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.