Friday, January 16, 2009

In Defense of Food: nutritionism and breastfeeding

In Defense of FoodI've read the introduction to In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, so I think that qualifies me to start reviewing it.

I was struck by how much of what he deplores in the Western culture's attitudes toward food echoes Western culture's recent attitudes toward breastfeeding -- that a manufactured artificial infant meal can substitute for the whole food of breastmilk if the right nutritional components are present, and that food is about ingesting calories and has little to do with the pleasurable act of eating.

"Together, and with some crucial help from the government, [scientists and food marketers] have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the 'nutrient'; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health. Because food in this view is foremost a matter of biology, it follows that we must try to eat 'scientifically' -- by the nutrient and the number and under the guidance of experts." (p. 8 in my hardcover library copy)

The rise in formula's popularity was due in part to trust in the authority of science over culture. There were always going to be women who could not (or chose not to) breastfeed, but the marketing of formula as similar to and just as good as breastmilk allowed it to gain preferred status in the Western infant's diet. Scientists began to analyze human milk and break it down into its constituent parts. Most formulas are based on cow's milk, which has the wrong kind of fat and too much protein, so it has to be processed, having its fats removed and then different ones added back in, to be suitable for a human infant. Scientists and formula manufacturers have had to play around with the ingredients and ratios, trying hard to make a processed food imitate a natural food.

Pollan says the same about scientists dealing with Western processed, industrial food:

"Nutritionism prefers to tinker with the Western diet, adjusting the various nutrients (lowering the fat, boosting the protein) and fortifying processed foods rather than questioning their value in the first place." (p. 11)

The latest fad in adult diet is the same as in baby diets: omega-3 fatty acids, which are now added to formula in hopes of replicating breastfeeding's effect on IQ scores. Previous attempts were adding maltose and dextrin, nucleotides, and iron. Iron is present in much lower doses in breastmilk than in formula, but the iron in breastmilk is absorbed much more readily by the infant. And even though formula has many more sugars added, breastmilk continues to taste sweeter. Like so many differences between the two, why breastmilk is so superior remains a mystery.

Formula is a safe substitute to nourish an infant who otherwise cannot have breastmilk, but it so far doesn't replicate the intangible qualities that breastmilk possesses. Here's a quote from an interviewed nutrition professor in the article "Hot Milk": "We are still unable to make formula that comes very close to human milk and, for me, that’s a disappointment. We try to break human milk down into its components and put it back together again, but it really doesn’t work that way.”

Back to Pollan's basic claim:

"But I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term." (p. 7)

As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that food is not just about calories and nutrients, and eating is not just about ingesting. If you look at science-fiction shows from the 1950s (or maybe earlier), you can sense the excitement that science and nutritionism will one day do away with the messiness of being an omnivore -- that in a bright and shiny future all our food will come in pill form.

Why on earth would we want our food in the form of pills?

There's so much more to eating and food than the simple act of ingesting a certain number and percentage of whatever science is telling us is essential today. I remember when Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, first announced that he was making a line of nutritious and convenient vegetarian burritos that contained a multivitamin's worth of your RDAs for the day. Enjoying his cartoons and some of his early books, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. If you're in a hurry, sure, better to grab something easy and tasty that also has a bunch of nutrients. Forget that they didn't taste all that great after all -- is it even possible to reduce our food needs down to vitamins wrapped in a tortilla?

An infant's need for nutrition is more than a bottle of vitamins, fats, and calories. Besides all the mysterious qualities that make breastmilk more of a food than formula (in the same ineffable way that an apple is more of a food than a Dilberito), there is the other side to the food equation: the act of eating. Formula allows babies to be propped up with bottles, held facing away from the warmth of the parent with little skin-to-skin touch. It allows babies (or so we've been told) to sleep long stretches with full tummies instead of having continual, restorative contact throughout day and night with their mothers. There's the difference between rubber nipples and plastic bottles potentially leaching chemicals vs. a warm and soft breast. There's the interaction that must take place between specifically mother and child when breastfeeding that is not mandatory when bottle feeding, and there are benefits there that are as little understood as the apparent magic of breastmilk's ever-shifting composition. It's attitudes that negate those benefits that lead to experts deriding comfort nursing with tsk-tsks about becoming your child's pacifier. As if that's not exactly what breasts are supposed to be!

I haven't read the rest of the book yet -- getting through fifteen whole pages is quite an accomplishment for me lately -- so I can't say exactly what conclusions Pollan will draw, but I can guess from his first three (sorta) sentences: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I imagine he won't make tightly restrictive recommendations and prohibitions about enjoying some of what the Western food industry has to offer (an occasional Dilberito can't hurt, right?), but that as omnivores and as humans, our bodies would do much better on whole foods and our souls would do much better with conscious eating.

In the same way, I'm not out to bash the very existence of formula. It was originally created to help babies whose mothers were trying even more inadequate methods of feeding them, and it's now the only acceptable substitute for babies who have no breastmilk to drink for whatever reason. I'm also not trying to decry bottles, which can be necessary for working and adoptive mothers among others. But I couldn't help but see the parallels with the situation he's writing about and our reliance on an imperfect food substitute and an imperfect method of conveying that comestible, when there's a perfect and whole baby food abundant and available.


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