As a kid, did you ever wonder why we couldn’t all survive on bubblegum ice cream, strawberry waffles, and vitamin pills? Michael Pollan’s latest essay in The New York Times Magazine dissects our society’s pervasive “nutritionism,” the view that food is little more than a delivery system for nutrients. In “Unhappy Meals,” the UC Berkeley journalism prof and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma lays out no less than a survival guide for the species. Pollan dissects what he calls the “cognitive dissonance of the supermarket shopper,” egged on to stock our carts with health and diet foods no less processed than Twinkies double-packs. We suffer under the tyranny of experts, writes Pollan: “Scientists operating with the best of intentions … have taught us to look at food in a way that has diminished our pleasure in eating it while doing little or nothing to improve our health.” In other words, rice cakes and soy milk are just the other faces of Coke and Flaming Hot Cheetos.
Pollan’s challenge echoes the work being done by some prominent Bay Area activists, folks battling the reductionist view of nutrition in schools and hospitals. As Leslie Mikkelsen, managing director of Oakland’s Prevention Institute, recently told the Express: “A company can take what’s basically cornstarch and a lot of sugar and stick some vitamins in it and go, ‘Oh, a great way for kids to start the day.'” It may look good as a list of recommended daily allowances on the back of a cereal box, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s food. Here’s Pollan again: “What would happen … if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?” We’d cherish it, that’s what: Shopping at farmers’ markets, cultivating our gardens, coming to the table in a way that has little need for food as the mechanics of its nutritional parts but more like an expression of culture. Tradition, pleasure, conversation around the table — Pollan believes they nourish us the way a handful of multivitamins never could.
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