The Frontal Cortex

Pomegranate Juice and the Brain

So I’m browsing the juice section at my local supermarket, trying to figure out if I like pulpy bits in my orange juice, when I notice that Minute Maid has a new line of “enhanced juices“. I couldn’t help but laugh at the tag line for the Pomegranate Blueberry drink: “Help Nourish Your Brain!” The label explains:

Minute Maid Enhanced Pomegranate Blueberry is a great tasting flavored 100 percent juice blend with 50mg of Omega-3/DHA per 8 fl. oz. serving to help nourish your brain. DHA is a key building block in the brain.

I think it’s now clear that the omega-3 hype has gotten out of control. Drinking pomegranate juice will nourish your brain, but so will a twinkie: the mind, after all, needs fuel. In that sense, Minute Maid isn’t lying. But to imply that slipping DHA into a fruit drink will somehow increase cognitive performance in people who aren’t suffering from a DHA deficiency…Well, that’s getting a little bit ahead of the science.

The larger issue, of course, is what our recent obsession with Omega-3 and the fatty acid family symbolizes: nutrionism run amok. As Michael Pollan observes:

Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result.

The fact of the matter is that the best diet in the 21st century is essentially the diet of an 18th century Tuscan peasant. As Pollan observes, this diet doesn’t take very long to describe: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If you follow that sage advice, you won’t need to nourish your brain with the latest supermarket gimmicks.

Comments

  1. #1 Ken Shabby
    December 27, 2007

    Cheap easy tasty source of omega-3 fatty acids: take a heaping spoon of flaxseed, grind it with the molars into a mush, then swallow. Great exercise for the jaw, and your bowel will appreciate all that fiber to play with.

  2. #2 peggy
    December 27, 2007

    Pollan also argues quite convincingly that the pleasure and ritual surrounding food in many cultures are also key to its nutritional value. One of the most surprising and disheartening phenomena I have encountered upon returning to live in the US after more than two decades abroad is the growing tendency on the part of many parents to use nutritionist language when speaking to their children about food. Stuff like: “If you’re still hungry, have a protein. You’ve had enough refined carbs for one day.” Whatever happened to apples, oranges and yes, even twinkies? It seems that by reducing the wonderful variety of food to a set of core nutrients and teaching kids to think about eating in this way, we are not only squeezing the pleasure out of food consumption; we are also running the risk of impoverishing our experience of food and the language we use to describe it.
    Another disturbing and perhaps related trend: the emergence of the parent as short-order cook. Rather than preparing a meal for communal enjoyment around a table, the household short-order cook asks each member what they would like to eat (A chili dog? A box of mac’n cheese? A peanut butter sandwich? You name it; we have a microwave and can whip that up in no time.). I have been told by many a parent that this approach prevents mealtime standoffs and cuts down on waste. But I wonder if it isn’t just a rationalization for not wanting to take the time to prepare real food. Personally, I believe that an essential part of the process of learning about food is tactile and visual. If you don’t cut and cook vegetables, for example, you don’t fully understand their properties and appreciate their potential.
    This is obviously more complicated than my comments may suggest; they are offered as food for thought only. On a related topic, the NY Times ran a very interesting article about a year ago claiming that the rising obesity curve in the US corresponds precisely to its falling smoking curve. It will be interesting to see what happens in France when the smoking ban goes into effect in just a few days. Will the French smoke less? Is so, will they grow into a nation of fatties like their American counterparts? Or will the great pleasure they take in talking about, preparing and eating good food save them from this fate?

  3. #3 Anon
    December 28, 2007

    I didn’t get your book for Christmas, probably because I told my mom at the last minute. So I used a bit of Christmas money to get it. I have read the first bit of it. It seems to articulate something I’ve felt for so long – Quite a coincidence being you a scientist and I an artist.

    As far as pomegranate juice and the brain, I prefer coffee, apple juice, and meditation.

    http://proofpurchase.com/12-27-07/

    Back to my reading.

  4. #4 Chad
    December 28, 2007

    Your larger point about the importance of total diet vs. specific nutrients is certainly persuasive, but you may have picked the wrong day to write a snarky post about omega-3s just after posting about Alzheimer’s. ahem.

    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/92700.php
    :-)

  5. #5 DaVinci
    December 28, 2007

    The placebo effect is alive and well at your local grocery story apparently. I wonder if any study’s have been conductd to see if it is working, despite the BS claims.

  6. #6 Rachael
    December 28, 2007

    My husband and I recently spent three weeks in Italy. What was amazing, aside from the occasional – magical – prepared food-find, were the raw ingredients. Food there was just better to start off with: eggs, butter, milk, bread, vegetables, fruit, everything was the best unprepared version of whatever. With miles upon miles of farms immediately surrounding Rome and all of the other major cities, it makes sense. The food was always regional and in-season.

    As a nation, we’ve lost the basic ability to feed ourselves. Knowing how to cook healthy, simple food is now a specialty, rather than a common skill. What a shame.

