Part 6 of the inaugural series on What Would Jesus Eat? looks at the role of nutrition and dietary science in defining how we approach and understand our food.
Michael Pollan identified our obsession with nutrition as part of the problem with our food culture. We approach the science of food, health and diet the same as any other science. We break things down into their constituent parts and then rebuild from there. So we figure out what Vitamin XYZ is good for. Then, rather than eating foods with those vitamins, we extract and engineer that vitamin, put it in a pill, bottle it and sell it for big bucks. The problem with this is that where food is concerned the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Foods, like soil, are much better and healthier in their natural forms. There is something about the combination of natural elements that makes the health benefit exponentially greater than popping pills. Fertilizer is a great example of this. Agricultural science discovered that the necessary nutrients to make plants grow is Potassium, Phosphorus and Nitrogen. So, they created industrial fertilizers based on petroleum that had these particular elements. This way they could mass manufacture fertilizer. Thus making crops grow more efficiently, boosting productivity and in the end profits. The problem is that industrial fertilizers lack some of the natural elements of good soil that makes crops healthier and more flavorful.
The missing ingredient is the mysterious humus. This is an element of soil that modern science is unable to reproduce. It seems that it comes from the combination of elements that happens in nature. This disappears once you try and reproduce the “essential” elements that make good soil so good.
This is the same way we approach food and health. I recently stopped in at the local Vitamin Shoppe to buy some Blessed Thistle and Fenugreek for my wife. I was floored by how large the store was. There were rows and rows of vitamins and products to make you healthy and help with all kinds of ailments. Some of these, like the ones I mentioned above, are based on herbal plants that have traditionally been said to help various ailments. There were also the protein supplements that people take to hit more homeruns. To be honest I’m overwhelmed by a place like this. I don’t really know how to begin to navigate that kind of store and how to separate the helpful “natural” remedies from the unnatural extractions of certain vitamins and nutrients to create miracle pills.
The point is that there is something wrong and unhelpful with thinking about nutrition and health this way. Research into food cultures such as the French defies the assumptions of our nutrition science. They eat terribly according to our vitamin obsessed culture, yet they are healthier, have lower rates of obesity and live longer. Once again this points to the culture of instant gratification and quick fix that I mentioned in the last post. We have to realize that real health and wellness comes with hard work and time.
(My info here comes mostly from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma)