In Michael Pollan’s book he suggests that we lost control of what is in our foods and now we have stores full of fake foods or food-like products. Hence he called the book in defense of (these real) foods.
As a food scientist I feel that some clarification of the actual situation is needed regarding his claim. In the US we have federal standards of identity (CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/SCRIPTs/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm) for a wide range of food products including categories such as: Milk and cream, Canned fruits, Bottled Water, Canned vegetables, Food dressings and flavorings, Chocolate products, Cheeses, Cereals and flours, Frozen desserts, Bakery products, etc. Fruits and vegetables are not included in these standards. Standards of identity define what a given food product is, its name, and the ingredients that must or may be used in the manufacture of that food. Food standards ensure that consumers get what they expect when they purchase certain food products. For example, to be called Ice Cream a product must be made from cream (derived from milk) and not some other fat source (e.g. vegetable oils). These food standards prescribe aspects such as the minimum amounts of certain ingredients; maximum fat and water contents and methods of processing or preparation. It is not correct of Pollan to suggest in his book that yogurt is now made with hydrogenated fat. The only type of fat that can be used in yogurt according to its standard (21 CFR Part 131.200) is milk fat. Pollan is correct in his comment that many ingredients are now added to some foods that were probably not in these products back in the 1980s. Much of these concern “nutrients” added to foods to improve its nutritional profile, e.g. cholesterol-lowering plant sterols which is an FDA approved claim (21 CFR 101.83). The FDA allows several types of claims to be made on foods, these are (a) health claims that meet significant scientific agreement (e.g. that plant sterols can reduce cholesterol claim), (b) qualified health claims (e.g., some limited evidence supporting the claim but not considered conclusive by the FDA) and (c) nutrient content claims (the usage of terms like lowfat, lean, etc. See the FDA website http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/default.htm for more details.
The addition of nutrients and the inclusion of “claims” is of course largely driven by marketing (to increase sales). If you, as a consumer, do not want Omega-3s in a food product, then just don’t purchase it. Most of the new food products that are introduced each year fail and are withdrawn within a short period and of course, companies that want to stay in business, will launch another product to take its place. The important point is food products, that are regulated by a standard of identity (and most “traditional” foods have standards while novelties like Twinkies do not), still have to comply with the requirements of that standard even if the manufacturer wants to add some additional nutrient like Omega-3 to the product. I would recommend anyone interested in the ingredients or nutrients permitted in our foods to visit the FDA website (www.fda.gov). Anytime that the FDA considers changing a standard (or regulation) for a food, you as a consumer can post your comment on this website and this comment will be considered by FDA before any change is made. I just do not understand the view that adding a nutrient (e.g. vitamin D) to a traditional food like breakfast cereal somehow makes it an inferior quality product! I agree, however, that just because a food is called lowfat does not make it a very healthy product if it contained lots of calories from carbohydrate! I do not believe there is reasonable evidence to conclude that all our foods have become fake foods although many consumers are confused about the claims and labels on foods.
Although it is obviously not what Pollan believes in his personal manifesto, the comprehensive food standards we have in the US are envied (and often used as a reference) in many other part of the World.
Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison