I grew up in a nature-worshipping, somewhat hippie family, and with my book, All Natural, I attempted to fact-check our idea that instead of protecting ourselves against nature with technology, people are healthier when they embrace nature. In nearly every case, I found that the answers I got when I asked, “Is nature healthier?” always depended on the way I asked the question.
When looking at the issue through a narrow, mechanistic lens, it seems as if nature is dangerous. When looking at things through a wide, ecological lens, it’s often the technology that looks dangerous. I argue that we need both perspectives: We need reductive science to get the details right, but we also need to look up from the microscope every now and then so we can see where we are going. With the caveat that it’s possible to produce different sorts of answers, as well, here are 5 food myths debunked:
1. Pasteurization makes food healthier. True, nuking the germs in food does protect you from pathogens, but it also protects against healthy germs. There is a very compelling body of evidence suggesting that communion with our microbial neighbors is essential for healthy immune systems. It used to be a rare classroom that held a pupil with allergies or asthma. Today, every classroom has several. More serious autoimmune disorders are also linked to a lack of germs. There’s new evidence that moving the gut bacteria from one healthy mouse to others protects those mice from type 1 diabetes. We evolved in a soup of germs, and our attempts to separate ourselves is playing havoc with our bodies. Yet the trend is to pasturize everything–milk, of course, and now nuts and eggs. Soon, we may react with disgust if someone mentions eating raw spinach.
2. Microbes in our food are dangerous. Again, yes, of course there are sometimes dangerous microbes in food, but I’m more worried about not having microbes in our food. There’s a real danger in sterility because nature abhors a vacuum. Normally, germs keep each other in check: The competition of harmless microbes can keep dangerous ones from taking over. There are some bacteria (Clostridium difficile is the prime example) that are harmless under normal conditions but run out of control when they enter a sterile environement. So three cheers for microbes in food. Besides, the yeasts, bacteria, and fungi make our beer, cheese, and sauerkraut delicious.
3. Organic food isn’t healthier. Last year, an analysis of organics came out suggesting that they were no more nutritious than conventional produce. A lot of people were upset by this conclusion, but it only makes sense: Conventional farmers can measure their nutrient levels, and getting this wrong would hurt their bottom line–so they get it right. If you are looking very narrowly at those nutrient chemicals we already know humans need, organic doesn’t always look very different from industrial produce. But if you take a broader view, things look different: Buying from farms that make the world cleaner and more beautiful rather than uglier and more polluted is healthier. Buying from farms that support a broad middle class rather than tycoons and destitute laborers is healthier. Buying from farms that don’t torture animals is healthier. Buying delicious food–and taking pleasure in every bite–is clearly healthier.
4. Beef is beef and pork is pork, no matter how they’re raised. When cattle are fed on grass, rather than on high-energy starches in feedlots, there are pronounced effects on the meat: Significantly, the beef will have a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. As for pork, when pigs are put on growth-promoting drugs like Paylean they develop muscle like a bodybuilder, but they are also more likely to have panic attacks–sometimes so severe that the hogs will die. Stressed animals sometimes yield what’s called PSE meat, which stands for pale soft exudative flesh. Eating stress tastes about as gross as it sounds.
5. There is one right way to eat for optimal health. Humans are wonderfully diverse, and this variety extends to our diets. We are hardwired to eat different things. For instance, most humans don’t have the genetic mutation required to digest lactose. It’s also interesting to note that monkeys (we don’t know about humans yet) produce different forms of breast milk depending on whether a baby is male or female. The males get creamier milk, while the females eat a greater volume of lighter milk; the theory is that males feed less frequently and become more adventurous, while females eat more frequently, staying closer and learning more from their mothers. All this is evidence that–rather than having everyone take one portion of milk and three portions of grain–diets should be individualized.
Nathanael Johnson is an award-winning journalist who has written features for Harper’s, New York, Outside, and San Francisco Magazine, among others. He’s also produced stories for National Public Radio and the public broadcasting show This American Life. He grew up in Nevada City, a central locus for New Age-y healers, artists, and environmentalists in California’s gold country, and began his career as a small-town newspaper reporter in southern Idaho, where he covered agriculture, police, and politics. Now, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter. Learn more about his work at www.nathanaeljohnson.org.