Michael Pollan points to nutrition science as one of the problems with our food system. It’s both a feature and limitation of science to break things down into their component parts in order to understand them. This led to the current method of fertilizing crops using petroleum based fertilizer containing the “essential” nutrients Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous. Unfortunately, this way of understanding soil and what makes things grow does not take into account the function of the nutrients within the context of soil. We have come to understand food the same way and it distorts our notion of health.
Eat. Drink. Better. has a helpful post explaining Why Nutrients Should Not Stand Alone which includes a quote from Marion Nestle on why it’s better to consume nutrients as part of whole foods:
(1) you get the full variety of nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc–in that food, not just the one nutrient in the supplement; (2) the amounts of the various nutrients are balanced so they don’t interfere with each other’s digestion, absorption, or metabolism; and (3) there is no possibility of harm from taking nutrients from foods (OK. Polar bear liver is an exception; its level of vitamin A is toxic). In contrast, high doses of single nutrients not only fail to improve health but also can make things worse, as has been shown in some clinical trials of the effects of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid, for example, on heart disease or cancer. And foods taste a whole lot better, of course.
I walked into one of those Vitamin chain stores not too long ago and was floored by how many different bottles of pills they sell. Science Fiction often portrayed the food of the future as a pill we would take for each meal. It seems they weren’t so far off after all.