Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food that the Dietary Goals for the United States, compiled by Senator George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, ushered in an era in which dietary guidelines focused on nutrients to the exclusion of whole foods. He explains that McGovern’s committee initially recommended a reduction in red meat and dairy consumption before the interested lobbies complained. The result was a compromise, urging Americans to “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”
Pollan explains the significance of the change,
First, notice that the stark message to “eat less” of a particular food–in this case meat–had been deep-sixed; don’t look for it ever again in any official U.S. government dietary pronouncement. (24)
As evidence of this last point, Pollan trots out the National Academy of Sciences’ 1982 report Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer. He tells us,
The lesson of the McGovern fiasco was quickly absorbed by all who would pronounce on the American diet. When a few years later the National Academy of Sciences looked into the question of diet and cancer, it was careful to frame its recommendations nutrient by nutrient rather than food by food, to avoid offending any powerful interests. (25)
He further notes, “With each of its chapters focused on a single nutrient, the final draft of the National Academy of Sciences report, Diet, Nutrition and Cancer framed its recommendations in terms of saturated fats and antioxidants rather than beef and broccoli” (26).
After a few minutes of skimming the report, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Pollan and I had looked at the same document. He is correct to point out that the recommendations referenced fat, rather than meat. He’s not quite correct to say that each chapter focuses on a single nutrient. Some of the chapters discuss multiple nutrients (for instance, Chapter 10, titled “Minerals,” discusses selenium, zinc, iron, copper, iodine, molybdenum, cadmium, arsenic and lead), but on that point he’s close enough for me.
Where Pollan misses the mark badly is in failing to note that the report’s recommendations weren’t found in these nutrient-focused chapters. These chapters summarized the existing science on the various nutrients, without saying what we should do about it. The report did include a section called “Interim Dietary Guidelines,” but this was found in the report’s Executive Summary. Summarized, the guidelines were as follows:
- “The Committee recommends that the consumption of both saturated and unsaturated fats be reduced in the average U.S. diet.”
- “The committee emphasizes the importance of including fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereal products in the daily diet…Results of laboratory experiments have supported these findings in tests of individual nutritive and nonnutritive constituents of fruits (especially citrus fruits) and vegetables (especially carotene-rich and cruciferous vegetables).”
- “[T]he committee recommends that the consumption of food preserved by salt-curing (including salt-pickling) or smoking be minimized.”
- “The committee recommends that efforts continue to be made to minimize contamination of foods with carcinogens from any source. Where such contaminants are unavoidable, permissible levels should continue to be established and food supply monitored to assure that such levels are not exceeded. Furthermore, intentional additives (direct and indirect) should continue to be evaluated for carcinogenic activity before they are approved for use in the food supply.”
- “The committee suggests that further efforts be made to identify mutagens in food and to expedite testing for their carcinogenicity. Where feasible and prudent, mutagens should be removed or their concentration minimized when this can be accomplished without jeopardizing the nutritive value of foods or introducing other potentially hazardous substances into the diet.”
- “[T]he committee recommends that if alcoholic beverages are consumed, it be done in moderation.”
Thus, of the six interim guidelines, only one was expressed in terms of nutrients, two phrased their recommendations in terms of foods (one of those even recommended eating less of something!), two were seemingly commonsense encouragements to keep dangerous substances out of the food supply, and one was a reminder not to drink too much.
Although the recommendation pertaining to vegetables did briefly mention carotenes, the committee included a clarification between the second and third guidelines:
These recommendations apply only to foods as sources of nutrients–not to dietary supplements of individual nutrients. The vast literature examined in this report focuses on the relationship between the consumption of foods and the incidence of cancer in human populations. In contrast there, is very little information on the effects of various levels of individual nutrients on the risk of cancer in humans. Therefore, the committee is unable to predict the health effects of high and potentially toxic doses of isolated nutrients consumed in the form of supplements.
They were serious about this point, too. In his critique of reductionism (which Pollan quotes), T. Colin Campbell (a co-author of the report) wrote that the Federal Trade Commission sued General Nutrition Centers for using the report’s guidelines to advertise supplements.
Although Pollan has argued that nutrition science “knows much less than it cares to admit” (14), the report shows that the science admits its limits more than Pollan cares to admit. The lack of recommendations on so many of the nutrients considered is an implicit acknowledgment of the lack of evidence. Reading the chapters focusing on the various nutrients, one sees the point made more explicitly. For instance, the researchers wrote in the conclusion of their section on selenium, “firm conclusions cannot be drawn on the basis of the present limited evidence.”
As for those chapters on nutrients, one finds plenty of references to whole foods there, too. For instance, though Pollan writes, “The language of the final report highlighted the benefits of the antioxidants in vegetables rather than the vegetables themselves” (26), the report’s summary of the epidemiological evidence on vitamin A reads,
A growing accumulation of epidemiological evidence indicates that there is an inverse relationship between the risk of cancer and consumption of foods containing vitamin A (e.g., liver) or its precursors (e.g., some carotenoids in dark green and deep yellow vegetables). Most of the data, however, do not show whether the effects are due to carotenoids, to vitamin A itself, or to some other constituents of these foods.
Of course, none of this is directly relevant to the question of how much we can learn about human nutrition by studying nutrients (instead of foods), and it’s on that question that Pollan seems to make his main argument. However, what we can observe here is a pattern of misrepresenting the claims that science has made. This, of course, is helpful to somebody trying to discredit a scientific discipline. But it should be much less helpful if Pollan wants to convince the reader that he is a careful researcher and a credible source of information.