In Defense of Michael Pollan and avoiding polysyllabic ingredients


It depends.

In my post yesterday on the Chipotle backlash I wrote a bit about Foodbabe and Michael Pollan’s legacy.

In the case of Foodbabe, we have someone who has taken Michael Pollan’s unobjectionable rule of thumb to avoid foods with hard to pronounce ingredients turned it into a scientifically illiterate, paranoid baton for bullying companies into getting rid of polysyllabic ingredients, completely divorced from any rational risk assessment. It’s no coincidence that she is vehemently anti-GMO. She stands as proof that there is no way to completely idiot proof nutrition advice, even by as talented a wordsmith and popularizer as Pollan. But she has also starting to wield real power and is positioned to wreak some real world pseudo-scientific havoc. If she becomes the most prominent part of Michael Pollan’s legacy, he owes us all a very big apology.

I knew that one of my friends in the skeptic community would take issue with the idea that Pollan’s admonition was unobjectionable. Sure enough, my friend Bernie Mooney (of the excellent Progressive Contrarian – check out the theme of his blog – Twinsies!) put it this way:

Good piece but one thing jumped out at me, “…Michael Pollan’s unobjectionable rule of thumb… turned it into a scientifically illiterate…? Really? Isn’t that rule scientifically illiterate on its face?

I know a lot of people that think so, but I don’t. It’s meant as a rule of thumb and I find that it generally holds. Scratch cooking and minimally processed food tends, by and large, to be more healthful than highly processed foods. Polysyllabic ingredients are a marker of highly processed foods. A specific polysyllabic ingredient may not be the reason why a specific highly processed food is unhealthy, but the correlation is strong enough that it is useful as a rule of thumb for flagging foods that you may want to avoid, even if the causality lies elsewhere.

Of course, you could construct a healthful diet from highly processed foods if you set your mind to it. Just as you can scratch cook unhealthy choices. It’s also true that even scratch ingredients like potatoes or carrots are made up of compounds with polysyllabic names. But the point of a rule of thumb is to take the spirit of it, and use it as a guide. It should be a helpful heuristic, not the basis of legislation.

Pollan himself has said that the syllables aren’t the problem, the processing is the problem and there is science to support that.The trouble with Foodbabe is that she insists that it’s the syllables that are the problem and that we should legislate accordingly.


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  1. I think the suggestion fails simply because we refer to so many common ingredients by their common name, not their polysyllabic chemical names, but they have them. Look up Baking Powder, or Dough Conditioner, or Sugar or Butter or Milk. They are all a mix of Polysyllabic chemicals, but we just don’t list them. Most vitamins and common sources of minerals are tongue twisters as well. So while I agree that cooking from scratch tends to be healthier, its not if you are deep frying all your food and adding bunches of sugar, butter and other calorie dense, nutrient poor ingredients. So when I make up a batch of whole wheat bread, and include a teaspoon of dough conditioner (filled with polysyllabic chemicals to feed the yeast and make the dough rise better), I still think I’m eating healthy. And I would feel that way even if I bought that same loaf in a store.

  2. Given the ridicule this “heuristic” has undergone, all of it deserved, wouldn’t it be better just to abandon it? After all, the processed food described in the long and fascinating article you linked really rises or falls on three very short words: sugar, salt, and fat. There’s no sense confusing people who might think that sodium chloride is somehow a worse chemical because it’s made of longer words. Besides, we live in complex times. People should be able to handle complex words without counting on their fingers.

    • I don’t use it. I was defending my characterization of it as “unobjectionable”.

      But I don’t think that sugar, salt, and fat really captures what’s wrong with the most highly manipulated foods. Those are about crossing you bodies wires to hamstring satiety signalling. The article gave a great example:

      >>To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food
      scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled,
      “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with
      a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,”
      Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the
      planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of
      the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on
      most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called
      vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down
      quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can
      just keep eating it forever.”<<

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