Book review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Some time ago, I wrote a series of posts on the politics of food where I examined some of the ideas in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan has come out with a new book in 2008 titled In Defense of Food that was triggered by the response to the first book. People kept asking him what he recommended they should eat, now that he had exposed the adverse impacts on our food and health of the industrial food complex dominated by agribusiness.

He said that by posing that very question, people revealed the extent that what he calls the ‘Western’ diet has divorced people from their roots when it comes to food. In most cultures, he argues, food decisions are largely determined by tradition in the form of their cuisines. Food is seen as serving many purposes, such as taste and aesthetics. Food is something to be savored, to give pleasure in addition to nourishment. It is in the west that people obsess about what they eat and look to ‘experts’ to guide them, and he suggests that this, paradoxically, is why people in the west are so unhealthy.

He begins his book with three pieces of advice, encapsulated in just seven words. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The advantages of the last two suggestions are fairly self-evident, though he does elaborate on them in the book. It is the first that requires some explaining. What does he mean by “Eat food”? What else do we do?

What he means is that a lot of what passes for food these days is really a kind of quasi-food product. Today’s stores are filled with processed foods that are far removed from the basic foods and ingredients that traditional cultures would recognize as food, and this development has been bad for us. He says that this is a result of the success of what he calls the ideology of ‘nutritionism’ promoted by the ‘nutritional-industrial complex’. Using the methodology of reductionism, nutrition scientists have tried to reduce our bodily needs to a set of nutrients and this has led to viewing foods as sources of specific nutrients.

Seen this way, each food item is seen as a delivery vehicle for one or more nutrients. This explains why in the US diets lurch from one fad to another as this or that nutrient is identified as good or bad for you. We now talk fluently in the language of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, transfats, cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and so on, instead of in terms like chicken or fish or specific vegetables or fruits.

Humans have co-evolved with food as complex, integrated systems, not collections of items. Our bodies know how to extract the required nutrition from real food, but it may not know how to deal with nutrients that have been removed from their natural environment. Any food item, however simple, is far more complex than the agglomeration of the few nutrients that we are currently able to identify in them.

To think that the interaction of a highly complex system like a food with another highly complex system like the human body can be reduced to the transfer of an identifiable set of nutrients, is to oversimplify on a dangerous scale. Our bodies have evolved to deal with corn but not with high-fructose corn syrup. An orange is far more than a source of vitamin C that can be dispensed with by taking a vitamin C supplement. Who knows how those things that we tend to ignore about corn and oranges (all the other identified and unidentified nutrients, along with the pulp, fiber, and the degree of dilution provided by the water) influence the way that the nutrients interact with our bodies, in ways that a pill or another food supplemented with vitamin C or high-fructose corn syrup might not?

He says that the inability of big industries after 150 years to produce infant formulas to reproduce the benefits that breast milk provides shows complex natural food is.

Pollan argues that the reductionist approach to food is marketed by the nutritional-industrial complex, aided by scientists, the media, and even health organizations, who can repeatedly use the alleged benefit of this or that single component to market new processed quasi-foods.

Pollan makes some practical suggestions for how to fight this tendency and eat more healthily:

  • don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food if she saw it in a store;
  • avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, have ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or that include high-fructose corn syrup;
  • avoid food products that make health claims;
  • as far as possible avoid supermarkets for food and buy directly from the growers via farmer’s markets and the like;
  • and if you have to use supermarkets, buy from the periphery of the store (where real food such as produce, meats, and dairy are to be found) and avoid the center where all the processed food is.

Most importantly, he says that you won’t go far wrong if you simply cook your own food and not eat pre-cooked food.

Michael Pollan is a good writer and In Defense of Food is a terrific book for anyone who seeks to escape from the clutches of the industrial food machine and the nutritional-industrial complex.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Keyboard Cat

It is a tribute to Colbert’s skill that some conservatives think that he is truly conservative and only pretending to be ironic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *