See Dr. John A. Lucey’s complete commentary posted in the Resources Section of the Web site.
In reading Michael Pollan’s thought-provoking book, I was struck by his mostly negative impressions of food science and food processing. The food scientists that I work with here in this department, in industry and in my classes, are highly creative people that are driven by a passion for food or cooking. Food science serves several critically important functions or roles in our society. Firstly, with the shift in population from rural to urban areas, food science has provided the means to feed consumers who no longer have the opportunity to grow their own crops or tend their own animals, much of the population no longer has the time (or passion) to prepare traditional home-cooked meals each day as more housewives have joined the work force and food science has developed a range of ready to eat meals or food that require less preparation time. Food scientists study how to preserve foods during transport or storage, they study what organisms might grow on these foods and develop methods to destroy those organisms that pose a danger to consumers and they explore how to maintain the quality of the food that the consumer expects. In the US there are 300 million people to feed each and every day and food scientists have played a major role in ensuring that there is sufficient food (although not everyone is able to afford all food choices) and that these products are safe to eat. Food scientists have saved countless lives by developing many technologies and approaches to improving food safety. Food or food-like products (and the industry that produces them) were unfairly blamed by Pollan for our current health problems. The argument that food alone causes these health issues is not a balanced discussion as critical factors like lifestyle and our level of activity were ignored. Anyone that has watched reality programs like The Biggest Loser realizes that reversing excessive weight gain for an individual involves reducing the number of calories consumed, changing their lifestyle, having emotional support, and increasing their level of activity or exercise. Ultimately, it is the consumer that makes the choice on what to eat and how much they are willing to pay for food; blaming the government, nutritionists or food scientists for our purchasing decisions is easy (but unfair) and it also avoids us taking responsibility for our actions. Many individuals fail to stay on a particular diet not because those “healthy” foods suddenly become unavailable but they fail because of factors like not addressing their overall lifestyle and level of activity. To put things very simply, if we consume more calories than we need (and it does not matter to our bodies whether these calories come from carbohydrates or fat), then the body will start to store these extra calories (as fat). We have two choices, consume fewer calories or burn the extra calories by performing some activity/exercise. Unfortunately, when I look around I see more opportunities for individuals to be more sedentary. As a society we have to include this trend towards a sedentary lifestyle in our conversation about our health and wellness. Governmental nutritional policy has for decades recommended eating more fruits and vegetables (5 servings or more per day); unfortunately many people do not follow this advice. The main thing I hope most people took away from reading Michael Pollan’s book was the encouragement to eat more fruits and vegetables. In conclusion, we need to remember that he makes it clear that this book is “his manifesto” or opinions concerning food, with this Go Big Read program we can all share our opinions on this important topic.
Dr John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison