books, health, history lesson, michael pollan, settlement cookbook

Nutrition, 1903 style (I)

Now that we’ve gotten comfortable with the sorts of recipes available in The “Settlement” Cook Book, I’d like to take a look at the book’s attitude towards food. Before this project (and before I did some serious thinking about food and health), I hadn’t thought much about the different ways a person could view food. My mom has sometimes said that you can either live to eat, or eat to live (she’s of the latter camp). So for a long time that was how I thought about food and eating (guess which camp I’m in). But Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food opened my eyes to the vastly different ways of considering food and eating, especially in this modern age of Nutrition Facts and Enriched Foods and Minerals With Fancy Long Words No One Can Pronounce.

One of the first arguments Pollan makes in his book is that in today’s Western society, nutrients are considered more important than food. Scientists have reduced food down to its nutritional components, which allows big manufacturers to enrich their processed foods with the “good” nutrients, and tout their products as “healthy.” So we’re encouraged to eat a lot of processed foods that are Enriched and Full of Minerals And Vitamins, because these foods are “good for us.” He calls this concept scientific reductionism.

Pollan’s ultimate point is that it’s far better to eat a limited quantity of whole foods (preferably vegetables) than to eat this host of nutritionally-enhanced products, because there are two major problem with scientific reductionism:

  • We don’t fully understand how the complex variety of nutrients within whole foods impacts the body. We can isolate each nutrient, but each nutrient can behave differently when consumed with the other nutrients available in, say, an apple.
  • We don’t fully understand how the order in which we eat foods, and how the combination of foods we eat at any one time, impacts our bodies.

Pollan says all of this much more eloquently and convincingly than I ever could (and if it’s not evident yet, GO READ THIS BOOK). But what matters is this: we’ve gone ahead and created a manufacturing empire based on science we don’t fully understand.

So what does all of this have to do with The “Settlement” Cook Book?

Here is the very first page of the very first chapter of the cookbook:

There you have it. Back in 1903, Americans were already thinking of food in terms of nutrients.

Tomorrow we’ll look at this fancy table in depth to see what it tells us about 1903.

Works cited: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.

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