Part 3 – We’re not as smart as we think we are
When it comes to food processing and additives it’s so easy to think that surely adding vitamins to bread is a good thing? And reducing fat can’t be bad? The problem lies in the fact that we just don’t know enough to be able to meddle with nature. The relationships that exist, for example between nutrients in food and how our bodies can process them, are so complex that we can’t even track all the links that we can see, let alone the ones we can’t.
In order to study something we first of all have to know that it exists. Then we have to have the tools to measure it. Added to this, science requires us to isolate what we are testing, change some variables, then see how it reacts. This may be perfect for some areas of science, but when it comes to nutrition it just cannot work. Some foods react in a completely different way when they’re paired with one thing compared with another. Some of the components within a food may react in a certain way only within the structure of that food.
Here’s an example Michael Pollan talks about in “In Defence of Food”. A study showed that people who eat carrots have a lower risk of a certain type of cancer, and it was likely to be due to beta-carotin. The obvious logic that would follow would be to take the beta carotene out of carrots and have people take this as a supplement. However, a carrot can contain over 22 different types of beta carotene. So which is the one that we want? Or is it a combination of several of the beta carotenes? Could it be the beta carotene when in the context of the particular type of fibre in the carrot? The truth is that we just don’t know and don’t yet have the tools to know. In fact, we may never have the capacity to track all of the links.
Messing with our food to make it “better” is such an alluring prospect. I think we as a population have difficulty trusting that nature is smarter than we are. We also don’t like to give up control. I think we might enjoy our food and our lives much better if we could learn to let go of control, find humility in the face of nature, and live in a way that celebrates the incredible world around us. If there is one thing I could do with my life, it would be to be a part of helping people to find this kind of freedom.