July 16th, 2013
David H. Freedman has an excellent cover article in this month’s Atlantic Magazine. It’s 11 pages. If you don’t have the time to read it all, here is my annotated short version plucking out my favorite lines from which you can get the overall gist of the article. It’s about the truth when it comes to fighting the obesity problem, which has been distorted by the “Pollanites” (followers of bestselling “eating healthy” author Michael Pollan). It’s also about the hazards of storytelling.
WE HAVE FOUND THE DEVIL IN OUR SOCIETY AND IT IS PROCESSED FOODS! In film school they taught us, “Your story is only as good as your villain is evil.” What Freedman points out is that the “Pollanites” are wanting to tell the most compelling story possible, which drives them to cast their villain (processed foods) in the worst terms possible — to the point of calling it, “foodlike substances” (quoting Michael Pollan himself). Which ultimately drives their credibility down to the same level as the worst junk food marketers at the other end of the spectrum.
A LAWN CLIPPINGS SMOOTHIE
In February I saw that one of my journalist heros, David H. Freedman, was coming to town to moderate a panel discussion on health food messaging in the media. He wrote the a-mazing article in the Atlantic three years ago titled, “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science,” that showed what a mess of false positives the biomedical science world is drowning in these days. Ever since then I’ve been a rabid fan of his writing.
I emailed him, hoping to meet him while in town and ended up managing to accompany him to the upscale health food restaurant in Beverly Hills, Real Food Daily, that he talks about at the start of the article (I even tasted the lawn clipping mulch beverage he ordered — blech). He’s a truly great writer and this article is another one of his excellent, critical exposes in which he simply tries to get to the bottom of things.
FOR THE SHORT ATTENTION SPAN CROWD
The article is pretty lengthy, so if you don’t have time for it all, here’s my favorite lines from it (with commentary) by sections.
I. MICHAEL POLLAN HAS NO CLOTHES (luv this heading)
“The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.” (this is the message of the entire article in one sentence. It’s about how the “wholesome foods” fanatics are increasingly undeterred by the lack of evidence. they’re kinda like just another religious group, driven by deep seated beliefs and a basic “narrative” involving good guys (them) and bad guys (processed food makers))
“In Pandora’s Luchbox, Melanie Warner assiduously catalogs every concern that could possibly be raised about the health threats of food processing, leveling accusations so vague, weakly supported … “ (you know what, here’s a tip for everyone — essays titled, “Pandora’s anything” you should just avoid because it’s probably going to be like the current “documentary” pro-nuclear film “Pandora’s Promise” that has been roundly labeled as a one-sided diatribe)
“… in spite of many health-related improvements in our environment, our health care, and our nondietary habits — our health prospects are worsening, mostly because of excess weight.” (another simple statement of the problem — “it’s the obesity, stupid”)
“indeed, let’s not rule out any food — merely because we are pleased by images of pastoral family farms” (last summer I was shocked to hear, at an excellent panel discussion on agriculture at the Aspen Environment Forum, that the small family farms are worse polluters than the large industrial farming operations because they can’t afford the economies of scale that allow for better farm practices — so much for the nostalgia of the old family farm days)
II. LET THEM EAT KALE (another great heading)
“Where the Pollanites get into real trouble — where their philosophy becomes so glib and wrongheaded that is it actually immoral …” (luv this — the article actually has A LOT more teeth than the title suggests — it’s titled, “The Cure for Obesity: How Science Is Engineering Healthy Junk Food,” which sounds like a gee whiz, Popular Science article — I’m guessing Mr. Freedman originally had a much more aggressive title but the editors did what editors do and watered it down — the fact is, I would have titled it, “IMMORAL CRUSADERS: Michael Pollan’s Followers” but then that’s just me)
“”let them eat kale”” (kale — blah, patooey)
“One study found that subsidizing the purchase of vegetables encouraged shoppers to buy more vegetables, but also more junk food with the money they saved; on balance, their diets did not improve.” (guess what, people are irrational. that needs to be factored into any attempts at “behavior modification”)
III. THE FOOD REVOLUTION WE NEED
“The sandwich was delicious. It was less than half the cost of the Sea Cake appetizer at Real Food Daily. It took less than a minute to prepare. In some ways, it was the best meal I had in L.A. and it was probably the healthiest.” (guess what he’s talking about — the Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich at Carls, Jr.!)
“The Pollanites have led us to conflate the industrial processing of food with the adding of fat and sugar in order to hook customers, even while pushing many faux-healthy foods of their own.” (those pesky Pollanites!)
