When you need to get a tune up on your car, you go to the mechanic, and talk with them about just what kind of work is going to be done on your vehicle. If you were going to a hospital for surgery, you may choose to check out the facility as well as meet your surgeon. The first time you sign a lease or take out a mortgage, there is a lot to learn about the whole process.

What about when you are deciding what kind of food to consume? Do you ever wonder where it came from? How do you know exactly what you’re eating? Who do you ask about the fine print?

Michael Pollan challenges many habits of the western culture when it comes to eating in his book In the Defense of Food. The first thing to strike me was that the majority of food in the supermarket was something Mr. Pollan referred to as “food-like substance.” One challenge is to actually take a look at the list of ingredients. Do you recognize everything, or are there some things on that list that you cannot even pronounce?

He picks apart so many aspects of our diets, from nutritionists’ recommendations to the regulations put in place by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The basis of these recommendations and regulations is challenged.

He says that nutritionists practice a thing called nutritionism, an ideology that believes the key to understanding foods is to understand individual nutrients. It is a science that tinkers with substances in order to have them imitate food and have the right nutrients. Take margarine as an example. When cholesterol and saturated fats were targeted as being bad for your health in the 1950’s, margarine emerged as a fantastic imitator, without the fat and cholesterol. Years later it was discovered that the trans fats in margarine was a ‘deadly’ ingredient, worse that the fat and cholesterol it replaced. One thing Mr. Pollan points out is that since the beginning of nutrition science, the overall trend has been unhealthier eating.

 In 1938 congress passed a bill regulating labeling of food. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1983 read “if a food resembles a standardized food, but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as ‘imitation’.”  With new substances, such as margarine lining the shelves, this helped consumers recognize what they were eating. Now, ‘imitation’ is a fairly negative label, so of course the food industry did not appreciate this act. In 1973, the act was repealed by the Food and Drug Administration, who decided that as long as the imitation had the same ‘nutritional value’ as the real thing; it did not have to be labeled as fake. Unfortunately, to meet nutritional standards, only the value of known nutrients must be met, and the ‘food-like substance’ is still an extremely processed and manufactured imposter the original food. It may be that industry takes priority, just above our health, when it comes to these types of regulations.

It makes you wonder, who should we be listening too when we make our food choices? Finding out where our food really comes from is a whole other matter. I definitely suggest reading In Defense of Food as one way to become a better informed consumer.