Is ‘Eat Real Food’ Unthinkable?
By MARK BITTMAN for The New York Times
February 8, 2011, 8:30 PM

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In recent weeks we’ve seen a big, powerful government agency, a big, powerful person and a big, powerful corporation telling us what to eat. Even with all this big, powerful input, we know nothing that we didn’t know last year. We do, however, have a new acronym; unfortunately, it’s not the one we need.

And a little progress. Limited kudos go to the United States Department of Agriculture, whose Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 — yes, it’s 2011, but they’re published every five years — are the best to date. We’re told to eat “less food” and more fresh foods; wise advice. But aside from salt, the agency buries mostly vague recommendations about what we should be eating less of: we’re admonished to drink “few or no” sodas — hooray for that — and “refined grains,” Solid Fats and Added Sugars. And there’s our fabulous acronym: SOFAS.

The problem, as usual, is that the agency’s nutrition experts are at odds with its other mission: to promote our bounty in whatever form its processors make it. The U.S.D.A. can succeed at its conflicting goals only by convincing us that eating manufactured food lower in SOFAS is “healthy,” thus implicitly endorsing hyper-engineered junk food with added fiber, reduced and solid fats and so on, “food” that is often unimaginably far from its origins. When it comes to eating more “good” food, the report is clear, because that can’t harm producers. When it comes to eating less of what’s “bad,” the language turns to “science,” because telling us which products to avoid — like a 3,000-calorie fast-food “meal” or a box of low-fat but chemical-laden crackers — would play badly with industry. Instead we’re told to avoid SOFAS. Where’s that SOFAS aisle?

The report might have led with Michael Pollan’s ground-breaking slogan — “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — and then explained details in a few pages. But although the agency’s advisory committee suggested a “shift . . . toward a more plant-based diet,” the report itself backs “a healthy eating pattern,” and then, over 100-plus pages, proceeds to imprecision to avoid offending meat and sugar lobbies. (The salt lobby is evidently puny.)

In its attempts to upset no one powerful, the U.S.D.A. offers a typically contorted message. The advice people need is to cook and eat more real food, at the expense of the junk served in most restaurants and take-out places. In fact, most of the mysterious SOFAS come from so-called “fast” and “convenient” food, as does most sodium. (The salt shaker is not the culprit .)

It isn’t easy to cook with the junk that makes junk food junky, but the agency spends little energy boosting cooking. There is the, “Cook and eat more meals at home . . . include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and protein foods that provide fewer calories and more nutrients.” But it stands almost alone, and could have been far simpler and stronger. Why isn’t it? Because “protein foods that provide fewer calories” doesn’t offend the meat industry, as Pollan’s motto does.

Which brings us to the powerful person: Oprah. Ms. Winfrey, who has been on more diets than the rest of us combined, challenged her staff to “go vegan” for a week…

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