exclusive recommendations of fresh produce ignore the nutrient benefits of canned and frozen products.”

This explains why “industrialized food,” sold by big companies that can afford to invest in expensive state-of-the-art technology to freeze vegetables where they are picked, is often more nutritious than the “fresh” lettuce and carrots you pick up on your way home from work. The lettuce and carrots may have been sitting in distribution centers or loading bays for a week after being trucked to the city. Even produce from a farmers’ market might have spent a day or two in hot weather from the time it was picked until you select it. Suddenly, the Pollan tax looks less appetizing.

Inasmuch as they’re convenient, nutritious, and reduce wastage, it’s no surprise that frozen foods are popular. Frozen vegetables racked up $5.7 billion in sales last year while frozen fruit sales were $422 million, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. Pollan’s proposed tax would serve only to make frozenfoods less competitive and discourage their consumption.

Food elitism might sell to some, but often it fails to work for real people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t always cook handpicked, locally grown, organic, humanely raised, cage-free, fair trade, sustainably produced food—or who, after a day’s work, just want to relax and enjoy dinner instead of seeking some sort of existential apotheosis. Nutrition advice should be geared to those who are health conscious, not just image conscious.

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