Not that anybody should be surprised by this, but it turns out that what we commonly regard as “healthy foods” may be nothing of the sort, not because the specific foods in question (fruits and vegetables) are wrongly characterized in and of themselves, but because farming techniques — the ones we’ve honed and developed over thousands of years of agricultural history, not just during the industrial age — have stripped many of the vital nutrients clean out of the actual produce that we buy from grocery stores:
We like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.
This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.
These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.
. . . The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.
We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.
— Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” The New York Times, May 25, 2013
Meanwhile, the manufactured food industry has spent decades honing its skill at manipulating our perceptions of food and eating, the better to convince us to keep buying and eating more, more, more. This has evolved, or rather devolved, right down to a finely nuanced propaganda campaign conducted largely by means of a whole new language of food that’s used inside the industry itself:
The massive popularity of these so-called junk foods (a phrase that was added to the language menu in 1973) is a testament to the food industry’s talent for creating feel-good food. Our diets may be richer for it, but so too is the English language, which now boasts many tasty new words and phrases cooked up by food industry scientists and technologists. (I’m indebted to New York Times reporter Michael Moss, particularly for his fascinating new book Salt Sugar Fat, for many of these terms.)
Food companies don’t want their customers to be obese, of course, but what they are dedicated to is increasing stomach share, or the market share within a food category . . . . [P]rocessed-food companies increasingly turn to their legions of scientists to produce foods that we can’t resist. These food geeks tweak their products by varying the levels of the three so-called pillar ingredients — salt, sugar, and fat.
Why not just crank these ingredients up to 11 if we crave them so much? It turns out that although we generally do like more of them, when you go past a certain amount, we like the result less. That optimum amount of salt, sugar, or fat is called the bliss point. Scientists also adjust these ingredients as well as factors such as crunchiness to produce a mouthfeel — that is, the way the food feels inside a person’s mouth — that causes consumers to crave more. Technologists can also induce a flavor burst by altering the size and shape of the salt crystals themselves so that they basically assault the taste buds into submission.
The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking . . . . [T]he real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry.
— Paul McFedries, “The Jargon of Junk Food,” IEEE Spectrum, May 31, 2013
In 1972, Theodore Roszak wrote a brief reflection on the fairly apocalyptic state of mainstream food culture in America and technological society at large. It was later included in one of the most wrenching and inspiring gut punches of a book you could ever read, Less Is More: An Anthology of Ancient & Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity, assembled and edited by Goldian VandenBroeck and bearing an introduction by none other than E. F. Schumacher. I invite or dare you to read it and contemplate how far we have failed to come — despite the various counter-trends that have arisen in America since 1972 (farmer’s markets, the organic food movement, foodies and foodism, etc.) — since Roszak first offered this disturbing thought experiment as a diagnosis and indictment of how industrial-technocratic civilization has mistreated other peoples and the natural world while developing a wholesale case of neurotic self-delusion about its own moral character:
Those who anguish over a starving mankind on the easy assumption that there just is not enough land and resources to feed the hungry might do well to pay a special kind of visit to their local supermarket. Not to shop, but to observe and to meditate on what they see before them and have always taken for granted. How much of the world’s land and labor was wasted producing the tobacco, the coffee, the tea, the refined cane sugars, the polished rice, the ice creams, the candies, the cookies, the soft drinks, the thousand and one non-nutritional luxuries one finds there? The grains that become liquor, the fruits and vegetables that lost all their food value going into cans and jars full of syrups and condiments, the potatoes and corn that became various kinds of chips, crackles, crunchies, and yum-yums, the cereals that became breakfast novelties less nourishing (as a matter of scientific fact) than the boxes they are packed in, the wheat that became white breads and pastry flours . . . . How many forests perished to package these non-foods? How many resources went into transporting and processing them? (And the less nutrition, the more processing.) How much skilled energy went into advertising and merchandising them? There they stand in our markets, row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed, and costing those fancy prices we then gripe about as the high cost of living.
