Thursday, August 2, 2012

How Bout Them Apples?

An Apple A Day: The Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths About the Foods We Eat
by Joe Schwarcz
354 pp. Other Press. 2009
The key to perfect health?
Click here for photo source.

The title was appealing enough (no pun intended). Last year a nutrition friend of mine was reading this book and I was curious about it. Myths? Misconceptions? Truths? Count me in. About midway through the book I wanted to count myself out. But I stuck with it, despite reading the author's introductory disclaimer on page three: "Chances are that most of you will be as picky with this book as you are with your food." Indeed.

An Apple A Day is divided into four sections, each looking at hot science topics in food. "Part One: Naturally Occurring Substances in Our Food Supply" primarily examines the claims around phytonutrients, such as antioxidants and other bioactive compounds that have been isolated in research and touted for their health benefits. It's like taking a tour of Super Supplements and asking whether any of the supplements are worth the investment. Presented in the proper format, this section has the potential to be very insightful. Perhaps because I spent several months studying bioactive compounds during grad school or the fact that the book is now three years old and already feels dated, but I found this section to be lackluster. After nearly every chapter he comes to the same conclusion: phytonutrients have potential to be miracle substances but lack conclusive evidence to back up their claims. Many of these compounds (resveratrol! lycopene! sulforaphane! lutein!) likely rely on a specific synergy that can only be achieved through the entire food matrix. Incorporate whole foods into your diet and cover all your bases. I agree with his bottom line and just saved you from reading the first 150 or so pages of the book.

In "Part Two: Manipulating Our Food Supply," Schwarcz looks at additives like MSG, natural and artificial sweeteners, nitrates, food coloring and GMOs. In each he mentions (but doesn't cite) research debunking the "alarmist" claims made against these substances. He goes even further in "Part Three: Contaminants in Our food Supply" where he finds no convincing health concerns regarding pesticide use, hormones, and endocrine disruptors in the research. His conclusions are weak concessions. On the issue of BPA he wonders why we're considering banning a substance that is only theoretically harmful when both cigarettes and alcohol lead are known to kill millions of people theoretically. He hesitates to tell people to only buy organic produce or wild fish because they are expensive and eating conventional apples or farmed salmon certainly outweighs the potential harm of pesticides or PCBs. There is a certain truth to these arguments but the problem is that they justify the status quo rather than rely upon emerging science to stir a change to the food system system so that we wouldn't have to choose the lesser of two evils to incorporate into our diets.

Lest you wonder, Joe Schwarcz has a PhD and has some serious academic cred as the director of McGill University's Office of Science and Society. Which is why I was confounded when the 330+ page book contained no footnotes. Where are the citations for all the studies he refers to? In Kessler's book there were over 100 pages of references alone (just one of the reasons that it was a faster read). Schwarcz's tones is uneven and changes over the course of the book, from light and curious in the Part One to more neutral and probing in Part Two, growing more conservative in Part Three to downright cynical and dismissive in "Part Four: Tough to Swallow," a section that discusses kosher diets, detox diets, goji juice and green tea and seemed more like a miscellaneous addendum to the book.

By the end of the book I was looking for something redemptive about the whole experience. I found it in the three page conclusion, which could be further whittled down to this clumsy sentence:
"When you carefully scrutinize the scientific studies that are being rolled out on a daily basis, most amount to no more than tinkering with the basic nutritional princiles we have tried to lay down: eat mostly foods based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, and don't overeat."

Sound familiar? It's yet another iteration of Michael Pollan's Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not too Much. If healthy eating is so simple, why is it so hard for people? Now that's a book I'd like to read.

1 comment:

  1. For real! "Don't overeat" is the best nutrition advice anyone can ever give but it is so elusive to most of the population - Why is it so hard? How do you quantify it?