We Know a Lot Less Than We Think We Know

We just don't know

A close friend of mine is pregnant and travels frequently for work. She always refuses the full-body scanners and opts for a pat-down instead. She jokes that she’s been felt up in almost every airport in the US. Every time she refuses the full-body scan, the workers insist that it is completely safe. Yeah, that’s what they said about the x-ray machine too.

We know a lot less than we think we know. One mind-boggling example of this is baby formula. In his book “In Defense of Food”, Michael Pollen traces the evolution of baby formula and its frequent missteps.

“Nutrients themselves had been around as a concept and a set of words since early in the nineteenth century. That was when William Prout, an English doctor and chemist, identified the three principal constituents of food — protein, fat, and carbohydrates — that would come to be known as macronutrients. Building on Prout’s discovery, Justus von Liebig, the great German scientist credited as one of the founders of organic chemistry, added a couple of minerals to the big three and declared that the mystery of animal nutrition — how food turns into flesh and energy — had been solved. This is the very same Liebig who identified the macronutrients in soil — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (known to farmers and gardeners by their periodic table initials, N, P, and K). Liebig claimed that all that plants need to live and grow are these three chemicals, period. As with the plant, so with the person: In 1842, Liebig proposed a theory of metabolism that explained life strictly in terms of a small handful of chemical nutrients, without recourse to metaphysical forces such as “vitalism.”

Having cracked the mystery of human nutrition, Liebig went on to develop a meat extract – Liebig’s Extractum Carnis – that has come down to us as bouillon and concocted the first baby formula, consisting of cow’s milk, wheat flour, malted flour, and potassium bicarbonate.

Liebig, the father of modern nutritional science, had driven food into a corner and forced it to yield its chemical secrets. But the post–Liebig consensus that science now pretty much knew what was going on in food didn’t last long. Doctors began to notice that many of the babies fed exclusively on Liebig’s formula failed to thrive. (Not surprising, given that his preparation lacked any vitamins or several essential fats and amino acids.) That Liebig might have overlooked a few little things in food also began to occur to doctors who observed that sailors on long ocean voyages often got sick, even when they had adequate supplies of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Clearly the chemists were missing something—some essential ingredients present in the fresh plant foods (like oranges and potatoes) that miraculously cured the sailors. This observation led to the discovery early in the twentieth century of the first set of micronutrients, which the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, harkening back to older vitalist ideas of food, christened “vitamines” in 1912 (“vita-” for life and “-amines” for organic compounds organized around nitrogen).

Vitamins did a lot for the prestige of nutritional science. These special molecules, which at first were isolated from foods and then later synthesized in a laboratory, could cure people of nutritional deficiencies such as scurvy or beriberi almost overnight in a convincing demonstration of reductive chemistry’s power. Beginning in the 1920s, vitamins enjoyed a vogue among the middle class, a group not notably afflicted by beriberi or scurvy. But the belief took hold that these magic molecules also promoted growth in children, long life in adults, and, in a phrase of the time, “positive health” in everyone. (And what would “negative health” be exactly?) Vitamins had brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and though certain elite segments of the population now began to eat by its expert lights, it really wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that nutrients began to push food aside in the popular imagination of what it means to eat…

Another potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that, focused so relentlessly as it is on the nutrients it can measure, it has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions among foods. So fish, beef, and chicken through the nutritionist’s lens become mere delivery systems for varying quantities of different fats and proteins and whatever other nutrients happen to be on their scope. Milk through this lens is reduced to a suspension of protein, lactose, fats, and calcium in water, when it is entirely possible that the benefits, or for that matter the hazards, of drinking milk owe to entirely other factors (growth hormones?) or relationships between factors ( fat-soluble vitamins and saturated fat?) that have been overlooked. Milk remains a food of humbling complexity, to judge by the long, sorry saga of efforts to simulate it. The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another: Liebig missed the vitamins and amino acids, and his successors missed the omega-3s, and still to this day babies fed on the most “nutritionally complete” formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk. Even more than margarine, infant formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, p.20-21, 31-32

We know a lot less than we think we know. Baby formula companies today insist that they have it all figured out. Do they?

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