In his now-famous New York Times magazine piece, Michael Pollan told us to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." What is often forgotten is that this was not a prescription for eating as much as it was an admonition against "nutritionism", the idea that foods are nothing more than a vehicle for the delivery of certain nutrients. While it is not entirely incorrect to view food this way, it is incomplete. Food is more than the sum of its parts. Some of the vitamins present in foods are necessary in small amounts to maintain health, a fact that has over the years led us to think that there are more magic substances in food. This has not been borne out by science. None of the myriad “antioxidants” and other magical substances discovered in foods has ever been found to provide some sort of revolutionary health benefit.
Antioxidants are probably the most commonly cited magic nutrients in foods, despite the lack of evidence of their ability to miraculously affect health. The idea that antioxidants can perform important physiologic functions is not implausible, but it appears to be a naive and incomplete belief.
This is one of the reasons I let out a big yawn every time the latest food source of antioxidants is discovered. There is little evidence that any single food performs significant health miracles. What has been noted in studies is that diets lower in calories, and higher in plants seem to be beneficial. Studies on flavinoids and other substances are interesting and may eventually lead to medical advances, but no one should rush to start a high-chocolate diet.
This is one of the several reasons I was disappointed to read the following headline on the CBS website:
Black Rice: Low-Cost Grain Packs Bigger Antioxidant Punch than Blueberries.
What does this even mean? If this is true, does it even matter? The “writer” of the piece states that black rice might be a good source of antioxidants for health-conscious consumers who are tired of the high price of berries. “Writer” is in scare quotes because, as you may have surmised, the article is cribbed directly from a press release.
What is left unasked and unanswered is “what is the clinical relevance of these findings?” Does it matter that black rice has more fairy dust than blueberries? Should this finding affect consumer behavior?
These unanswered questions distract from a potentially interesting science and health story, an opportunity to raise the level of dialog about nutrition.