Food Science, ‘Natural’, and Perfect Cooking

This may be overly simplistic, but in an attempt to distill what amounts to a dizzying array of information surrounding food science, I think it comes down to – as it seemingly always does in my mind – capitalism.   I agree wholeheartedly that food science should not be demonized.  We need to do a better job of understanding food science’s goals, and perhaps more importantly, it’s limitations.  I wish I could believe that all research is geared towards improving the wellbeing of humanity, but so often it’s directed by what can be sold at higher volumes.  This does not mean that all research is slanted this way.  If we are to embrace food science then, do we have to embrace all the crap that it produces as a natural byproduct of capitalism?  Do we shrug off the fact that the reason Doritos are so popular because they’ve been engineered to taste amazing?  Taste and low cost being motivating factors rather than health.  Not to decry Doritos necessarily (it was an easy target), but the idea that food science churns out profitable junk is not only true but damaging to the food science that attempts to prevent the very diseases presented by a malnourished world of Dorito consumers.

Now, there’s obvious hypocrisy in here.  White flour boomed because it had a much longer shelf life than whole grain flour, however removing the bran and germ removes most of the nutrition.  So flour manufacturers started enriching their white flour with iron and B vitamins, the precise nutrients lost during the processing of white flour.  So which is better?  White flour enriched to the same level of nutrition as it’s whole grain counterpart, but with a much longer shelf life?  The fallacy here being that we assumed we could transform white flour back into it’s whole grain counterpart simply by reintroducing lost nutrients, but our error was one of simplification.  The problem is more complex than that.  Enriched flour loses most of it’s fiber, and has drastic effects on blood sugar.  When enriched flour was first introduced, food science had not caught onto those intricacies, so enriched flour boomed.

Many people yearn for the days when we ate what we could forage ourselves.  I recently watched the first episode of Michael Pollen’s new show based on his book Cooked.  Part of the episode follows an Aboriginal  tribe in Australia that ate off the land – mostly hunting for lizards.  They were not plagued by modern diet related diseases until they began assimilating into modern Australian culture and began to eat a more western diet.  Modern food made them sick, plain and simple.  One scientist suggested to them that they return to their old eating ways to regain their health.  This sounds simple, but what are those of us to do who grew up in modern culture?  We grew up on McDonald’s and Cheetos and Rice-A-Roni.  I’m assuming this is where the Paleo diet stems from.

I was struck most by a very simple idea: caution.  We know that when applied thoughtfully, food science can alleviate some of what ails us.  When applied wantonly, we end up eating ourselves into the hospital.  Our attitude has been one of extremes.  No science near my food, or science in everything.  Katie brought up Marion Nestle’s work demonstrating industry studies and, not shockingly, they overwhelmingly side with their best interests as a company.  This is problematic for many reasons, but most of all that food science as it’s currently being practiced is not in the public’s best interest.  Scientists can also fall prey to hubris, failing to see the bigger picture of their work and focusing on what they deem incredibly valuable, raw information.  It’s important to consider how information is applied.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with all this – but to say that I’m worried that by shunning food science altogether we’re opening up the very real possibility of a food disaster.  The ideal of local organic food for everyone is a nice pipe dream, but the challenges to achieve such a system would require not only a massive overhaul of our entire system, but a reorienting of our relationship with the food we eat.  Similarly, is processed food bad by definition?  The problem here is information overload.  We’ve become inundated with claims and facts about processed food that we no longer know what’s true, what’s real.  Deciphering the nutrition label and ingredients list on your average box of food seems to require hours of research just to understand the basics.  An overly complicated system isolates those who do not have the time or interest to engage in it.

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