Navigating the Edible Complex
A Review of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
“What other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?” asks Michael Pollan incredulously.
It is, he believes, “a symptom of our present confusion about food that people would feel the need to consult a journalist, or for that matter a nutritionist or doctor or government food pyramid, on so basic a question about the conduct of our everyday lives as humans.”
What’s worse is the degree to which the advice of those “experts” all too frequently has proven to be contradictory, misleading, myopic, abruptly shifting from one extreme to the other – and even fatal. The dismal truth is the fact that “the principle contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one.”
I remember ruefully how the last dozen years of my Grandad’s life were vexed by such expert nutritional advice. Shortly after retirement, he had survived a heart attack. Expert opinion demanded that my Grandmom completely alter her cooking, substituting margarine for butter, using all kinds of new-fangled “miracle” trans-fats in her kitchen, eliminating all the traditional Southern fare and spices that had made a Sunday dinner in their home a matter more of magic than cuisine – above all making everything they ate as bland, tasteless and “healthy” as it possibly could be.
From the perspective of thirty years, we now can say with confidence that nearly every conscientious change she made, each in accord with the very best expert advice, just made things worse. As Pollan writes, “don’t forget that trans-fat-rich margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was healthier than the traditional food it replaced, turned out to give people heart attacks.”
In sharp contrast, he recommends a radically different course, pithily summed in the first three imperative sentences of his book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
There are so many intriguing little gems of commentary and uncommon common sense sprinkled throughout the first few pages of this delightful book that the indolent reviewer is inclined to quote the author and permit the imaginative reader to take it all from there. For instance:
“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”
“For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right of the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.”
Or, in response to that initial question posed above:
“True, as omnivores – creatures that can eat just about anything nature has to offer and that in fact need to eat a wide variety of different things in order to be healthy – the ‘What to eat’ question is somewhat more complicated for us than it is for, say, cows. Yet for most of human history, humans have navigated the question without expert advice. To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.”
And about more recent faddish claims:
“Because all plants contain antioxidants, all these studies are guaranteed to find something on which to base a health marketing campaign”
The fundamental problem which Pollan addresses is simply that “today in America the culture of food is changing more than once a generation, which is historically unprecedented – and dizzying.” What’s a dedicated eater to do?
In answering this question, Pollan occasionally engages in a measure of hyperbole – not unexpected in a book subtitled “An Eater’s Manifesto.” He indicts a rampant “Nutritional Industrial Complex” which propagates an “ideology of nutrition,” and urges “escape from the western diet” grounded in “the industrialization of food.”
But the sad truth is that much of the hyperbole is justified. Consider, for example, the low fat milk you drink because whole milk is “so bad for you”:
“To make dairy products low fat, it’s not enough to remove the fat. You then have to go to great lengths to preserve the body or creamy texture by working in all kinds of food additives. In the case of low-fat or skim milk, that usually means adding powdered milk. But powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, which scientists believe is much worse for your arteries than ordinary cholesterol, so food makers sometimes compensate by adding antioxidants, further complicating what had been a simple one-ingredient whole food. Also, removing the fat makes it that much harder for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that are one of the reasons to drink milk in the first place.”
What, then, do I recommend?
If you eat, read this book.
Ken Bell is the Assistant Director of the Haysville Community Library. He is also, if you deem it relevant, a vegetarian — for ethical, not dietary reasons.