The Politics Of Great-Tasting Food

by tristero

Recently, the UK Food Standards Agency published a review of the available studies on the nutritional and other health benefits of organic food. Their conclusions:
An independent review commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) shows that there are no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food. The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said: ‘Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.
Needless to say, foodies instantly jumped all over the report, retorting that they didn't look at the harmful effects of pesticides, etc., etc.

I'm in no position to debate knowledgeably the technical details of the study, or the rebuttals. I do know that in my experience, organics (especially local organics) usually, but not always, taste much, much better than the factory farm stuff that's shipped who-knows-how-many miles to get dumped into my supermarket. Likewise, the factory stuff I'm offered in Manhattan is usually, but not always, lacking in interesting variety while ranging in quality from the tasteless to the more-or-less acceptable.

However, Marion Nestle has a characteristically knowledgeable and nuanced take on the study and its meaning:
I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing. Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.” Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices. Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods. But so what? Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient. What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share. What should be at stake is the need to produce food - all food - more sustainably.
That seems to make a lot of sense to me. I'll focus on the first point in her post, the issue of "nutrtitionism," and leave for a later time, the other, equally interesting, concerns she brings up.

From what I can tell - ie, your mileage may vary but from my own experience and how I understand that of others, including Pollan and Mark Bittman - if you eat really good food, and by that I simply mean food that tastes great, you really don't have to worry too much whether you're getting enough protein, b-12, omega-3's, or [insert latest ginned-up food fad here]. Of course, learning about the nutrients in your food can make for an interesting hobby, but in general, there's no reason to sweat the details if you're eating good stuff. Michael Pollan's famous semi-tongue-in-cheek mantra, "Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants" probably is about all that most of us without specific dietary problems need as a guide in order to eat for our health.

The trick, of course, is to recognize what really good food tastes like... and also how to eat it!

Sadly, that's not so easy in modern America. Americans have been trained since birth to eat cruddy-tasting food and think it tastes great. It's not that burgers taste bad: they don't, they can taste great. It's rather that the burgers - and the fries, and the shakes, and so on - made available to the typical American taste awful, with fake flavors that pretend to taste good. But once you have, say, really great chocolate - and, hard as it is to believe, few of us have - you'll never, ever go back to the fake or adulterated stuff currently marketed as "chocolate." Other foods are harder to taste than chocolate, of course, but the principle's the same.

Now it's not just The Man's fault. True, big corporations have done an extraordinary job of feeding us huge piles of crappy-tasting slop (and also "disappearing" good food). In doing so, they've guaranteed that their owners will make enough of the other green stuff that they'll never have to eat their own lousy products. But that's only part of the problem.

If your parents were like mine, you never knew what broccoli could taste like when it wasn't cooked down to mush, or even how awesome a simple tomato salad could be. Incredibly, if we want to enjoy good food - something other cultures take for granted (and not just Europe!) - we actually need to learn, starting from square one, what it tastes like and how to cook it. That's how clueless most Americans are about food. (I'm not talking haute cuisine here. I'm talking about what's come to be called "ingredients:" produce, dairy, meats, seafood. You know: the stuff that was once called "food.")

That's not all. We have to learn how to eat good food. Pollan, in one of his most important observations, notes that Americans, when they're asked about the food they eat, default to touting the health benefits, or lack thereof. We eat oatmeal because it's good for us. Chocolate is sinful and decadent: we crave it. But once you think about it for a moment or two, this puritanical attitude, which is epidemic in the United States, really is profoundly weird. Health is first and foremost a moral imperative? Pleasure is a degenerate sin? What's that about?

That's not necessarily how folks from other cultures describe how they eat (and there are exceptions here, too, of course). Eating delicious food can be, to a great extent, an aesthetic act, a source of pleasure, joy, and the honing of one's skills of discernment. People in many cultures spend an enormous amount of time - by our standards - eating meals together. Somehow, they manage to eat simply for pleasure without killing themselves en masse. And we think they're weird for sitting down to lavish meals - often with (gasp!) birth=defect inducing libations - that go on for hours.

Naturally, I'm not suggesting we be more like Italians, or drink ourselves into a coma, or ignore the (few) important scientific facts we really need to know about our diets. No. What I'm saying is that the reason it would be a damn good idea for Americans to learn to spend more time together cooking and eating is not because it's "good" for us, or "useful" - fuck the Puritans! - but because it can be so incredibly enjoyable.

Let me state two self-evident truths with incredibly far-reaching implications for a society habituated to thinking about what constitutes a good life solely through the dreary prism of the ubiquitous, and hypocritical, prigs who dominate our discourse. In a different culture, these truths would be so obvious as to be thought simple-minded. Not here in 21st Century America, boyo:

First and foremost, food should taste great. Equally important: we should enjoy the act of eating it.

Told you they were obvious! But think for a minute about what they really mean. Not that food should be nutritious - it simply is nutritious. Not that food should be profitable at the expense of taste: beans are for eating, not counting. Not that food should be fast: good food, like all great pleasures (translated: sex) is best enjoyed nice and slow. What makes this attitude so radical is that it places human joy back at the center of a central human experience. Not morality, not profit, not ginned-up trivial jolts. Pleasure.

Getting back to organics... of course, our food should be as organic and local as possible. That should go without saying, like, of course we should put on warm clothes when it's cold. Or, of course we should properly fund the arts and, of course, we should have universal healthcare. But, of course, we don't.

Nestle's post has an important implication. Studying the relative nutritional merits of organic vs conventional misses all the most important aspects of food. Even if conventionals were more nutritious, it matters not a whit. They just don't taste as good and that's what really matters, or should.

In a future post, I'll address why I believe this is not an elitist attitude. Just the opposite, in fact.