Monday, March 10, 2008

Review: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

“Eat your vegetables and don’t snack before dinner.” Remember that from childhood? Well it turns out that Mom has one up on the food industry, nutritional scientists, the FDA, and the media. Who would have guessed? Despite the flood of “healthy foods” into the marketplace, Americans are fatter, more diabetic, and more prone to cardiovascular problems than ever. Why is this so? Michael Pollan explores this paradox in his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto.

Being someone who considers themselves health conscious and who enjoys cooking because of it, there were not too many things in Pollan’s book that I did not already know or at least suspect. The food processing industry is evil; fast food may the former, but it certainly is not the latter; and most Americans eat way more food than they need because the quality of the food they eat is so poor they are never satiated. Therefore, the more direct control you have over what you eat, the easier it is to make healthy choices and to not suffer from an array of diet related maladies. Although this seems like common sense, why do Americans have so much trouble?

Pollan does an admirable job of looking at the historical development of eating, “nutritionism,” and food production. As Pollan argued in his previous work The Omnivores Dilemma, humans can eat a wide variety of things. This is both a blessing and curse. It contributed to the ability of humans to survive in varying climates and eco-systems, but it also means that we eat lots of things that are not good for us, with negative effects only emerging later. Since humans have the ability to transform their environment and make conscious decisions about what they want to eat, a “good diet” is culturally and materially conditioned. This accounts for the multitude and diversity of ethnic cuisines throughout the world—all of which are basically healthy.

Whereas most traditional diets are derived from cultural wisdom, Americans have had an unusual, and counterproductive, obsession with food and its nutritional value going back to the 19th century. Pollan attributes this to the WASPy emphasis on pragmatism—food needs to be understood for what it does to the body and mind as opposed to being an expression of culture. “Nutritionism” has led to an arguably unconstructive attempt to dissect food to find out why certain ones produce certain effects. It is not sufficient that broccoli is good for you—nutritionists need to know what chemical in broccoli makes it good for you, so presumably this chemical can be isolated, separated from the broccoli, and reinfused into our diet in another way—saving us from the burden of eating our broccoli. Pollan argues convincingly that this mind set has blinded us to a more holistic understanding of food and has cut us off from the wisdom of grandma’s kitchen.

The food processing industry has only made things worse. The triumph of agricultural trusts, as decried in Sinclair’s The Jungle, has made the American diet much more homogenous (despite the apparent dizzying array of choices) and dependent upon mass produced food. Despite the abundance of food in the United States, the deleterious health effects of industrial food emerged in the post-WWII period. In the 1970s, a government study concluded that Americans should eat less meat and dairy. What? Americans consume less? Why that is downright un-American! The food processing industry immediately sprang into action, successfully pressuring the government to alter the overall message of the report—rather than eating less, Americans should eat more nutritious food--codifying nutritionist logic into national policy. This, along with increased subsidies to farmers to produce more food (particularly corn and soy) and changes in FDA regulations that no longer require food producers to label foods as “imitation” if they are chemically altered, has led to a radical alteration in what we eat (food is “enhanced,” “fortified,” and “enriched” not to mention heavily laced with corn fructose and soy derivatives). Subsequently, the diet industry, along with aggressive marketing campaigns to make just about anything seem “healthy,” has produced a tremendous amount of confusion about what is good for us.

Pollan’s well written and accessible work offers a simple solution in the first line of his book--“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Regarding the definition of food, if your grandma would not recognize it as food, do not eat it. And also, do not eat anything that will never go bad. Sounds simple enough, and it really is. The difficulty is following it in world where making good food choices can often be difficult. America’s hyper-individualistic, fast-paced, over consumptive culture, where everyone expects to “have it their way” and “now,” is a marketer’s paradise and reflects the level of cultural dominance that corporations have over the American people. More folks, including myself, are choosing CSAs and farmers markets over supermarkets as a means to get control over their food consumption. Of course, cooking as many meals as you can is important. From what I see, however, American consumer culture has bred a generation of adults with the food tastes of 8 year olds, which is disastrous for our health—but does wonders for the pharmaceutical industry.

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