Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, the follow-up to his widely praised The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, should probably come with a warning: After reading this book, you may never shop, cook, or eat the same way again.
Or maybe that’s a promise. Pollan contends, quite persuasively, that we who partake in a Western diet could stand to make a few serious changes in our approach to food. In fact, in 201 easily digestible pages, Pollan lays out the evidence that our very lives may depend on it. That goes double for you Coca-Cola drinkers, triple for you Twinkie lovers. And if you think you’re safe just because you rarely sample the goods in the supermarket snack section, well, put down that “heart-healthy” name-brand loaf of bread and stop smirking: Pollan maintains that you too are likely a victim of what he’s termed the Nutritional Industrial Complex.
Cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity — they plague us in the West more than they do any other culture. Pollan believes these health troubles are a direct result of how we eat. “The chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy,” Pollan writes. “These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of every thing — except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.”
The antidote? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” Pollan prescribes in the book’s very first line: seemingly simple advice he then unpacks like a natural-fiber shopping bag chock-full of the freshest seasonal ingredients. Alas, that advice, like those ingredients, may come at a prohibitively steep price for some readers.
In Defense of Food covers ground that may feel familiar to readers who devoured 2006’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Yet while that book approached our culture’s relationship to food from an ecological point of view, here Pollan explores its impact on our health — and aims answer a question from hungry readers: “What should I eat?”
Pollan divides this new book into three sections: The first, “The Age of Nutritionism,” examines the near disappearance of unprocessed food — or as Pollan terms it, simply, “food” — from our friendly neighborhood grocery store. Taking its place is a panoply of processed food products with labels colorfully conspiring to convince the consumer just how “healthy” they are: “Hyphens sprouted like dandelions in the supermarket aisles: low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fiber,” Pollan observes.
He pins the rise of “nutritionism,” which he defines as “the widely shared but unexamined assumption” that “foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts,” on well-meaning, if clueless, scientists prone to a “reductionist” way of thinking, food marketers “eager to exploit every shift in the nutritional consensus,” and a government that panders to the food industry:
Together?they have constructed an ideology of nutritionism that, among other things, has convinced us of three pernicious myths: that what matters most is not the food but the ‘nutrient'; that because nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible to everyone but scientists, we need expert help in deciding what to eat; and that the purpose of eating is to promote a narrow concept of physical health.
Despite the fact that we have become a nation of what Pollan calls “orthorexics” — people unhealthily obsessed with the concept of healthy food — our ability to distinguish good food from bad has apparently slid away from us like a pat of “vitamin-enriched” margarine off a stack of pancakes.
The result? “Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished,” Pollan contends. “Which is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: in need of a whole new way to think about eating.”
In the book’s third section, “Getting Over Nutritionism,” Pollan lays out a detailed plan for readers to “escape from the Western diet” and — to a surprising degree — put their money where their mouths are. It is here where the book may most frustrate the well-meaning reader who does not have a pile of spare cash to put toward organic-farm-fresh foods, scads of spare time and space to grow his own vegetables, or access to high-end grocery stores. It is also here that Pollan shows his elitist outlook.
To be fair, much of Pollan’s advice is sound and presumably something all of us can do: “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket” — the produce, dairy, meat, and fish sections — “and stay out of the middle” — soda-and-snackville; “Eat slowly,” “Do all your eating at a table.” And some of the advice — “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup,” for instance — is not as easy to follow as it sounds (high-fructose corn syrup is everywhere), yet still seems like a fine rule of thumb.
But “Eat well-grown food from healthy soils” (essentially, eat “organic”), “Pay more, eat less,” “Cook and, if you can, plant a garden”? Not all of us can pay the premium to eat only organic fruits, vegetables and dairy products — and meat from animals that are “pastured” or “100% grass-fed,” as Pollan advises. Not all of us can afford to buy a home with land for a garden or to take the time to tend it. And certainly not all of us can afford to pay significantly more for our food. (Pollan makes a half-hearted effort to convince us that we’ll make up the money in health-care costs, but he provides little evidence to support this theory.)
To some extent, Pollan acknowledges his elitist bent: “There’s no escaping the fact that better food — whether measured by taste of nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, usually because it has been grown with more care and less intensively,” he writes. “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health (by among other things, reducing your exposure to pesticides and pharmaceuticals), but also the health of the people who grow the food as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of the farms where it is grown.”
In other instances, he comes across as fairly oblivious — as when he suggests that planting a garden is an affordable solution for people who can’t afford to buy organic. “The food you grow yourself is fresher than any you can buy, and it costs nothing but an hour or two of work each week plus the price of a few packets of seed.” He makes no mention of the cost of the land on which to plant that affordable garden.
Then there’s this sucker punch aimed at the unenlightened consumer, in the midst of a misty-eyed, damp-browed passage about the joys — nay, the “subversive act” — of cooking from scratch and growing your own food: “Unless, that is, you’re the kind of cook who starts with a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, in which case all bets are off.”
And yet ? and yet ? one can’t help but feel that, if we regard Pollan’s recommendations as an admirable, if somewhat unreachable, goal and make more conscious choices when we shop, cook and eat, we may be healthier — and happier — for it. But if you plan to follow this book as a recipe for living, you’ll definitely want to add a pinch of salt.