For those of you who missed it, author Nina Planck spoke about her new book Real Food yesterday at Cafe Soleil. Planck grew up on an ecologically minded vegetable farm eating what she now calls real food: the traditional all-American diet. No, not that one, the other all-American diet of meat, whole milk, pies made with lard, and vegetables aplenty. She rose to some prominence in founding and operating fifteen farmers' markets in London with her company London Farmers' Markets. She was also the director of New York's famous Greenmarket.
From her teenage years to her writing of The Farmers' Market Cookbook, Planck practiced strict veganism on the basis that it was the healthiest diet. At the same time, she put on twenty five pounds (despite running six miles a day, six days a week), came down with colds and the flu, felt moody and irritable, had dry skin, and bad fingernails. As she gradually added eggs, butter, meat, and fish back into her diet, these symptoms quickly went away. She lost "at least" twenty five pounds and generally felt healthier. Surprised by these results, Planck was inspired to do her own research into the healthiness of traditional diets.
And we all know that traditional foods are much maligned by nutrition professionals. Margarine is recommended over butter, vegetable oil is recommended period. Eggs yolks and organ meats are to be avoided at all costs. Processed milk is recommended over farm fresh milk.
Planck's book demarcates an alternative perspective on nutrition, apart from that of the traditional professionals. Her aim, then, seems bold and subversive, but Planck intimates that the government's dietetic standards are always out-of-date and are possibly "bought off" by the food industry anyway. Her talk focused on referencing historical data that would indicate that when a community's consumption of "real food" declines in favor of "industrial food," three diseases of civilization (obesity, diabetes, and heart disease) always increase. She also makes an attempt to rationalize these trends by referencing voices from outside of the science nutrition mainstream. In particular, Planck blames so-called diseases of civilization on the increased consumption of trans fat, corn oil, and sugar.
At the present, no health-oriented organization has supported Planck's heretical views.
Before I respond to Planck's ideas, please understand that I haven't read her book and that my views are purely that of an analytical chemist listening to an author's talk. I am not a nutritional expert, so it is not my place to support or refute her thesis that real food is good for you while industrial food is bad for you.
On the whole, Planck presented an interesting and bold case for real food. However, I found Planck to have made some points that have only the most tenuous of support, and some other points that seemed downright disingenuous. Allow me to explain:
1. Correlation does not necessitate causation. Much of Planck's argument has us believe that heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have increased because of the rise in "industrial foods." She makes this claim by showing how in our grandparents' generation, people supposedly ate a greater percentage of real food and that diseases of civilization afflicted a lesser percentage of the population. If we accept, for the moment, that "real food" really has declined to the degree that Planck believes, she does nothing to logically connect the decline of "real food" to the increase in diseases in civilization. There are a myriad of other factors that could be causes, co-causes, or generally play a facilitative role, such as less exercise (as fewer Americans perform physical labor, either at work or for recreation), environmental factors, the volume of food consumed, or specific chemical properties of the foods that we eat – to name but a few.
And speaking of which, it's difficult to believe that the house is burning when you don't smell smoke or see fire. Perhaps Planck provides this information in her book, but she did nothing to demonstrate that "real food" has been eclipsed by "industrial food" to the degree that she claims.
2. Hasty generalization. Listening to Planck, one would think that she would still consider McDonald's guilty of dietetic sin if they served organic, grass-fed, free range, cruelty free beef, served with freshly baked whole wheat buns, organic tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and ketchup -- with a side of organic fries cooked in beef tallow.
Her tagline is "real food is good for you, industrial food isn't." It catches your attention, yes, but upon further inspection you see that she has no basis for bringing down all industrial food. Just those that contain trans fat, corn oil, and sugar.
If industrial scale producers of food were able to eliminate trans fat, cut back on sugar, and use different oils, Planck would have no further argument against "industrial food" except that it's not as socially conscious or energy efficient as buying food that was locally grown and raised. Planck presents her argument as a purely dietary one, but one readily understands that her argument isn't based so simply. If she doesn't like industrial food companies in part or whole because they spite local and ecologically-minded farmers with bland substitutes and try to subvert legislation designed to protected these very people and their high-minded principles to the detriment on the consumer, that's fine. But her lack of transparency on the matter is suspect.
3. Appeal to authority. Planck is constantly dismissive of the dietary mainstream and the corpus of scientific work that I imagine went into crafting current dietary guidelines. At the same time, she seems to place complete trust in "new research" whose conclusions differ from the traditional authorities in the field.
4. Ignoring root causes. Planck comes out heavily against the pasteurization of milk. In general, milk is pasteurized because the udder is so close to the anus, making sanitation both extremely important and extremely difficult. As a result of modern mega-scale milk processing facilities, the improper sanitation of one udder could result in thousands (or tens of thousands) of gallons milk becoming contaminated. Without pasteurization, this milk would be passed directly to the consumer. Pasteurization thus allows the milk industry to certify that their product in safe to consume. Milk is also pasteurized to give it a much longer shelf life, which consumers both expect and appreciate.
Now, pasteurization of milk results in a myriad of chemical changes. Maillard reactions take place, which give pasteurized milk a subtle cooked flavor. Gases are allowed to escape (which happens when you heat any liquid) which improves shelf life. Lactose is partially degraded into lactulose and organic acids. The concentration of colloidal calcium decreases. And the concentration of vitamins, including vitamin C, decreases significantly.
So, while Planck is correct in arguing that we wouldn't "have to" transport oranges across the country if milk wasn't pasteurized, her argument is disingenuous. We'd still have to transport oranges because people in Wisconsin like eating oranges and we can't grow them here. There would also be the constant threat of sickness from consuming contaminated milk, which would drive consumption way, way down.
Planck takes aim at pasteurization of milk when she should be critical of the mega-scale processing and distribution of milk.
Moreover, the nutrient content of most foods is diminished by cooking. So if you're planning on cooking those green beans, or stirring that milk into anything hot from a béchamel to a cup of hot coffee, you're destroying most of the vitamins and anti-oxidants present. Her failure to note this fact when she is critical of pasteurization was most disingenuous.
Planck's lecture was interesting, insightful, and fun. She does good work in promoting local foods, but for the moment I'll have to remain skeptical of her conclusions.