The jury is in: A review of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

In December 2005 I quit smoking, after 12 years of a cigarette habit that sometimes reached a pack a day. After many, many failed attempts that included nicotine patches, Wellbutrin, and even hypnotherapy (I lit up five minutes after the session), I read a book by Allen Carr called “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking.” So repetitive and amateurishly written that it should have been called “The Cheesy Way to Stop Smoking,” it nevertheless accomplished what had previously been impossible for me, by pointing out a few simple, surprisingly effective points, over and over: Cigarettes are a poison people have to force themselves to like, and you’ve been brainwashed to think that quitting is hard. It isn’t. (Really, it turned out not to be.)

A similarly potent commonsense message is at the core of Michael Pollan’s new book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” released yesterday: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Elaborated on and amplified by Pollan (far more elegantly than Allen Carr, needless to say), those seven words are the manifesto of the title. Alone, this advice would have little chance of being heard through the cacophony of diet books and spam for get-thin-quick pills. The power to change people's eating habits lies in his explanation of what he means by food, why it needs defending, and from whom.

"The silence of the yams"

Pollan’s joky tip on how to recognize “food,” as opposed to (arguably) “edible products,” is to ask yourself whether your grandmother or great-grandmother would willingly swallow it. Since few Anglo-Saxon Americans of the World War I generation would be likely to deem escargot, tofu, or a nice stinky blue cheese safe to eat, he also offers a few fallback guidelines. If you want to be healthy, your best bet is to steer clear of “foods” that make health claims (because that means they come in packages, and therefore are likely to be processed food), that have more than a few ingredients, and have any ingredients you can’t pronounce.

“We should simply avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than of nature,” he writes.

Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Too bad such food has largely disappeared not only from the supermarket, but from “the Western diet” as a whole. “In Defense of Food” does more than merely stick up for the produce section: it mounts a damning attack on this diet, which in Pollan’s assessment is “a radical and at least in evolutionary terms, abrupt set of changes over the course of the last 150 years, not just to our foodstuffs but also to our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal.”

This Western diet comprises primarily processed food and processed meat, with all the added fat and sugar necessary to make shelf-stable foods taste good — and "that lie to our senses" about what we're eating, as Pollan puts it, overriding hard-won evolutionary skills. Today, corn, soy, wheat, and rice account for two-thirds of the calories that Americans eat. The other one-third, although he doesn’t say so in this book, is mostly meat from animals that have been fed those four crops. The problem with this shift is that humans are omnivores who for centuries have consumed more than 3,000 distinct edible species in order to get the 50 to 100 different chemical compounds we need to be healthy. The proof that we’re not getting what we need is that “people who eat the way we do in the West today suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity than people eating any numbers of traditional diets,” points out Pollan. Health-obsessed Americans are less healthy than West Africans on meat-based diets, Eskimos who depend on fish- and whale-blubber-based repasts, and carb-loving Mediterraneans.

What’s missing from the Western diet are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They don’t store or ship well, and you can’t invent novel versions of them to differentiate your food product from the 17,000 other new ones introduced every year by the U.S. food industry. This is huge, evolutionarily speaking, writes Pollan:

Of all the changes to our food system that go under the heading “the Western Diet,” the shift from a food chain with green plants at its base to one based on seeds may be the most far reaching of all. Nutritional scientists focus on different nutrients — whether the problem with modern diets is too many refined carbohydrates, not enough good fats, too many bad fats, or a deficiency of any number of micronutrients or too many total calories. But at the root of all these biochemical changes is a single ecological change. For the shift from leaves to seeds affects much more than the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 in the body. It also helps account for the flood of refined carbohydrates in the modern diet and the drought of so many micronutrients and the surfeit of total calories. From leaves to seeds. It’s almost, if not quite, a Theory of Everything.

"Letting the scientists decide the menu would be a mistake"

So who do we have to blame for this shift? That brings us to the symbiotic alliance of two groups that food needs defending from, in Pollan’s argument (cue scary music): nutritionists and processed-food manufacturers. Food scientists, he writes, are guilty of the same blinkered approach that soil scientists have been historically. Just as we’re slowly discovering that a healthy soil needs more than injections of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (chemist Justus Von Liebig’s NPK), we’ve learned that a human requires more than proteins, fats, and carbohydrates to survive. Food is more than just the macro- and micronutrients we know about. Yet thanks to industry pressure on government and the postwar country's embrace of all things "science," we no longer talk about which foods to eat more or less of, only isolated, untethered nutrients.