It is out of such routine extravagances that the technocracy weaves its spell over our allegiance . . . and then assures us we are the hope of the world.
For a visual commentary, see the last half of this two-minute excerpt from Koyaanisqatsi:
(Liminalities, Cycle 1, Part 1)
A seminal moment in the formation of Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity came as he was treating a highly educated woman who, by his description, was locked in a rigid Cartesian rationalism that hindered her therapy. The basis of all depth psychotherapy is the airing of unconscious psychic content and its integration with the conscious sense of self, but this woman was centered in a view of reality that denied the existence or significance of such things and kept her wholly imprisoned in her rational ego.
One day as they sat together in Jung’s office, the woman told him of a dream from the previous night in which she was given a golden scarab beetle. As an iconic symbol of death and transformation in ancient Egypt, the scarab is a symbol resonant with psychological meanings, as Jung was well aware. But the situation quickly transcended the realm of purely abstract symbolism when Jung heard a gentle, insistent tapping on the window behind him. As he later recounted,
I turned round and saw a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious attempt to get into the dark room. That seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green colour most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” The experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results. 
This event became the chief instance that Jung regularly referred to as an illustration of synchronicity in action.
If you, like me, are consistently struck these days by a kind of unpleasant, inverted sense of numinous awe at the spectacle of economists still occupying major positions of mainstream power and respect in our culture instead of walking around in hairshirts and beating their breasts with heads bowed in unbearable shame, then Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin has an excellent piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog (a consistent source of insightful posts about trends and ideas in academia and elsewhere) to help cleanse your spiritual palate. In “Have Economists Learned from the Great Recession?” (June 12, 2012), he pulls together various pieces of data indicating that economists truly haven’t learned anything from their epic failure to foresee the great financial collapse of 2008. Notice that I didn’t say the piece is comforting or mollifying, but just cleansing. As I’ve mentioned many times here, there’s much of value in seeing someone do an able job of articulating and substantiating your own running insights and intuitions.
Maybe it’s the rise of “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” “happiness economics,” and other attempts to quantify human happiness and gain a “scientific understanding” of it that has gotten under my skin. Maybe it’s the veritable tsunami of poll results and policy recommendations flooding through the collective consciousness during the current American presidential campaign season, all with the purported purpose of telling us what we think and how we should vote. Whatever the provocation, the following passages are hitting me really hard right now, and I commend them to your reflective reading.
From Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):
Technopoly wants to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies…It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes. That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts.
[…] Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in modern style.
[…] [Scientism] is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “What is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel?”…To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.
From Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (1972):
Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines…that love is rather important to healthy growth…that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance…that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like stastical ciphers or mere objects…that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about…how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now much prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”
I first read Lewis Thomas’s wonderful Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Sympthony as an undergraduate communication major (philosophy minor) at the University of Missouri. In more than one of the essays contained therein, Thomas expresses the belief that many or most of humanity’s basic problems, including environmental and ecological ones, can only be solved by the application of science and technology. In “Making Science Work,” for example — first published in 1981, right on the heels of the two great U.S. energy crises of the 1970s — he states flatly that “We will solve our energy problems by the use of science, and in no other way.” In “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” he claims that if the money being channeled into nuclear weapons research were to be more productively redirected toward other fields of “basic science,” “We could be gardening out in the galaxy. We could free ourselves, our animals, and all our vegetation from disease. We could solve our energy problems and learn how to clean up after ourselves on our own suburban planet.” Read the rest of this entry
It appears we’re in the midst of a mini-explosion of reflection about the status of the science fictional dreams that, according to some observers and thinkers, fueled our 20th-century race into space. Basically, the space program in its original conception or incarnation — which in addition to its obvious nature as a geopolitically motivated Cold War phenomenon was truly a vision-driven effort to explore beyond our own planet and establish a future for us among the stars — is dead or dying. Commercial spaceflight a la Richard Branson may indeed have a booming future, but this is a far cry from what we originally, collectively envisioned. At the same time, and in a most interesting development, NASA is attempting to address the lack-of-vision problem directly by returning to its philosophical roots in visionary science fiction and forging a relationship with modern SF writers (see below).
