In my post yesterday on the Chipotle backlash I wrote a bit about Foodbabe and Michael Pollan’s legacy.
In the case of Foodbabe, we have someone who has taken Michael Pollan’s unobjectionable rule of thumb to avoid foods with hard to pronounce ingredients turned it into a scientifically illiterate, paranoid baton for bullying companies into getting rid of polysyllabic ingredients, completely divorced from any rational risk assessment. It’s no coincidence that she is vehemently anti-GMO. She stands as proof that there is no way to completely idiot proof nutrition advice, even by as talented a wordsmith and popularizer as Pollan. But she has also starting to wield real power and is positioned to wreak some real world pseudo-scientific havoc. If she becomes the most prominent part of Michael Pollan’s legacy, he owes us all a very big apology.
I knew that one of my friends in the skeptic community would take issue with the idea that Pollan’s admonition was unobjectionable. Sure enough, my friend Bernie Mooney (of the excellent Progressive Contrarian – check out the theme of his blog – Twinsies!) put it this way:
Good piece but one thing jumped out at me, “…Michael Pollan’s unobjectionable rule of thumb… turned it into a scientifically illiterate…? Really? Isn’t that rule scientifically illiterate on its face?
I know a lot of people that think so, but I don’t. It’s meant as a rule of thumb and I find that it generally holds. Scratch cooking and minimally processed food tends, by and large, to be more healthful than highly processed foods. Polysyllabic ingredients are a marker of highly processed foods. A specific polysyllabic ingredient may not be the reason why a specific highly processed food is unhealthy, but the correlation is strong enough that it is useful as a rule of thumb for flagging foods that you may want to avoid, even if the causality lies elsewhere.
Of course, you could construct a healthful diet from highly processed foods if you set your mind to it. Just as you can scratch cook unhealthy choices. It’s also true that even scratch ingredients like potatoes or carrots are made up of compounds with polysyllabic names. But the point of a rule of thumb is to take the spirit of it, and use it as a guide. It should be a helpful heuristic, not the basis of legislation.
Pollan himself has said that the syllables aren’t the problem, the processing is the problem and there is science to support that.The trouble with Foodbabe is that she insists that it’s the syllables that are the problem and that we should legislate accordingly.