Nutritional science is a mess

The food we eat

Poor nutrition

If you, like me, are interested in nutrition, sooner or later you’ll feel the frustration of seeing how, for each expert saying that a given food is good for you, there’s one saying exactly the opposite.

We would expect nutrition to be based on solid science, but in reality the question “what should I eat?” ends up being very similar to “what’s the meaning of life?” where everyone can answer according to their own experiences and beliefs.

Why is it so complicated then?

For many reasons. First of all, as Michael Pollan says in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual:

[…] in fact nutrition is, to put it charitably a very young science. […] It’s a fascinating subject, and someday the field may produce definitive answers to the nutritional questions that concern us, but – as nutritionists themselves will tell you – they’re not there yet, not even close.

And that’s just the beginning. The list goes on, but to be fair, researchers are perfectly aware of the current limitations in their field. As one of them says:

I want a camera, a stomach implant, a poop implant, and a thing in the toilet that grabs your pee and poop before you flush it away and electronically sends information off about what was in there.

And things get worse when politics gets in the way. Take, for example, the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the official US government recommendation on what and how people should eat. It’s supposed to be based on state-of-the-art science, and yet, by looking closer, you can see how lobbies influenced the use of certain words.

But not all is lost: common ground for all different diets does exist, so if you’re too confused you can press reset and start from here.


Scan before you eat

If nutritionists hope one day they’ll be able to catch our poop and send it straight to the lab, health-conscious consumers’ wildest dream is a device that scans their food and tells them what nutrients are in it.

Lo and behold, this device already exists.

Will they let you in at McDonald’s with this one?


Welcome the ambassadors

A new food movement is slowly finding its way in the news, and it’s made of chefs, start-ups, and foodies, enthusiastically promoting entomophagy or (for the rest of us) eating insects.

You probably heard about it before, and shrugged off the idea, but in countries like Thailand, eating bugs is no big deal, they’re just one type of animal protein.

And because alternative sources of meat are what we desperately need here in the Western world (together with eating less of it, and a better production system), insects seem to tick the two most important boxes: they are nutritious and require fewer resources than beef.

There’s just one small problem: they’re disgusting too look at, let alone put in our mouths.

But are all insects equally revolting? Maybe not. Thinking of cockroaches or spiders is one thing, but what about crickets? And what if you had them in the form of flour? Our squeamish First World mouths may be more open to something like that, which is why crickets are the unofficial ambassadors of the insects world into our kitchen.

Where food is going

Future without food? Erm, no thanks

What if you could be relieved from the daily burden of sourcing and cooking your food, and use the extra time to do more productive and pleasant things?

A start-up called Soylent wants to do just that, producing ready-to-drink meals with all the nutrients you need.

Could this be the future of food? On the one hand, the reasoning is flawless: humans could start building civilization only when they were finally able to spend less time hunting and gathering.

So why not give this process a last nudge and get rid of the misery of choosing the right food and cooking it, by having all our nutrients in one go from a bottle?

The reason why not, is that cooking is much more than a daily chore.

As explained here, the biggest problem with Soylent’s mission is that “food is the primary means by which we embody and enact our shifting, species-shaping relationship with natural world. Soylent represents an impossible wish to terminate that relationship entirely, to the impoverishment of both sides.

So, to quote Mrs. Doyle (replying to the salesman who was trying to sell her the Tea Master, to relive her from the “misery of making tea”), maybe I like the misery.

Food waste

The bright side of food waste

The main narrative of the war on food waste is that less waste is always better, zero waste would be the best.

Or would it?

This article offers a counterintuitive perspective: some may actually be beneficial. If food waste comes from surplus, then that’s a good thing to have. We just need to find the right amount of such surplus. Whatever that is though, it’s definitely less than what we have at the moment.