The list of essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids we need to thrive keeps growing, and the real strengths of “In Defense of Food” are the historical examples — inadequate baby formula, trans-fat-filled margarine — that Pollan gives of what happens when we let scientists decide the menu. “Fortifying processed food with missing nutrients is surely better than leaving them out, but food science can add back only the small handful of nutrients that food science recognizes as important today,” he writes. “What is it overlooking?”

Although he is tougher on the food-products industry — Sara Lee’s “whole wheat” bread designed to mimic Wonder Bread comes in for particular scorn — Pollan acknowledges that it’s capitalism that’s ultimately to blame for the travesties of products like Go-Gurt and Twinkies. And that’s what makes “In Defense of Food” a pretty radical diet book. Unlike all our culture's previous lurches away and toward particular nutrients, no one is going to make a fortune from this diet (except maybe Michael Pollan); fruits and vegetable production is not consolidated into giant corporations the way commodity grains growing is.

“The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model,” Pollan writes. “For the industry, it’s obviously preferable to have a scientific rationale for further processing foods — whether by lowering the fat or carbs or by boosting omega-3s or fortifying them with antioxidants and probiotics — than to entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem.”

Many companies, no doubt, are right now readying their marketing battalions and puppet op-ed writers to refute this. Others appear to have seen the writing on the wall, or are hedging their bets, and are already moving into less-processed food. Nutritionist Marion Nestle recently noticed a full-page ad for Simply Apple, a new juice that’s 100% apple juice, “never sweetened and never concentrated.” She had to do some digging, but she found out who owns Simply Apple: Coca-Cola.

Joining the ranks of the delicious revolutionaries

Pollan devotes the third section of the book to giving not specific diet advice, but a set of “food algorithms” that eaters can use to guide themselves away from the Western diet. Most of them are elaborations on things we talk about all the time here on the Ethicurean, like shopping at farmers markets, eating seasonally, joining a CSA (all of which have the added advantages of encouraging you to vary your diet), cooking meals, and growing your own food. “To reclaim this much control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts,” he argues.

He also advises readers to be willing to pay more, and eat less. As for the twin charges that real food and Slow Food, the organization, are elitist, he dismisses them with the statement "For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority."

There are some missed opportunities, along with a few head-scratchers. Pollan chooses not to discuss genetically modified food, or meat and dairy from cloned animals, which could easily have been included as areas in which scientists studying only what scientists can currently see may be leading us disturbingly astray. And while he for the most part acknowledges when he resorts to the familiar “good nutrient, bad nutrient” jargon, he could have emphasized more in the section on omega-3 fatty acids that, while the food industry is jumping on the bandwagon for this current It Nutrient, whole foods like salmon that naturally contain it have far lower levels when fed unnatural diets from — you guessed it — grains.

The section where he talks about the research of Bruce Ames, the well-known Berkeley biochemist and senior scientist at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, could also have benefited from a few more sentences about Ames. He doesn’t mention that not only does Ames believe that deficiencies in micronutrient may be behind obesity — positing the very interesting hypothesis that “a body starved of critical nutrients will keep eating in the hope of obtaining them” — but that like all good nutritionists, he is hard at work on identifying and developing artificial versions of those missing elements. Additionally, Ames is behind a company, Juvenon, selling the Juvenon Cellular Health Supplement, made of acetyl L-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid, a powerful anti-oxidant, and touted as countering the natural effects of aging. Knowing this, Pollan’s advice to older adults, even those eating a real-food diet, to take a few nutritional supplements seems not just incongruous, but odd.

“In Defense of Food” is a slim volume, less than 200 pages minus the notes, and some of it will be familiar to those who read "The Omnivore's Dilemma." But the above discussion represents merely the germ of Pollan’s arguments; like  whole grains, the book is much more than the sum of its parts. Just as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" irrevocably changed how most of its readers looked at the food chain, "In Defense of Food" destroys the illusion that science and industry are capable of cleaning up the mess they've created.

That's up to us eaters. If enough people read it — and many will; it is already at No. 9 on Amazon.com’s sales chart, although “Shrink Your Waist in 2 Weeks” is disconcertingly in third place — the consequences for America’s waist line, public health, and perhaps agriculture could be quite far-reaching. Maybe even surpassing getting people to stop smoking.

 

Disclosure: I requested and received a review copy of this book from Penguin.

21 Responsesto “The jury is in: A review of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food””

  1. Janet says:

    Will those who've read Real Food (by Nina Planck) find much new here?

