A few days ago, Mark Bittman was known for his brilliant, accessible recipes and his adorably crappy kitchen. Now, he’s suddenly turned into (yet another) full-time “food activist” who churns out legislative suggestions under the heading “A Food Manifesto For The Future”. While some of his ideas, e.g. reduction of corn/soy subsidies, seem reasonable, most of them are unsubstantiated, misleading, and questionable.
Like many of the modern priests of foodie-ism, he rails agains “processed” food. I do not know what that means, and I think he doesn’t, either. If the metric is supposed to be that a lot of technology is necessary to make “processed” food – and if there’s actual scientific proof that this is a Bad Thing -, then, by all means, let’s throw out the Cheetos. Let’s also throw out cheese, beer, wine and bread, which do not grow on trees (Have you tried making cheese lately? It involves chemistry. If you don’t do it right, you end up with a highly toxic end product). And while we’re at it, let’s throw out all modern plant varieties that were genetically engineered over centuries to suit our needs. There were, for example, no big juicy red apples in paradise, contrary to what some faulty illustrations of the scripture would like you to believe – only malus sieversii, whose taste Michael Pollan, another Born-Again Foodie Priest, describes thusly: “imagine sinking your teeth into a tart potato, or a mushy Brazil nut sheathed in leather (“spitters” is the pomological term of art here), and then tasting one that starts out with high promise on the tongue—now here’s an apple!—only to veer off into a bitterness so profound that it makes the stomach rise even in recollection.” Lots of technology and “processing” was needed to turn the inedible crap Mother Nature usually serves us into Braeburns and Fujis. Whether food is “heavily processed” or not is a red herring. The quest for “natural” food seems to simplify food choices – in reality, it makes them simpler than they are.
The opposite of “processed”, in Bittman’s terms, is “real” or “actual” food. His categories of “processed” and “real” seem to be metaphysical rather than based on physical reality (much like “kosher” and “treif” or “halal” and “haraam”) – only this time, there’s no God upstairs who hands out these food rules and tells us to obey them for his sake. There’s only food itself. “Real” food takes the place of a the spiritual cure, the saviour. I like food as much as the next person, but I find this icky.
On a less philosophical note, Bittman analyzes the failing of government agencies over the last decades and attributes a big chunk of the American problem with food to misguided nutrition advice. Not really a new idea. The only surprising thing is his solution to the problem: More power to (other) government agencies, more nutrition advice and reeducation – let’s just get it right this time.
And that, for him, means advocating for a largely vegetarian diet, because: “It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health (…)” – While this may be true, it is also true that fifty years ago it would have been “difficult” to find a “principled [probably means “mainstream”?] nutrition and health expert” who didn’t believe that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy. The data on the long-term, large scale effects of diet is extremely sketchy. This has not changed over the last 50 years, simply because a behavior as complex as human nutrition is extremely difficult to observe, even more so if we want to apply the usual principles of empirical science. If you don’t believe this, just go ahead and try doing a double-blind randomized longitudinal study of a “plant based diet” in humans (I’m waiting!). Even more sketchy (or non-existent) is the data on effects of large-scale nutritional intervention, like the reeducation programs, subsidies, “truth in labeling” and “legislation curbing relentless marketing” Bittman suggests. They might help. They might cause harm, because they might not have the intended effect, or if the intended effect turns out to be unhealthy after all. Finally, they might cost a lot of taxpayer money and do nothing at all. And this would be bad, because poor nutrition, I believe, is not a result of moral turpitude, stupidity or (to use more friendly, modern reformulations of the same principle) misguided advice and ignorance, but largely caused by a lack of money in the individual. The effects of this lack of money – a.k.a. poverty – are, by and large, not mitigated by reeducation or telling people to behave differently, but by giving people money or at least not taking it from them to print posters which tell them to feed their kids more broccoli.
Lastly, I have always envied Bittman for his way with words, and for his talent to write short, simple recipes that are surprising, educational and mouthwatering at the same time. His food writing does not need pretty pictures – it speaks for itself. His political writing, on the other hand, is abysmal: “Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.” Man, I wish he would step down from his pulpit and write about food again.