Food for thought
A second helping from Michael Pollan
Worried about what to eat? Michael Pollan's new "eater's manifesto," In Defense of Food, offers remarkably simple, practical advice on the question. "In a way I've written a book that comes down to seven words," Pollan says during a call to his home in Berkeley, California. " 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.' Everything else is an unpacking of those words and an explanation as to why that should be so."
The unpacking and explanation are, of course, a bit more complicated than Pollan's basic nostrum. But readers of his immensely popular previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), will be familiar with the broad strokes of his argument and his critique of food science and the American food industry. The Omnivore's Dilemma was a delightfully informative narrative history of the food systems that underlay four meals consumed by Pollan and his friends and family. It was a book that tapped into or gave voice to a paradigm shift in American eating habits that had been building for some time, and it made Pollan something of a spokesman for the movement.
In Defense of Food is the result of Pollan's encounters with readers of his earlier book. "One of the enormous blessings of a successful book is that you get to talk to thousands of readers in the year after it comes out," he says. "I not only did book tours but a lot of public speaking. So I really got to hear what people were confused about and what they wanted to know. I found that people still had this very simple question: Well, what should I eat? I decided that the question was best answered by really looking at the science and asking what do we really know about the connection between food and health."
Pollan seems uniquely positioned to examine the question. He was for many years executive editor of Harper's, is a contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, and has written widely on issues of animal agriculture, genetically modified crops and natural history. In 2003 he and his wife, the painter Judith Belzer, and their son, Isaac, now a freshman in high school, moved from Connecticut to Berkeley so that Pollan could head the Knight program at the UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism. The program's mission is to advance the quality of science and environmental journalism, and Pollan has used some of the program money to bring a wide array of food experts to campus and to help stimulate the growing debate about the American diet. " We came thinking we'd be here for two years," Pollan says, "but it's worked out very well for us all. Besides, we bought a house at the top of the market, so I think we're here for a while."
In the new book, Pollan examines the cult-like aspects of what he calls "nutritionism" and finds the supporting science riddled with unexamined assumptions, chief among them the idea that the key to understanding food is the nutrient. "I was surprised by how primitive the state of knowledge is scientifically," Pollan says. " It's a very hard problem to study. Both the food side and the body side of the system are incredibly complex. Reductive, single-factor science has a lot of trouble understanding both a carrot and the digestion of a carrot. On the other hand we have thousands of years of cultural experience with various foods and we know which ones contribute to health. One of the interesting discoveries here was that culture may have more to teach us about how to eat than science. To me, that was a big 'aha' moment."
Picking up where he left off in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan also explores the problems of the Western diet, which has increasingly come to rely on edible foodlike substances largely derived from two highly subsidized crops corn and soybeans. "We co-evolved with the things we eat," Pollan says. "We have relationships that are based on the characteristics of these whole foods. So, as I explain in the book, we have a longstanding, very healthy relationship with corn as a food. But we don't have a relationship with high fructose corn syrup, which is a kind of abstraction of corn. Our bodies are not accustomed to dealing with that the way they are with corn on the cob or cornmeal or tortillas. Our bodies have been exquisitely designed by evolution to deal with a whole food, to digest it, to make good use of it. But for these abstractions of a whole food, which are what the food industry makes the most money selling, our bodies have not evolved to handle properly, and won't in our lifetime or maybe ever."
In the final section of In Defense of Food, Pollan boils down what he has analyzed and learned into a set of straightforward but provocative rules what he calls algorithms for thinking about what and how to eat. "The challenge was to come up with aids for thinking through these issues rather than a menu or a prescription," Pollan says. "I resent when people tell me what to eat, and I don't think it's my job to tell others what to eat. But given what I know and what I've learned about the food system, I can provide tools for people to think through their own decisions. Like don't eat foods that make health claims, which sounds counterintuitive until you realize that only foods in packages are going to make health claims because they need somewhere to print those claims, that they are more likely to be processed foods, and that their claims are probably based on reductive science. The rule is meant to be a way of capturing a much larger piece of knowledge about how the food system works. Using them people will come to very different conclusions. These rules can lead to an infinite number of different menus, but all of them should be better than the industrial menu currently on offer."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.