Freakonomics Podcast episode on applying modern science to cooking methods, food and nutrition. This is an interesting public media source because it is mainly intended as entertainment, and manifests itself in a seemingly spontaneous conversational style while in fact being the result of careful editing in order to tell a story. Stephen Dubner organizes and guides the conversation while letting the credible ‘experts’ relay the bulk of the information.
Uh-oh. “The science of food.” Doesn’t that sound kind of … unnatural?
LÓPEZ-ALT: I think a lot of people think of science as sort of the opposite of tradition or the opposite of natural. And really it’s not. Science is just a method, right? It’s a method of thinking about the world and it can be used for many different ends.
This brief exchange kicks off the conversation by tackling one of the main perceptions about the modernized food industry- namely fear of the unnatural- and uses a reassuring tone to set up the rest of the content as non-threatening.
Categorizing science as simply a method to be applied suggests that the modernization of the food industry isn’t really changing the inner character of food, but rather involves applying new processes to an original, edible product. There is also an unusual openness to the phrase “a method” that invites other lenses of interpretation, opening up a conversation.
The argument that science can be used for different ends mirrors a common argument that comes up with fear-based issues such as gun control- ultimately, it’s not the gun, or the scientific method that defines the character of an action, but rather how the people use these detached, emotionless objects.
ROBINSON: My job is to go into the scientific journals, find what I think is important for human health, and repackage it in a way that people can first of all understand its importance, and then find, “what am I gonna pick in this grocery store? What am I going to pick in this farmer’s market?” So really it takes someone like myself to translate science into action steps.
Robinson assumes an authoritative role as public intellectual within the expert system, acknowledging the impossibly huge data set available to the public and the number of people like herself required to make the system run. Terms like ‘translating’ and ‘repackaging’ (interestingly in the same breath as ‘what I think’) minimize her interpretive role, and the ‘scientific journals’ add credibility.
Additionally, the phrase ‘important for human human health’ suggests a universality that erases the diversity in human beings from a health perspective, and equates health with food rather than with a mix of factors.
She is clear about her intended purpose as a media maker, which is the conventional method to guide people’s actions, delivering top-down information that removes the decision making process from untrained hands.
ROBINSON: Well, we humans are programmed, and have always been programmed, to prefer food that is high in carbohydrates, starches and sugar, and oil, because those kinds of nutrients were very poor in the wilderness. And we had to be motivated with these feel-good brain chemicals to go out and get them. And so, over time we just kept picking sweeter, fatter, richer, softer, less fibrous food, never knowing what we’re doing. And only now do we have the technology and the slowly accumulating wisdom to know how we should transform our food supply to make it optimum for human health.
Programmed is a word meant in the neutral evolutionary context but takes on a sinister tone of mind control, which positions modern sweet, fatty rich food as addictive and irresistible. Unusually, Robin’s position situates mindless natural selection as the root of contemporary food issues, and technology as a potentially transformative tool for good. This suggests that the modern state of industrialized food production is an inevitable result of instinct that can now be rationally overridden towards a healthier model.
In Robinson’s view, America has been guiltier than others.
ROBINSON: I don’t think Americans are stupid when it comes to food, nutrition and health. But what happened is all of these great food cultures of the countries that we came from got lost when we came here. And everything became homogenized. And then we became leaders in industrial agriculture, which has nothing to do with nutrition; it has to do with volume and with flavor. So the vast majority of food crops in this country, we’re growing them because they’re highly productive or disease-resistant. Those are the two criteria that farmers use, and agricultural schools use, to determine what varieties we’re going to eat. They’re not looking at food value. So, other countries throughout the world tend to have more nutritious diets than we do. And then, we started breeding out all signs of bitterness because food manufacturers knew that about 25 percent of the population does not like bitter foods, in even low amounts. So, they’re not going to create something that 25 percent of their potential sellers are going to avoid. Just this taking away the bitterness took away a lot of the antioxidants. All of those trends continued. So, we have a very bland, low-antioxidant, soft diet.
ROBINSON: I began to compare the food that we’re eating today with the wild diet that sustained us for about 98 percent of our evolution. And it was so very clear that over time we have greatly diminished the nutrient content of our animal products and everything that we grow. For example, the antioxidant content of wild plants varies to 2-400x greater than the domesticated counterparts that we eat today.
Robinson believes, powerfully, in the value of antioxidants.
ROBINSON: Well the word “antioxidant” can tell a lot of the story. It’s against oxidation. And oxidation is just this chemical process where a molecule grabs an electron from another molecule , which sets up this chain reaction which can cause all kinds of destruction in every cell in our body.
As Robinson writes, “Plants can’t fight their enemies or hide from them so they protect themselves by producing an arsenal of chemical compounds that protect them” — from insects, disease, harsh weather, and sunlight. And many of those compounds function — for us, when we eat them — as antioxidants. The problem is that, as a result of many years of breeding food for taste and productivity, we’ve created a menu of modern fruits and vegetables that aren’t necessarily good for us.
ROBINSON: We need to find out what science is now telling us about the best varieties of fruits and vegetables to eat. And this is complicated science and it’s not widely adopted at this time. You’re not going to find the USDA saying, “Eat more of the cabbage family because it has glucosinolates in it” — which are cancer-fighting organisms. So, we really need to go outside of mainstream nutrition and agriculture to find what’s best for our health.
Robinson talks about the inadequacy of health information in current media, underlining the importance of going outside the mainstream. Science is held up as the ultimate standard as decision-making factor, addressing health from a food biology perspective.
ROBINSON: But with tomatoes, canned tomatoes are actually better for us than a fresh, organic, locally harvested, heirloom tomato. Because the nutrient in tomatoes, which is proving to be supportive of heart-health, is called lycopene. And when lycopene is heated, it is transformed into a form that we find easier to absorb. And the best source of lycopene in the entire store is tomato paste. And you know people don’t like to hear that. How could that be? But in fact, science supports it.
ROBINSON: Many people are surprised to hear that steaming vegetables in the microwave is probably the best way to preserve nutrients. You want to destroy some of those enzymes that are getting rid of antioxidants as quickly as you can. And you want to cook the food for as short amount a time as possible. So, the microwave will do that for you. You just put it in a microwave steamer and cook it for just a couple of minutes and it’s done