If my tone in this post sounds sarcastic, don’t worry, you’re not imagining things. My tone really is sarcastic. Some things, I’ve learned, positively beg for a rich heaping of irony.
The latest issue of Education Week contains the following article, published online June 16 and published in print June on 17:
Effort, Engagement, and Student Learning
An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science
It’s a short piece that reports on a new educational study. Here are the opening lines:
Schools that often emphasize fun, student-centered classroom activities in instruction, and evolutionary processes over many generations have helped shape humans’ interest in those engaging social activities.
Yet for students to tackle new and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel” material in reading, math, and other subjects, schools need to emphasize effort and persistence.
That’s the argument put forward by David C. Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a study (pdf).
Aside from the syntactically incoherent character of that first sentence (I think a copy editor failed to remove the word “that” after the word “school”; reread it while making that mental change to see what I mean; or maybe it’s the comma-plus-and that causes the problem; in any case, the sentence lumpy) — aside from its low readability, the passage rates quite high on the amuse-and-annoy scale for its bludgeoning obviousness. “What’s that you say? Students actually have to try in school in order to be successful and learn their lessons? Sakes alive! Such revolutionary radicalness!”
Maybe I’m jumping the gun in my mockery by failing to fill in the rest of the picture that’s painted by the rest of the article. It says the study was published last October in Educational Psychologist but only publicized this month by Mizzou’s press office. (Apropos to nothing, that’s my alma mater we’re talking about.)
Then it summarizes Geary’s argument in a bit more detail:
The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.
Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.
Aside from the continuing evidence of editorial slovenliness — students are able to acquire language acquisition? Oof — this passage helpfully elucidates the point: By means of evolutionary pressure, Geary’s study says, we have bred into ourselves a desire for engaging in fun social activities. This has led to a situation in which we are able, by evolutionary inheritance, to learn some things effortlessly, such as when we learn to speak in childhood. But most of the things we learn formally in school are new, in evolutionary terms, and so we can’t make school all fun and games if we want the learning there to actually “take.”
When you put it that way — as I just did — it really does pose an interesting thesis. The injection of evolutionary psychology into educational theory sounds fascinating. But the conclusion, at least as offered by the Education Week article, is maudlin at best, absurdly unnecessary at worst: Formal learning requires formal effort.
Really? Is this actually news? In asking this pointed question with a pointedly rhetorical intent, I hasten to add that I don’t mean to spit on Geary’s work. His educational evolutionary viewpoint sounds fascinating, not least because it makes possible the enjoyable argument that America’s (largely unacknowledged) cultural elevation of amusement to a position of chief importance not just in formal education but in life at large over the past few decades represents a collective psychological regression and intellectual devolution.
But the punch line about formal learning requiring “effort and persistence” reminds me ever so much of one of the many passages from Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends that has stuck closely with me ever since I first read that wonderful book in 1991 and was floored and transformed by its profound and vibrant critique of the politics, psychology, and spiritual reality of modern technocratic, urban-industrial culture with its wholesale reliance on a philosophy of scientistic reductionism:
Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines . . . that love is rather important to healthy growth . . . that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance . . . that living things have “goal-oriented needs” . . . that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like statistical ciphers or mere objects . . . that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about . . . how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our Paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder, “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now must prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”
If we could put Roszak’s humanistically wise Paleolithic peoples in a school setting that requires formal effort and persistence to inculcate the literate sensibility and cast of mind required of citizens in the modern liberal democratic nation-state, then, as they say, we just might have something there.
Short of this impossibility, we might consider deliberately recentering ourselves in self-evident human verities, perhaps with the help of wise guides like Roszak, while recognizing the cultural-technocratic fraud for what it is, both in educational theory and elsewhere, so that we can perhaps abandon our current insoluble cultural and civilizational impasse and devote our efforts to pursuing more achievable and desirable ends than re-proving to ourselves that 2+2=4.