Food writer Michael Pollan had a great article called "Unhappy Meals" in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. While it's on a subject - how bad the modern US/UK/western diet is and how fat and unhealthy we're all getting - that's seen a lot of ink spilled already, he has a novel way of looking at the issue. He thinks it's the science of nutrition itself that has messed up the way we eat. It's worth the read. It's already made me seriously reconsider my food choices.
But I also found his analysis of how science has wrecked nutrition instructive for us marketing types, because there are a surprising number of parallels to what we do. He argues that by analysing the content of food and focusing on vitamins and nutrients, we've become too technical and reductionist and lost the bigger picture of food as a complex, dynamic, cultural relationship with each other and with nature. And he notes that the cultures who view food as meaningful relationships are ironically much healthier than we've become by viewing food as nutrients. Here's one passage that struck me:
...scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.
Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways... There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.
Doesn't this sound familiar? Something similar happens with marketing research. We also have a tendency to be reductionist: put in this ad; get out this shift in behaviour or opinion. When we focus on isolated variables that we are easily measureable - awareness, purchase consideration, recall, likeability - we also lose sight of the bigger picture, the complex and ever-shifting reality of how brands and ideas and stories and meaning bounce around in people's heads and in society. We lose sight of how brands are social constructs and part of our dynamic cultural relationships with each other.
I wonder if nutrition and market research (both softer sciences) historically have tried to take their language and structure from the hard sciences. And perhaps what we're finding is that reductionism is not the right model for analysing these more complex relationships. But more on that in another post.
He also takes some good swipes at the reliance of nutrition on research questionnaires that ask people to recall things they have no reason to remember, and actually have reason to lie about. I'm guessing this will also sound familiar.
To try to fill out the food-frequency questionnaire used by the Women’s Health Initiative, as I recently did, is to realize just how shaky the data on which such trials rely really are. The survey, which took about 45 minutes to complete, started off with some relatively easy questions: “Did you eat chicken or turkey during the last three months?” Having answered yes, I was then asked, “When you ate chicken or turkey, how often did you eat the skin?” But the survey soon became harder, as when it asked me to think back over the past three months to recall whether when I ate okra, squash or yams, they were fried, and if so, were they fried in stick margarine, tub margarine, butter, “shortening” (in which category they inexplicably lump together hydrogenated vegetable oil and lard), olive or canola oil or nonstick spray? I honestly didn’t remember, and in the case of any okra eaten in a restaurant, even a hypnotist could not get out of me what sort of fat it was fried in. In the meat section, the portion sizes specified haven’t been seen in America since the Hoover administration. If a four-ounce portion of steak is considered “medium,” was I really going to admit that the steak I enjoyed on an unrecallable number of occasions during the past three months was probably the equivalent of two or three (or, in the case of a steakhouse steak, no less than four) of these portions? I think not. In fact, most of the “medium serving sizes” to which I was asked to compare my own consumption made me feel piggish enough to want to shave a few ounces here, a few there. (I mean, I wasn’t under oath or anything, was I?)
This is the sort of data on which the largest questions of diet and health are being decided in America today.
It's funny (or is it sad?) because it's true.