It’s a bit technical and a bit difficult to sift through, but once you’ve chewed on the first two-thirds of Michael Pollan’s latest diatribe on food, you get to the dessert – how to overcome the ‘Western diet’ and return to a more ecological one. After ‘The Botany of Desire’ and ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ Pollan delves into the world of our daily consumption again, this time exploring who drives our food economy and health and then proposing how to reclaim control of what we eat. While it might be tempting to skip parts one and two in favor of harvesting the answers at the end, the technical jargon and detailed accounts provide necessary background to understand part three.
To begin, Pollan addresses ‘nutritionism.’ This term, coined by an Australian sociologist of science, refers to the principle of looking at food strictly as nutrition. The problem with this kind of thinking is that food and ‘healthy’ and all things food related are determined by the food industry, journalists, and the government. Which nutrients are good for us and in which foods can we find them? Simply look at the labels. Low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fiber. Wheat flour, wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, azodicarbonamide. Azo…what? But, if all the foods that the food industry has claimed are good for us, Pollan asks, then why are two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese? Why does an American born in 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes in his lifetime? Well, because we’ve bought into nutritionism. We believe the ‘Western diet’ is a good one, and has in fact gotten better: low fat, low sugar, good for the heart. Well, not exactly. Nutritionism results from the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains, the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in monocultures, the abundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat, and the focus on staple crops of wheat, corn, and soy. Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains have gone by the wayside, and these days half our calories stem from sugar, in a variety of forms. In other words, we’re now eating nutrients, not whole foods. As Pollan points out: ‘It’s a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot.’ Even the FDA, he adds, has made a new health claim for Frito-Lay chips ‘on the grounds that eating chips in polyunsaturated fats can help reduce consumption of saturated fats, thus being beneficial on our cardiovascular system.’ Sugary cereal? Fritos? Okay, I get it. Grab the carrot because we know what we’re getting.
But I’m getting ahead of Pollan’s story. He begins with grandma, actually great- grandma. While environmental writer Alan Weisman asks us to ask our grandparents how they used to carry their groceries home (as incentive to ditch plastic bags), Pollan asks us to ask our grandparents what they ate. Surely, he claims, grandma (or great grandma, depending on your age) ate real food, not altered, not fortified, nor reduced to chemical compounds. As he points out, ‘…most of us unthinkingly place the authority of science above culture in all matters having to do with our health.’ In Pollan’s mind, great grandma is culture so we need to go backward in time in order to move forward.
So Pollan defends food. Real food. He argues that scientific reductionism has misled us by breaking down food into component parts without consideration of its entire ecological context – how soil is treated, what animals eat, the care of the food, or the fact that we eat foods in combinations that affect how they’re metabolized. How can food parts be isolated and yet tell the whole story? Food doesn’t work that way. Yes, we know Twinkies are bad for us and farmer’s market lettuce is good. But, in ‘In Defense of Food,’ Pollan, through meticulous research, answers the whys and hows of food: how do Omega-3s and Omega-6s balance, how does the traditional diet differ from the Western diet, why do we gain weight when we eat ‘low-fat’ foods, why are organic crops more nutritional than industrial crops (not as obvious as you think), and how does ‘Slow Food’ offer an alternative practice. In the appendix of sources I counted over 200 works of reference, and we know Pollan read a lot more than that.
In defense of food, Pollan suggests we stop treating food as science and return to a time when eating was a pleasurable experience, a social activity, and an identity to culture. Reverse the science trend, Pollan argues, and get back to eating food as food. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Below are some of his suggestions with brief explanations – it’s the dessert you’ve been waiting for.
• Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt tubes?)
• Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar (azodicarbonamide?), unpronounceable (consider the previous word), more than 5 in number (many supermarket breads contain approximately forty ingredients), and that include high-fructose corn syrup (which is prevalent throughout our food products)
• Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle (processed foods reside in the middle, fresh foods line the walls)
• Shop at farmer’s markets (local, local, local)
• Shake the hand that feeds you (find where your food comes from, how it’s grown, and what’s in it)
• Eat mostly plants, especially leaves (excellent source of vitamin C)
• If you have space, buy a freezer (buy grass fed meat in bulk, put up food from farmer’s market)
• Eat more like the French, Italians, Japanese, Greeks, or Indians (according to the rules of traditional food culture)
• Have a glass of wine with dinner (Pollan only mentions red wine)
• Eat less (serve smaller portions, eat slower, stop when you’re full)
• Eat meals, snack less (no between-meal meals)
• Cook, and if you can, plant a garden (‘take part’ in your food)
To sum it up, Pollan suggests, RETAKE CONTROL OF THE MEAL FROM THE FOOD SCIENTISTS AND PROCESSORS!
Tasty Bites from Pollan’s Text
You don’t need to spend much time in an American supermarket to figure out that this is a food system organized around the objective of selling large quantities of calories as cheaply as possible.
…corn contributes 554 calories a day to America’s per capita food supply and soy another 257. Add wheat (768 calories) and rice (91) and you can see there isn’t a whole lot of room left in the American stomach for any other foods.
At the supermarket checkout you can thumb copies of a new lifestyle magazine, ‘Diabetic Living.’ Diabetes is well on its way to becoming normalized in the West.
…avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature.
The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich.
Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he recommended using meat more as a flavor principle than as a main course, treating it as a ‘condiment for the vegetables.’
American gas stations now make more money selling food (and cigarettes) than gasoline, but consider what kind of food this is.