From the Author

February 2008

Two recent books by Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, have made waves in culinary and nutrition circles. Pollan presents a powerful and well argued case against what he calls “nutritionism,” a concept that, as a reviewer in The New York Times explains it, “food is simply the sum of its parts, that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, that the primary purpose of eating is to maintain health, and that eating requires expert advice.”

Pollan’s formula for good, healthful, and satisfying eating has been the subject of much press notice and is emblazoned across the cover of In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The essential wisdom of this seemingly simple exhortation is striking. Eat food—that is, whole, fresh foods, not heavily processed products, or what Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.” Not too much—this is pretty self-explanatory, and good advice in the face of an epidemic of obesity. Mostly plants—more fruits, vegetables, and grains and less meat than we are accustomed to.

These words cut a swath through the often confusing and apparently contradictory information we receive almost daily from nutrition scientists and dietitians. Compare those lines with the complex, ever-changing advice from nutrition experts who seem to be trying to micromanage our meals with a barrage of information about fats, carbohydrates, trans fats, anti-oxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, cholesterol, and on and on.

I would like to suggest, however, that chefs, cooks, bakers, and other food service professionals are already ahead of the curve on this issue. We know as well as anyone that food is more than the sum of its parts, but we understand that the parts are also important.

We know that preparing and serving satisfying, healthful food isn’t just a matter of assembling and plating a bunch of nutrients, as if they were medicine to be taken. Great meals require good, fresh ingredients carefully and imaginatively prepared, attractively presented, and served in a comfortable and welcoming space. Although we have studied at least the basics of nutrition, most of our training has been focused on the art and craft of cooking and serving. We know that a meal is an important social experience, something to be shared around a table with friends and family and not merely fuel to be grabbed on the run.

On the other hand, we are also aware of the importance of preparing nutritionally sound foods.

First, the fact that nutritional science is incomplete doesn’t mean that scientists should just give up. Quite the opposite. They must continue to study and research and experiment, in order to fill in more of the picture. Scientific knowledge advances incrementally, one little piece of the puzzle at a time. Often a new discovery or the results of a particular research project appears to negate or at least qualify previous knowledge. To the lay person, it appears that scientists are just contradicting themselves. But this is how science works. Only gradually is our understanding increased.

And the increase in understanding has been monumental. Life expectancies have nearly doubled in the past century and a half, due at least in part to the developing science of nutrition. The discovery of vitamins, for example, has effected a great reduction or the near elimination of vitamin deficiency diseases such as scurvy, rickets, and beriberi. At least part of the credit for this achievement goes to the fortification of some foods, such as grain products, with vitamins and minerals.

Second, our job is to satisfy our customers’ demands. Many of our customers are looking for more healthful foods, and if we don’t meet their needs, they are free to go elsewhere. So it is essential that we keep reading and learning about the latest nutritional information. Just as importantly, we must continually hone our cooking and baking skills so we are able to apply that nutritional information to our menus.

The new 5th edition of Professional Baking, for example, includes a new chapter called “Baking for Special Diets.” Here you will find an approach to dietary concerns that is rooted in an understanding of the fundamental processes of baking and the basic functions of each ingredient in a formula. Whether you want to want modify an ingredient of a baking formula to reduce fat or calories or to eliminate an allergen, you must first understand the functions of that ingredient in the formula. Our nutritional knowledge will undoubtedly change as research reveals new findings, but with good basic skills, we are able to adapt to such changes and continue to offer our customers good, wholesome, well prepared food.