Butter is a processed food

In explaining the appeal of nutritionism to food processors, Michael Pollan tells the story of margarine, which “started out in the nineteenth century as a cheap and inferior substitute for butter, but with the emergence of the lipid hypothesis in the 1950s…could be marketed as better–smarter!–than butter” (33).

Margarine isn’t a bad example for building a case against nutritionism; it’s probably the best one there is. While I think that Pollan somewhat overstates the role of nutritionism in pushing margarine into the mainstream (mainly by understating the importance of wartime butter shortages and lower prices to margarine’s success), it has become sufficiently clear that the nutritional establishment erred in recommending that Americans consume trans fats.

With that said, there’s a certain irony to the way in which he contrasts it with butter. When he explains that margarine is “the product not of nature but of human ingenuity” (33), it is worth pointing out that one doesn’t simply find butter in nature, either. Butter is, of course, produced by separating the fat out of cow’s milk.

Now, most food is processed in some way, and one might argue that the process of producing butter is one that has proven itself over time. However, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explains the problem with processed foods in a way that makes it hard to give butter a pass:

Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite. Yet in nature–in whole foods–we seldom encounter these nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed foods… (106)

Thus, butter, as a concentrated fat, exemplifies the problem that Pollan identifies with processed foods.

The point here is not about the healthfulness of butter (I’ll leave that question to the nutrition researchers and dietitians) but the shallowness of Pollan’s discussion of food processing. Pollan will later suggest that we should “entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem” (141). Yet he frequently mentions butter in a positive light, never mentioning how it comes to be. It’s a remarkable lack of nuance for somebody who claims to be arguing against a Manichaean ideology.

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