Yes, food needs defending.
Last week I read Ed Levine’s (somewhat snarky) comments on what he called Michael Pollan’s Twelve Commandments. I knew I wasn’t getting the full story, so I ran out and bought Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”, devouring it over the weekend. Turns out, Michael Pollan doesn’t call his guidelines commandments, there are more than 12, and there is a lot more to it than sound bites. Knowing that I wanted to write about the book here, I flagrantly ignored my (poor single mom) upbringing and liberally highlighted oh, 96.9 percent of the book. I think a few â€œtheâ€™sâ€ and â€œitâ€™sâ€ escaped my fluorescent pink adornment.
Pollan, (such an apt last name) has eloquently coalesced much of my philosophies on food, culture, cooking, health and tradition. His writing is witty, engaging and so entertaining, it was difficult to put it down. I specifically read it out loud to my husband, knowing we’d discuss so many of Pollanâ€™s points as we got deeper and deeper into this thoughtful work. It is an exquisitely articulated book, he refers to as “An Eater’s Manifesto”, which he cleverly sums up in these seven words from the cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
Pretty strait forward, common sense, huh? Actually to some, it will be incredibly subversive and threatening. Through studies, personal philosophy, reference to traditional cultures and a hard look at the pervasive convenience-is-king, fast food, “pile it high, sell it cheap” attitudes Americans have toward their food, Pollan unpacks those three little sentences for us.
He covers so much ground, I want to talk about it all. But, I suppose thatâ€™s rather impractical since it took him 200 pages, and you really just need to read it, as a service to you and your family. He addresses so much of what modern Western food is, and all of it’s ramifications on health, relationships, science, culture, the environment, well-being, the health care industry, and the formerly simple act of choosing what to eat, that I am truly overwhelmed at the idea of succinctly putting my thoughts together on it. I never professed to be a book reviewer, but I am so passionate about “In Defense of Food”, that Iâ€™m giving it my best shot.
The first section of the book he calls, “The Age of Nutritionism”. Nutritionism being a term coined by Australian sociologist of science, Gyorgy Scrinis. With all the perky bright packages screaming Low Fat! No Cholesterol! Heart Healthy! there is a subliminal message the food industry wants us to buy into, “namely, that we should understand and engage with food and our bodies in terms of their nutritional and chemical constituents and requirements – the assumption being that this is all we need to understand.” As Pollan puts it, nutritionism is a reductionist ideology, and, “Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form, this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.”
This “expert help” translates to decades of confusing, contradictory, pseudoscience resulting in more and more chronic diseases, (heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and type 2 diabetes which used to be called adult onset, but is beginning to show up in children as young as 9) with more and more evidence showing these are diseases with direct correlation to a Western diet. But as Pollan states over and over in the book, it’s not about taking out this or that “bad” nutrient, so much as looking at the whole diet, through the lens of culture and tradition. When we sit at the dining table with loved ones for a meal, (“Eat Meals” and “Do All Your Eating at a Table”, are two headings in the last section of the book) we draw on millennia of the pleasures of eating together, and teach the next generation gratitude for where our food comes from, “proper portion sizes”, “social norms about greed and gluttony and waste,” and stopping when you are full (rather than when the TV show is over or the package is empty).
One of the insidiously invisible problems with nutritionism is that in order for a package of processed food product to screech it’s supposed nutrient-packed benefits at you, it has to have…a package. Big industry’s money is backing the research, processing, and marketing of these so-called foods, when the ACTUAL foods (with generations of relationship and experience in growing and cooking them) in the bulk bins and produce aisle are far less profitable and therefore…quiet. Pollan calls it “the silence of the yams.” (One of my favorite quotes in the book.) He goes on to say, “The cook does not need to know, as the scientists have recently informed us, that cooking the tomatoes with olive oil makes the lycopene in them more readily available to our bodies. No, the cook already knew that olive oil with tomatoes is a really good idea.”
In the second section “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization” Pollan cites numerous studies worldwide showing just how destructive the proliferation of Franken-foods like high fructose corn syrup, soy isoflavones, and any number of additives in the Western diet have been to our bodies. Pollan makes a very salient point when he states, “Health depends heavily on knowing how to read these biological signals: this looks ripe; this smells spoiled; that’s one slick-looking cow. This is much easier to do when you have long experience of a food and much harder when a food has been expressly designed to deceive your senses with, say, artificial flavors or synthetic sweeteners. Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet.”
To put it bluntly, we have become a society that is obese as a direct result of being overfed and undernourished. With all the perishable vital nutrients stripped out of processed foods, and without a context with which to prepare and enjoy our foods, we are getting less and less of what we need from our food. Unsatiated, we fill up on even more empty â€œfoodsâ€. Pollan goes on to make the very disturbing yet right-on observation, â€œIs it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and 5.2 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped: Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.â€
As the naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” So, it should come as no surprise that food is part of a vast ecosystem and obviously (or maybe not) so are you. Knowing that the very nature of science is to reduce everything to it’s isolated parts, even the best science has to offer, is an incomplete understanding. If you are just looking at the parts, you are only going to see…parts. Not the whole. So, backed by (far from neutral parties) special interest lobbying, government bureaucracy, and advertisers (with 32 billion dollars a year), food science keeps looking for some nutrient panacea to save us from ourselves; Antioxidants are the answer! More fiber! Saturated fat will kill your family, news at 11!
