Do not Presume to Search the Souls of Carrots

In the same way nutritionism can lead to a false consciousness in the mind of the eater, it can just as easily mislead the scientist.
The problem starts with the nutrient. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, a seemingly unavoidable approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient science,” points out Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the contest of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”

If nutrition scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done. Scientists study variables they can isolate…Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another…

It’s important also to remind ourselves that what reductive science can manage to perceive well enough to isolate and study is subject to almost continual change, and that we have a tendency to assume that what we can see is the important thing to look at. The vast attention paid to cholesterol since the 1950s is largely the result of the fact that for a long time cholesterol was the only factory linked to heart disease that we had the tools to measure. (This is sometimes called parking-lot science, after the legendary fellow who loses his keys in a parking lot and goes looking for them under the streetlight – not because that’s where he lost them, but because that’s where it’s easiest to see.)…

[C]uriously, the human digestive tract has roughly as many neurons as the spinal column. We don’t yet know exactly what they’re up to, but their existence suggests that much more is going on in digestions than simply the breakdown of foods into chemicals…

When Prout and Liebig nailed down the macronutrients, scientists figured that they now understood the nature of food and what the body needed from it. Then when the vitamins were isolated a few decades later, scientists thought, okay, now we really understand food and what the body needs for its health; and today it’s the polyphenols and carotenoids that seem to have completed the picture. But who knows what else is going on deep in the soul of a carrot?

The good news is that, to the carrot eater, it doesn’t matter. That’s the great thing about eating foods as compared with nutrients: You don’t need to fathom the carrot’s complexity in order to reap its benefits.

– Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, pp. 62 – 66.

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This entry was posted in Food.

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