Gullible’s Travels: Our Puritan Dilemma

Americans obsess about food, and marketers feed off that obsession. It’s an unhealthy cycle that needs to end, Michael Pollan says.

By Denise Gee

Photography by Spencer J. Eggers


The truth can hurt. And how we interpret the truth can hurt profoundly. Pollan points to “nutritionism,” an ideology assuming that the scientifically identified nutrients in food determine its value. America is engaged in “re-engineering of our food supply in radical ways, leading us to feel extremely confused about what and how we should eat.” We as a culture obsess so much about food that we’re “on a proverbial runaway train, where many of us need an expert to tell us how to eat.”

We are becoming armchair experts on antioxidants, saturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, polyphenols, folic acid, gluten, you name it. It’s self-medication, often in irrational ways, Pollan says. “We don’t even see foods anymore. We only see nutrients.” Nowhere else in life do we need so much science to get through the day. Pollan blames it on our Puritan inheritance. “Puritans have trouble with all the activities in which animals also engage. Eating is one of them. So we prefer to treat it as a scientific matter.”

It’s time for that to change, he proposes. “Nutritionism, an ideology like communism, has failed the test of experience,” he says. “We should probably get rid of it. We’ve tried going that route and it hasn’t worked.”

He calls our obsession “the American paradox,” and traces it back to 1977’s government-issued “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The well-meaning group of guidelines originally included a clear-cut recommendation for us to eat less red meat and fewer dairy products. But after food-industry lobbyists saw the final product, Pollan says, the Senate committee responsible for the guidelines was actually forced to rewrite the guidelines in a way that pleased food purveyors—but wasn’t very understandable for the rest of us. The most audible message? Eat less fat. How should we do that? The food industry would lead the way.