Chew on This

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, July 11, 2006


What to Eat and Why

By Nina Planck

Bloomsbury. 343 pp. $23.95

Among the many dirty little secrets harbored by yours truly is an addiction to a certain brand of sugar-free lemonade. Why do I love it so? Because of the delicious ingredients, of course! These include not merely water, lemon juice from concentrate, citric acid and "natural flavor" but the ones that really tickle the tongue: sodium hexametaphosphate, potassium benzoate, potassium citrate, potassium sorbate, sodium chloride, acesulfame potassium, ester gum, ascorbic acid, calcium disodium EDTA, phenylalanine and -- ta-da! -- aspartame.

Yummy. Or so at least I say. But that certainly isn't what would be said by Nina Planck, the latest recruit of the Food Police. Planck, who appears from her author photo to be a fetchingly slender young woman and thus a walking advertisement for gustatory sanity, would turn up her nose at my lemonade and pronounce it "industrial food," and she would be right. Good though my lemonade may seem to taste after a strenuous six- or eight-mile walk, nutritionally it's pretty much a disaster, and -- okay, true confessions -- it doesn't taste 5 percent as good as the lemonade I could make from scratch if only I were a bit less lazy.

So what's needed around my place is a heavy helping of 100-proof "real food," the stuff that Planck celebrates in this occasionally winning, occasionally infuriating book. Planck will be known to certain residents of the Washington region, as she grew up on her family's farm in Loudoun County, sold vegetables and other wholesome goodies at farmers markets around the area and in 2003 opened the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market. For a while she was director of Greenmarket, a network of farmers markets, and she has brought her gospel to London and New York, where she now lives.

In other words, she's a cross between Alice Waters and Martha Stewart -- genuinely committed to healthy, organic food but no less genuinely committed to making a buck off it. What she's selling is basically old-fashioned food, what she calls "real food," which she defines as "foods we've been eating for a long time -- in the case of meat, fish, and eggs, for millions of years." About these " traditional " foods she writes:

"To me, traditional means 'the way we used to eat them.' That means different things for different ingredients: fruits and vegetables are best when they're local and seasonal; grains should be whole; fats and oils unrefined. From the farm to the factory to the kitchen, real food is produced and prepared the old-fashioned way -- but not out of mere nostalgia. In each of these examples of real food, the traditional method of farming, processing, preparing, and cooking enhances nutrition and flavor, while the industrial method diminishes both."

No argument about that. A strawberry shipped from Florida or California in January may look like a strawberry (in some instances, like a parody of one), but it's not in the same league as the strawberry grown in June or July on a nearby farm. The mini-cannonballs that masquerade as tomatoes for most of the year probably would kill you if thrown in anger, but they have a taste and texture that bear absolutely no resemblance to those of a real tomato, even one grown in a pot in your tiny city yard. The zucchini sold in supermarkets in December are equally capable of inflicting serious injury, but though they look like zucchini, they hardly taste like them.

Planck scarcely explores new ground when she writes that these products "have traits convenient to large growers, distributors, and retailers," but she's certainly right: "An industrial tomato, for example, is bred to be solid and thick-skinned, the better to tolerate mechanical harvesting, washing, packaging, and long-distance shipping. Uniform shape and size are also important. Flavor and texture take a back seat." Back seat? They don't take any seat at all. To be sure, these "tomatoes" won't do you any harm, but they have virtually no flavor, and much of the nutritional value of a real tomato has been drained right out of them.

Ditto for beef, poultry and other meat products that "are produced on large industrial farms with methods that degrade the environment and diminish nutrition." Though some farmers "raise animals with humane and ecological methods for local and national markets," they are a tiny minority by comparison with the producers of the vast amount of meat that rolls through the breeding factories and assembly lines of agribusiness, where they're pumped up with growth hormones and otherwise turned into "industrial food." Whether the result is meat that is bad for you is the subject of endless debate, but it's not natural meat, and it won't do you as much good as meat from grass-fed animals allowed to roam free on fields and meadows.

As for all that stuff sold in the snack and soft-drink sections of the grocery store, the less you know about it the better. As my carton of lemonade suggests, a lot of it is chemical and virtually all of it is industrial, as characterized by Planck. Much of it is loaded with trans-fats -- which Planck correctly notes are far more likely to cause you to gain weight than butter or milk consumed in sensible amounts -- and sugar or sugar substitutes and artificial coloring and preservatives and other stuff that in the natural world (a) didn't exist and (b) certainly wasn't meant to be eaten.

So far so good, but along the way Planck unintentionally raises red flags. For one thing, her authority to speak out on scientific matters seems questionable. I'm no scientist myself, but I can recognize a nonscientist when I see one. Planck is given to making broad statements and then following them with the likes of "I don't think so" or "My guess probably won't surprise you" or "My own (admittedly unscientific) experience has helped convince me." Et cetera. There's a lot of this in "Real Food," and it undercuts Planck's credibility. She may be right about many of the claims she makes -- my own (admittedly unscientific) hunch is that she is -- but too many of them seem backed up more by guesstimate than by hard proof.

Then there's the social and economic side of Planck's argument, or, more accurately, the side she prefers to shrug off rather than confront directly. She casually asserts that natural, organic food need not be expensive, but market reality makes plain that it usually is. By and large, "real food," the virtues of which are self-evident, simply cannot be produced, distributed and marketed with the same efficiency and cost-effectiveness as industrial food. A mass market demands mass production. People fortunate enough to have nice incomes and to live near farmers markets or natural-foods retailers can treat themselves to the healthy banquets Planck so lovingly describes, but they are a very small minority. It is true that these people -- by their buying power -- have influenced producers and supermarket chains to improve the quality of their merchandise, but for most Americans, unless you're growing your own food on your own farm, you're being fed industrial food.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company