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.
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