Debunking the Industrial Food System

Today’s industrial food system is still relying on assumptions made decades ago, while modern nutrition science can disprove 3 of them using milk as its prime example.

| June 2014

  • Despite industrial food system claims that enriched, processed foods can provide all the nutrients our bodies need to thrive, modern food science is slowly revealing that whole, unprocessed foods contain nutrient interactions that we are only beginning to understand.
    Photo by Fotolia/Dmytro Sukharevskyy
  • “All Natural,” by Nathanael Johnson, offers frustrated environmentalists, perplexed parents and confused consumers a middle ground between the natural and technological.
    Cover courtesy Rodale

Is a natural approach to living really best for human and environmental health? Award-winning journalist Nathanael Johnson argues that both organic and high-tech lifestyles pose a threat when taken to extremes in All Natural (Rodale, 2013). Returning to his family’s hippie roots he begins to fact-check, and scrutinize, the all-natural ideology he was raised with. In the following excerpt from “Fixing Dinner”  we get a close look at 3 common assumptions made by the industrial food system and how something as simple as milk may prove them wrong.

Purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: All Natural.

Debunking the Industrial Food System

These three assumptions—that molecules matter while the food itself is irrelevant, that everyone is the same, and that institutions rather than individuals should be trusted to control nutrition—are to a large extent responsible for the epidemics in heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis, Bruce German, a food chemist at University of California, Davis, said. More than a third of U.S. citizens are clinically obese. Demographers estimate that one of every three children who were born in the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes during their lives. Today's children are expected to be the first generation in 200 years to die younger than their parents. And the epidemic reaches far beyond the United States. Countries rapidly modernizing are suffering the heaviest brunt of diet-related illnesses. Walk into clinics in China and you will find doctors overwhelmed by diabetes and heart disease. The results of our experiment in eating scientifically haven't been good.

ASSUMPTION 1: Molecules Matter, Food Is Irrelevant

It's relatively easy for scientists to measure the type and number of molecules of any nutrient (using mass spectrometry for instance) but infuriatingly hard to see how they fit together to form actual food. This is a common problem for science—categorizing and counting the parts of a system is simple (or at least feasible) but understanding the relationships between the parts is difficult. So for a long time many scientists simply assumed that the structure of food was irrelevant. When the early nutritionists thought about food structure at all, it was to plot its destruction. The molecular nutritionists, remember, had won their fame in identifying the nutrients needed to prevent deficiencies, so they favored simple foods that digestive tracts could easily absorb. For years, therefore, scientists encouraged processing the complexity out of foods. The results were products like Wonderbread—vehicles for vitamins and minerals that barely required chewing.

"They're rocket fuel," German said. "The nutrients have just been atomized—they go into the bloodstream like they've been injected."

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