Michael Pollan, X factors, and Weston Price

In In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan promotes the idea that nutritional scientists seek simplistic solutions to our dietary problems. He writes,

Oceans of ink have been spilled attempting to tease out and analyze the components of the Mediterranean diet, hoping to identify the X factor responsible for its healthfulness: Is it the olive oil? The fish? The wild greens? The garlic? The nuts? The French paradox too has been variously attributed to the salutary effects of red wine, olive oil, and even foie gras (liver is high in B vitamins and iron). (177)

It’s telling that he doesn’t bother to tell us who has attributed the so-called French paradox (the fact that the French people are healthier than Americans while eating a diet that goes against mainstream nutritional advice) to these foods. Is it nutrition scientists themselves? Journalists? Food marketers? Somebody on the internet? (The references provide a few scientific studies on related topics, but these, unsurprisingly, offer only modest, qualified conclusions.)

Pollan continues,

But the quest to pin down the X factor in the diets of healthy populations (PubMed, a scholarly index to scientific articles on medicine, lists 257 entries under “French Paradox” and another 828 under “Mediterranean Diet”) goes on, because reductionist science is understandably curious and nutritionism demands it. If the secret ingredient could be identified, then processed foods could be reengineered to contain more of it, and we could go on eating much as before. (178)

Of course, the purpose of nutritional science, even when based on the study of individual nutrients, need not only be to find the “X factor” to cater to food processors. The report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, which Pollan writes about at length (and, I’ve argued, misrepresents), provides a good example of this. Although the report identified some compounds in fruits and vegetables which seemed beneficial, the interim guidelines encouraged the consumption of fruits and vegetables (rather than, say, carotenes or vitamin C).

I can’t help but suspect that, of all the hundreds of PubMed results for “French Paradox” and “Mediterranean Diet,” none of them actually claimed to have found this “X factor” of which Pollan writes. In spite of any popular ideas about scientific progress being driven by mad scientists figuring everything out all at once, science tends to be a slow process of incremental progress on complex problems. If anybody knows this, it’s the people who have devoted their lives to the study of science.

Though scientists will rarely talk about finding an “X factor,” Pollan shows surprising sympathy for one researcher who claimed to have found something of the sort, the late Weston Price. Price was a dentist who gave up his practice in the 1930s to travel around the world to study the traditional diets of people who had not yet been exposed to the modern foods that he suspected were responsible for many of society’s problems. Price’s work has since become a favorite talking point of proponents of traditional diets.

Pollan, to his credit, acknowledges that Price “could sometimes come across as a bit of a crackpot” for his bizarre racial theories and tendency to blame all of society’s ills on diet. However, that doesn’t stop Pollan from dedicating five pages of the book to a discussion of Price’s work, which he says “points the way toward a protoecological understanding of food that will be useful as we try to escape the traps of nutritionism.”

Price didn’t use the term “X factor,” but he did devote an entire chapter of his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration to a substance which he called “activator X” (and which Price’s modern day devotees do call the “X factor”). Price argued that activator X, which is now more commonly known as Vitamin K2, was strongly protective against dental caries. He also provided data to suggest that the level of activator X in a society’s dairy products correlated negatively with mortality due to heart disease and pneumonia. Finally, he shared a single anecdote in which activator X appeared to have cured convulsions in a young child.

Whatever the merits of Price’s ideas about Vitamin K2, it is interesting that Pollan largely chooses to ignore them, mentioning the term “activator X” only in passing. It’s hardly surprising, though, as they wouldn’t fit so well with the idea that the only reason anybody might study specific nutrients is so that processed foods might be engineered to contain more of them. Price, after all, believed that the food supply was overly industrialized in the 1930s. He had no interest in seeing processed foods with more activator X, but he still chose to study the compound.

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10 Comments »

  1. Sam Vance said

    Pollan isn’t trained in food science and applied nutrition. As far as I can tell, he’s never bothered to use his success writing what he thinks about food(as opposed to the rainforest) to enroll in any of the excellent food science programs around the country.

    So it is of little shock to me when he makes statements that are untrue or misleading. He has fed a growing activist culture, who like himself, doesn’t seem interested in any imperial truth, but rather a populist, anti-corporatist, fear-driven, activist flash mob that seeks to squash any scientific endeavor involving food and ag.

    Nobody calls him out on it because we have a culture that values opinions at the peril of fact. Now, if you try to explain to someone that 2+2= 4 they simply say ‘that’s your opinion’ and ‘we’ll have to agree to disagree.’

    • Joseph Dowd said

      I agree that Pollan makes some embarrassing scientific mistakes, but I never had the impression that Pollan’s fanbase consists of “a populist, anti-corporatist, fear-driven, activist flash mob”. Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the food movement, I suspect that most of Pollan’s fans are genteel middle-class liberals. But I really have no idea what their political alignments are; I just don’t have enough evidence. If you have some evidence for your “flash mob” model of Pollan’s fandom, I’d certainly be open to it.

      • Joseph Dowd said

        Sorry, I should have said “middle- and upper-class”.

      • Sam Vance said

        He gives talks about food and ag all over the country and in the media, where he is considered an expert. He isn’t giving talks on food and ag journalism, which would be a little closer to his area of expertise.

        So these people mistakenly see Pollan as an expert in these matters and his large social media presence means there are throngs of people ready to take up his cause.

        So his influence is all predicated on the lie that he is in any way an expert on food and ag. He is simply an activist that writes about one side.

    • Robert Bannon said

      I am a fan of science, and of Michael Pollan’s balls. Just because the studies that have been funded, have been funded by the wrong people, wanting to show the wrong results, doesn’t mean that industrial food == whole foods.

      I am a botanist, and a software engineer. I also raise chickens and garden. I have also lived all over the world, thankfully removing me from the American food system for much of my adult life.

      The result? Living on good foods in the EU, Mexico, and India, my body is in much better condition ACCORDING to SCIENTIFIC measurements, bmi, etc. All my friends and family who ate the industrial food chain here: fat, fat, fat.

      Show me that using processed food built around a single strain of corn molecule is not detrimental to our health. Show me that our obsession with cheap, industrial food is doing anything BUT cause obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

      • Sam Vance said

        Too much of any food can lead to obesity. An overabundance of fat stored in the body can be caused by decreased metabolism, overeating, an inactive lifestyle, which leads to muscle atrophy and decreased metabolism. Whether they eat corn derivatives or not is not a factor.

  2. Anna said

    The more I read these kinds of criticisms of Pollan (and I had many myself when I read him), the angrier I get that the nutrition class I took last year used Pollan’s book as supplemental reading material and the instructor engaged it in a completely uncritical manner. (Same with Food Inc.) A science class should not have been politicized like that.

    • Sam Vance said

      Where did you take nutrition? Did that school also have a food science dept? That often makes a big difference.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Yeah, I think one of the most problematic aspects of Pollan’s work is that it’s considered intellectually credible by a lot of people who should know better. If one understands it as punditry (like Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann) it isn’t so bad, but that stuff is rarely assigned in college courses, much less given a free pass in a science course.

  3. [...] can do” (62). He even puts forth the idea that the goal of nutritional science is to find an “X factor” (178) — a single compound that is responsible for good health — so that food processors [...]

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