Margarine is the perfect example. With dubious evidence to back it up, they decided saturated fat (in a whole food like butter) was so bad for you, that hydrogenating vegetable oils to make what should be a liquid, into a solid, was the answer. Oops! Now scientists say hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are far more dangerous than saturated fat ever was, so they are re-engineering margarine in some newfangled way that, this time…really…I swear…I wouldnâ€™t lie to ya…is THE healthiest fat. Untilâ€¦we find out whatever they are doing to it now is also less than ideal.
What happened to sensibly moderating what we eat? Itâ€™s okay to have a little pat of butter on your morning toast (made with whole grain flour, water, yeast and salt) so long as you donâ€™t eat an entire pound of it. A scoop of ice cream (made of whole cream, eggs, sugar, and real fruit or vanilla or chocolate, say) now and again, is so much more pleasurable and far less dangerous than something filled with a litany of unpronounceable additives. Where has listening to supposed food experts for the last 50 years gotten us? Decades of rising rates of chronic diseases, polluted water and air from industrial pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and a society that no longer values quality: in time spent at the table together, and in the food we produce and eat.
One of the most interesting statements Pollan makes is based on Westin Priceâ€™s research, identifying no single ideal traditional diet. Throughout human evolution and history, our species has thrived on many kinds of diets. According to Pollan, Price found that, â€œThe Masai of Africa consumed virtually no plant foods at all, subsisting on meat, blood, and milk. Seafaring groups in the Hebrides consumed no dairy at all, subsisting on a diet consisting largely of seafood and oats made into porridges and cakes. The Eskimos he interviewed lived on raw fish, game meat, fish roe, and blubber, seldom eating anything remotely green.â€ Pollan continues, â€œPrice found groups that ate diets of wild animal flesh to be generally healthier than the agriculturists who relied on cereals and other plant foods.â€ â€œBut the common denominator of good health, he concluded, was to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients.â€ Therefore, our health depends on the health of the soil our food is grown in. The most striking point Pollan makes about traditional diets is, â€œThe human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.â€
In the final section, â€œGetting Over Nutritionismâ€, Pollan gives real life, day to day suggestions of how to truly nourish yourself and your family with traditional, whole food. Again, so much of it is common sense, but there are multi-billion dollar a year industries directly profiting from keeping you hooked on highly processed, overly sweetened, food-like substances. I love his suggestion to steer clear of â€œfoodsâ€ your (or someone elseâ€™s) great grandmother wouldnâ€™t recognize as food. Okay, so YOUR ancestor may not know what calamari or tofu or tzatziki is, but someoneâ€™s grandmother in a little town was using it in her meals 100 years ago. But, Iâ€™m sure sheâ€™d never heard of maltodextrin, ethoxylated mono- and diglicerides or azodicarbonamide, let alone think they were supposed to be ingested. Pollan also urges us to stick to the edges of the grocery store where they generally shelve the real food: produce, dairy, meats, dry grains and legumes. All of which play a part in a healthy omnivorous diet.
Clockwise from top: Farro (a whole wheat), Red Lentils, Wehani Rice, Green Split Peas…all of which cook up in less than an hour and are so tasty
I donâ€™t personally eat meat, but I would be the first to agree that a traditional diet including small amounts of humanely raised, pasture-fed animals is far better for everyone than a diet chock full of supposedly â€œhealthyâ€ highly processed fad foods. But better than the peripheries of the grocery store, he strongly suggests we support local farms through farmers markets, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where you pay a fee in winter and receive a weekly box of seasonal fresh produce throughout the year. If youâ€™ve read much of my blog, you know that local produce is very close to my heart, so Iâ€™m thrilled to see that tip so adamantly expressed in Pollanâ€™s book.
Tonight I am beside myself with excitement to attend a talk that Pollan is giving at the Book Passage in Corte Madera. Honestly, I could discuss â€œIn Defense of Foodâ€ and the issues Michael Pollan brings up, for hoursâ€¦daysâ€¦weeks even, but I have to wrap this up. I just canâ€™t stress enough how revolutionary and critically important this book is. Anyone whoâ€™s ever picked up a box of crackers and tried to make sense of the dozens of ingredients on the label should read this book. If youâ€™ve ever just thrown up your hands in exasperation as the newest health study contradicted all the ones before it, read this book. And lastly, if you really want solid direction on what you as one person, or as a member of a family, can do to actually BE healthier and have a healthier impact on this planet we call home, read Michael Pollanâ€™s â€œIn Defense of Foodâ€.