  7. #7 ad
    December 28, 2007

    this is just a big city phenomenon (not a recent one). i happen to live in a small town on the nw coast and i can tell you that all the food that we eat is seasonal. okay, we have the occasional pizza, but most of the time it is freshly prepared home cooked food.
    may be the fact that people in big cities don’t have the time or the inclination to spend time on food is the reason why they use instant breakfasts as a substitute for healthy meals.

    Also, this was the case even hundred years ago. People in big cities don’t have time. It is as simple as that.

  8. #8 Dave Briggs
    December 28, 2007

    The fact of the matter is that the best diet in the 21st century is essentially the diet of an 18th century Tuscan peasant. As Pollan observes, this diet doesn’t take very long to describe: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” If you follow that sage advice, you won’t need to nourish your brain with the latest supermarket gimmicks.

    Sounds like Great Advice! Even 300 years later. I think we are going to need another generation or two of super computers before we have the complete chemistry of food and the eater worked out!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  9. #9 School Psych
    December 28, 2007

    Good post, good comments.

    I returned a few years ago from living abroad for 10 years. Food, socializing, preparing local cuisine, etc. was such a big part of my international experience. I ate well, yet didn’t gain weight or suffer with depression and other mental health issues as acutely while living in the USA before my international experience. I learned a lot about my health and wellness while abroad. It was very difficult, and is still very expensive, to shop, cook and eat healthily in the USA, and to find family and friends to enjoy a meal with who aren’t running amok in a work-a-holic culture.

    A very good book about brain health and nutrition is Jean Carper’s “Your Miracle Brain”. And Jon Barron ‘s “Miracle Doctors” is a great free download on his website which addresses the body and brain from the cellular level while analyzing nutrition and food sources and the poor American diet which contributes to physical and mental disease.

    This is a little nostalgic, yet when I’ve read the “Little House on the Prairie” series (with my children or in my job) I’ve been able to understand food sources and nutrition along with what living off the land was all about in the early years of America (and still in some rural parts) and how city living doesn’t always lend itself to healthy living.

  10. #10 peggy
    December 28, 2007

    A friend of mine was caught for years in a weight and depression vicious circle. She would get depressed about her weight, go on a diet, lose some weight, then start to feel deprived and disillusioned, then gain the weight back, then feel depressed all over again. She finally went to see a cognitive psychologist specializing in food issues, who did not talk to her about losing weight or counting calories. She instead advised her to throw out all the processed stuff and focus on eating “low on the food chain.” She did just that and is happier and healthier as a result.

  11. #11 Alan
    December 28, 2007

    From spending some time in Europe, it was (a few years ago, now) common to take a 2 hour break for lunch, then work until it grew dark. Dinner was not the largest meal of the day, but we took our time with it. Afterwards, we’d sing around a piano. No one was overweight or obese in the village, and you had to do some walking to go about your daily life. I think some folks, myself included, can get caught up on a reductive approach, focusing simply on diet or exercise or stress: in fact, it’s all of the above.

  12. #12 mockrevolution
    December 29, 2007

    You should’ve had a V-8… now with pomegrante!!

    In my stocking, I received the brand new juice from the makers of spaghetti in a can, V-8. It’s called Fusion and it’s packed with a serving of fruit and vegetables. I just looked at the label to see if I was doing my brain any extra good and there are no quasi-false truths.

    Your book is all the fuel for thought I need.

  13. #13 Cort
    January 1, 2008

    The “science” you cited concerned DHA, arachidonic acid, and venous plasma lipid levels is a poor choice. Right off the bat, comparing venous plasma lipid levels have nothing, NOTHING, to do with cognitive ability, or anything involving the brain unless you happen to have some other studies that have happened to build that bridge. Sorry, it is just a bizarre selection you made.

    To the larger point about nutritional science – how did we ever figure out nutritional deficiencies with thinking like that? Your statement is about anti-scientific as anything this lab rat has seen. Yes, you end up back at the edge of the deep dark metabolic forest after all the research, but with a better understanding of the some beasts, and some of the ecology.

    Food in Europe is better. No question. None of this takes away from our need to understand it more deeply.

    Pom- juice, whatever, we still have only the most rudimentary understanding of what anti-oxidants do and what it means for our long term health.

    I have seen more than a few “elderly” people who lived the lifestyle you folks are mocking. Go ahead, keep mocking. The planet needs less people, and preferably less of the incurious, disinterested wise-asses who think they know everything.

  14. #14 john
    January 9, 2008

    I wonder if any study’s have been conductd to see if it is working, despite the BS claims.

  15. I returned a few years ago from living abroad for 10 years. Food, socializing, preparing local cuisine, etc. was such a big part of my international experience. I ate well, yet didn’t gain weight or suffer with depression and other mental health issues as acutely while living in the USA before my international experience. I learned a lot about my health and wellness while abroad. It was very difficult, and is still very expensive, to shop, cook and eat healthily in the USA, and to find family and friends to enjoy a meal with who aren’t running amok in a work-a-holic culture.

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