  2. Bonnie P. says:

    Janet — not as far as what foods to eat, but in terms of context as to how we got into this dietary pickle, there's a lot of interesting (and new to me) stuff.

  3. Charlotte says:

    When I first started a garden I was startled by how may leaves I was growing. I didn't really know how to cook greens -- they weren't at all a part of my diet growing up. But that's what grows here -- chard, kale, endive, broccoli rabe, turnip greens, beet greens (and the beets). Thank goodness for Mario's tv show (he cooks a lot of greens) and Paula Wolfert -- but I was shocked at how we've lost sight of what was clearly the base vegetable for anyone who was living off what they can grow. It's not zucchini in January. It's frozen beet greens from your garden. Can't wait to read the book ...

  4. cookie jill says:

    Michael is coming to give a talk at UCSB. Gotta get my ticket, quick.

    https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu/Details.aspx?PerfNum=1023

  5. Stephen S. Wade says:

    Am I the only person continually disappointed that people like Pollan, like Alice Waters, continue to make the point that it is choice, not class or priviledge, that effects the way communities in the United States eat? I say this as a student of urban planning and food anthropology: while the choice argument is, by and large, true of upper-income (mostly white) families, they have the financial flexibility to be able to afford switching highly processed foods to organic brands, from Wal-Mart to farmers markets. But for most lower-income communities, this is a matter of access to places that sell the products (for, if Omnivores Dilemma was any indication, Pollan would have problems with such communities eating mass-production produce), and flexibility of time and money. Read from these communities, too, that entire topic of choice speaks down on them -- it isn't an issue of choice, most families would like to be able to provide better products. But when no effort is made to confront the conditions that makes the products unavailable in these communities, it just sounds downright preachy.

  6. Ed Bruske says:

    Problem: there aren't any calories in leaves. You still need calories to survive. The chemists and Big Ag have merely perfected in a twisted, demonic way what the first agriculturists started 10,000 years ago, when they found they could grow calories fairly densely and more easily in the form of grains, rather than spending their time hunting around for them in the wild.

    If Pollan or someone else could find a way to combine the better diet with good citizenship--and get people to buy it--our problems would be solved. You still have to get over the issue of people being consumers rather than good citizens and choosing what's easiest.

  7. ExPat Chef says:

    I had an idea that there should be those "Super Supper" places that would accept food stamps and be subsidized with vegetables and healthy whole grains. Then, working poor families short on time and funds COULD have easy access to real foods. Just pull it out of the freezer and bake. It would also create a center of nutritional education and even could incorporate a community/urban garden. Now, if someone would just fund the damn thing or I could win the lottery and build the model ...

  8. Emily says:

    Charlotte- I made that same observation! My garden can give me veggies for the whole year...or enough wheat for 4 loaves of bread. There's still Ed's calorie conundrum, but it was very illustrative about the proportions of grains and non-grains one finds in an ecosystem.

    ExPat- That is a *brilliant* idea! If the farmer's market can accept food stamps...is it out of the question that these etablishments could take them? Hmm...I see a winter project coming on ...

  9. limesarah says:

    My farmer's market accepts food stamps, and our CSA provides fresh produce and nutrition education to local food banks and shelters. There's a lot of potential for cooperation there.

    Root vegetables are a good solution to the calorie-density problem. There's a lot of food value in a rutabaga or a sweet potato, and many roots will grow in poor soil and partial shade.

  10. ExPat Chef says:

    Great thoughts!

    Ideally the whole concept would combine an urban garden, CSA/meal prep program that accepts food stamps and can use those to buy in bulk (which is how the meal prep places make bank) for the staples. Add some funding from local food banks or other resources and there it is.

    Some people on low income work long hours or two jobs, you think they have the time and resources and equipment to cook real foods? It just makes sense.

  11. Bonnie P. says:

    Stephen: Pollan doesn't talk much about organic in "IDoF," just about produce. His point seems mainly to start with eating food, and worry about its pedigree if you can afford to. I know there are plenty of food deserts in major cities, and rural areas too, where access to food is an issue. However, in some cases this is overstated: for example I live in Oakland, and West Oakland is always talked about as a food desert, but that only means that the nearest grocery store is a whole 4 miles away. Not all urban poor have cars (e.g. New Orleans) but that is not the case in Oakland, thanks to our crappy public transportation system. To me, the problem seems to lie as much in knowing what to do with a vegetable (and caring!) as in finding one.