“Processed food is a key part of our environment and needs to be part of the equation” (yes, yes, yes — I really admire this article so much because he is digging at the sheer arrogance and condescension of those who live their lives scoffing at McDonald’s as if it’s mere existence were a crime against humanity — actually, a lot of them would say it is — but you’re not going to get rid of junk food, so if you really care about the plight of people suffering from the obesity epidemic you’ll work on realistic ways to work within the existing situation to make junk food more nutritious, not just look down on those who are stuck eating it)
“(Jamy) Ard who has been working for more than a decade with the obese poor, has little patience with the wholesome food movement’s call to eliminate fast food in favor of farm fresh goods” (exactly. it’s like during the Bush era when they would offer up stupid advice for the unemployed, “just go get an MBA”)
“Research suggests that calorie counts in a meal can be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without eaters noticing — by for example, reducing portion sizes and swapping in ingredients that contain more fiber and water.” (that’s the idea — make it healthier, just don’t feel the need to point it out to everyone — “you know you’re eating something healthier — doesn’t it taste just as good?” “no, shut up”)
“Which raises a question: If McDonald’s is taking these sorts of steps, albeit in a slow and limited way, why isn’t it more loudly saying so to deflect criticism?” (this is the best part of the article — the idea that telling people something is healthier is actually a counter-productive thing to do for marketing. why does this not surprise me. health food advocates are so self-righteous and moralizing these days that you really do want to go eat crap just to spite them — why do you think Twinkies are coming back by popular demand — it’s the best way to thumb your nose at the healthy fanatics — the bottom line is the entire health food movement has equated themselves with the word “annoying” — way to go)
“… it merely confirmed what generations of parents have well known: if you want to turn off otherwise eager eaters to a dish, tell them it’s good for them.” (dat’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!!!)
“We tend to make up our minds about how something tastes from the first and last bites, and don’t care as much what happens in between.” (in dramatic terms this is called, “enter strong.” if an actor is going to play a Russian accent he or she will often begin with a noticeably strong accent so the audience “gets it” then back it off so as to not become tiresome. it’s kinda the same deal — give the kick in the first bite, then back it off)
“Spence found that wine is perceived as 50 percent sweeter when consumed under a red light” (what a cool factoid!)
IV. THE IMPLACABLE ENEMIES OF HEALTHIER PROCESSED FOOD
“The wholesome food movement is not only talking up dietary strategies that are unlikely to help most obese Americans, it is in various ways getting in the way of strategies that could work better” (this is just so inexcusable)
“Pollan has popularized contempt for, “nutritionism,” the idea behind packing healthier ingredients into processed foods.” (again, inexcusable, see next quote)
“… wholesome food advocates have managed to pre-damn the very steps we need the food industry to take, placing the industry in a no-win situation: If it maintains the status quo, then we need to stay away because its food is loaded with fat and sugar. But if it tries to moderate these ingredients, then it is deceiving us with “nutritionism.”” (it’s terrible, no excuse for it, the sheer arrogance of those who would throw stones at McDonald’s rather than trying to applaud their albeit limited efforts — at least they are trying)
“By placing wholesome eating directly at odds with healthier processed foods, the Pollanites threaten to derail the refomation of fast food just as it’s starting to gain traction.” (“you shitty Pollanites!” (to be read like the South Park voice of the man from Shitty Wok))
“That the chef with arguably the most influence in the world over the diet of the obese would even consider adding fat to his menu to placate the wholesome foodies is a pretty good sign that something has gone terribly wrong with our approach to the obesity crisis.” (this is in reference to Dan Coudreaut, the executive chef and director of culinary innovation at McDonald’s who says that reducing the amount of processed foods McDonald’s serves would result in a net increase in the amount of fat they serve.)
AND LASTLY, FREEDMAN’S OVER ALL RECOMMENDATIONS:
“Continuing to call out Big Food on its unhealthy offerings, and loudly, is one of the best levers we have for pushing it toward healthier products — but let’s call it out intelligently, not reflexively.”
“Academia could … curtail its evidence-light anti-food processing bias.”
It’s such a good article. The problem/conflict is the gulf between the “poor obese” and the affluent moralizing wholesome eaters. There are ways to improve things, but hurling insults at the makers of junk foods is no more likely to solve the problems than hurling the same insults at climate skeptics. Doesn’t work, and just creates a voice that is not liked, which Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman last year told us is a bad idea.