    One thing I would like to see more on is actual studies of what low-income families eat. I think it's paternalistic to make assumptions that they eat fast food and convenience food because of restrictions on time and money, or because they don't know better. Do the trends hold true across ethnicities? In my informal discussions with UC Berkeley students, I found that low-income Asian immigrant families tended to cook, from scratch. Is it that the American poor have forgotten how to cook? If any readers know anyone doing sociological research on the eating habits of low-income families, let me know, very curious to see it.

  12. "Unlike all our culture's previous lurches away and toward particular nutrients, no one is going to make a fortune from this diet (except maybe Michael Pollan)..."

    What about the health insurance industry? If people ate healthier diets, the industry would eventually see lower claims for treatments related to diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related maladies. The health-care industry, on the other hand, probably couldn't care less about whether people have healthy diets or not, at least from a dollars and cents point of view. Unless the current insane health care "system" collapses and health care companies are not able to receive enough reimbursement.

  13. Nicole says:

    Maybe I should go finish reading the half read and discarded Allen Carr book on my bedside table before I go book shopping this weekend.

    (Thanks Bonnie ;-)

  14. Bonnie P. says:

    Nicole: I started it once and stopped, thinking it was too cheesy for words (or maybe I wasn't ready). But you have to read the whole thing, no skimming. That's how the secret subversive message gets implanted in your brain, I guess. And for what it's worth, I know FIVE friends who have quit with it — and one who's too afraid to start it. Good luck!

  15. A thoughtful set of comments, refreshingly nonconfrontational, relative to what else is out there-- what IS it with blog commenting?

    Michael is clearly a great man, and at the right place at the right time. His website has a link to SPIN farmers, who appropriate vacant land in urban situations and grow great food very productively. Urban food deserts have lots of vacant lots, and people can begin to grow their own. A return to the victory garden in America might really make sense.

    It's also possible to raise some chickens, since the calorie question is important-- eggs provide easily-assimilated perfect protein-- especially if you can raise them without antibiotics, which are usually only needed in situations where there is overcrowding.

    Finally, as a cancer survivor, I find it perfectly all right to behave in ways that are "impractical," if those behaviors improve my health and resistance to disease.

    It would be nice, in other words, if the entire food system were re-organized so that a dollar bought as many healthy calories as unhealthy calories (it buys about an eighth as many, because of subsidies), but I can't afford to wait. I have to eat healthier now.

  16. Chark says:

    I live in New England (Where the available food choices are very good) I travel for my work and once found myself in a small Wisconsin town with a choice of two diners. The first offered "Fresh fruit if available" on the breakfast menu. The other did not have even this option. My initial private response was "This is the US, fresh fruit is always available" but I observe this is not what people choose to eat unless it was what they were served as children. Also we have been so brainwashed on the "benefits" of a low fat diet. Only a small amount of evidence, the health of the eskimos, is necessary to demonstrate that a low fat diet is not "good" for you. I hope this book sparks the revolution that will be needed to fix the US health crisis created by bad science and market driven public policy.

  17. IKen says:

    These questions about class, race, and food are fantastic. Some decent sociological work does show a relationship between income levels and food choices, although more in-depth work that takes local context into account needs to be done.

    One really great, pioneering piece of sociological work on food is by Josephine Beoku-Betts, who studied the food practices of the Gullah in Georgia and South Carolina. (Full disclosure: Josephine is my friend and I think she's brilliant!) In this piece, she really gets at what Pollan talks about when he says we eat for a variety of reasons other than just inserting nutrients into our nutrient receptacle. Her article is called "We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity Among the Gullah" from 1995. I'd be happy to email a copy to anybody who's interested. Thanks!

  18. Cindy says:

    I have to agree with those who say that spending more on food is often a matter of priority rather than ability to pay.  I've lived in and around urban areas all of my life.  I have seen, more often than not, people who eat the cheapest worst food available yet have designer clothes and wide screen TV's. People living in trailers who eat Cup of Noodles yet drive Cadillacs? I'm sorry to those who think the downtrodden have no choices - some may not, but the majority of them have plenty of choices.  Food should be among the highest of priorities. Health, after all, is not a given. If you forsake the well-being of your body and your ability to live a life not attached to machines just so you can carry a Coach bag, well I'd say your priorities are misplaced.

  19. Island Press says:

    Very thought-provoking--many people are trying to make the healthiest food choices, but haven't been able to find enough information about what they are!
     
    For those interested in more information on this issue, check out our Eco-Compass Blog: blog.islandpress.org, featuring blogs by such experts as Ann Vileisis, author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back.

  20. Great review, I've been wanting to read a review, and the book!