America’s Ranking Food Journalist Calls Out Our Choices

But how much choice do we have?

When Michael Pollan published The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals in April 2006, it marked the crest of a new wave of significant journalism concerning food. In the book, Pollan, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and professor at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, revealed just how thoroughly government-subsidized corn had become a part of the American diet and looked into how much range "free-range" chickens actually got. The Omnivore's Dilemma became the literary equivalent of a platinum record. Pollan succeeded at making public an insider's conversation, one that rarely seemed to happen outside ecology conventions or over dinner at spendy "farm-to-table" restaurants. His effectiveness came from what he wasn't as much as what he was. Pollan wasn't a crusader à la Alice Waters. He wasn't a celebrity chef or food writer whose MO was culinary seduction. He was just a journalist, a bit of a science geek, who liked to eat but was concerned about what was making it onto his plate. Living in Seattle, where every neighborhood already boasts its own farmers market, it's hard to judge the impact of Dilemma on the rest of the nation. Here, it certainly turned Pollan into a household name. (His upcoming appearance Feb. 13 at Town Hall was already sold out by last month.) After reading the book, vegetarians I know started eating grass-fed beef, and meat eaters went veg, or at least more veg. I stopped picking up fruit just because it had an "organic" sticker and started examining the fine print to see whether it was organically Chinese or Chilean. I also set down the book with an urgent question: Now that I know all this, what should I do? It's a question Pollan's newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, attempts to answer. In the book, Pollan argues that America's conflicting views on food—and more significantly, our astronomical rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—come from our lack of a national culture of the table. Having shed our Old World traditions, Americans have come to rely more and more on nutritional science to tell us how and what to eat. However, Pollan makes the case that nutrition is a flawed, nascent discipline that has broken down food into its constituent parts but still can't figure out how they all work together to make us healthy. Yet the federal government has adopted "nutritionism," as Pollan calls our focus on nutrients over whole foods, as the base of its dietary and food-labeling guidelines. While everyday Americans try to follow nutritionism's tenets, we paradoxically get more and more unhealthy. At the same time, the food industry has found nutritionism's carbohydrates and antioxidants, its good and bad fats, to be ideal marketing devices. Pollan writes: "As a general rule, it's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound 'whole-grain goodness' to the rafters." The first two-thirds of Defense trace how the industrialization of food—and we're talking how wheat flour is milled and cows are fed, not just how high-fructose corn syrup is slipped into frozen dinners—has altered our diet to make it increasingly low-nutrient and calorie-dense. Pollan also asserts that no matter whether fat or carbohydrates are the root of all evil, the Western diet as a whole is responsible for many of the health problems affecting us. In these first two sections, Defense represents the best of what food journalism can be: Pollan comes up with a straightforward, engaging narrative that not only compiles facts from hundreds of sources but comments on the biases implicit in each. And just like Dilemma, Defense has the ability to change the way we think about its subject. Few who read the book will ever look unquestioningly at a margarine tub or antioxidant study again. Unlike in Dilemma, however, Pollan segues from reporting into polemic. In the third section of the new book, he comes up with a number of recommendations for eschewing the Western diet, all based on his mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." As Pollan writes, "I'm not interested in telling you what to have for dinner. These instructions are more like eating algorithms, mental devices for thinking through our food choices." The suggestions cover specifics like joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture, if you're just joining us) and avoiding any food whose packaging makes a health claim. He also calls for lifestyle shifts, such as devoting more of your budget to pay for whole foods and making cooking a priority in your busy life. Most of Pollan's guidelines, in fact, are already accepted wisdom among Seattle's Whole Foods shoppers, cooking enthusiasts, and food writers, and not surprisingly, recommendations like "buy large cuts of sustainably raised meat and store them in a deep-freezer" have elicited charges of elitism. If there's elitism at work here, it's about access to whole food rather than along strict class lines, though, since many rural dwellers are as committed to solutions like Pollan's as urban, middle-class liberals. But because the pundit's recommendations focus so narrowly on food and nutrition—they have to, or else the book would be too sprawling—they end up being individual choices. To me, the failing of focusing on individual choice is illustrated in Pollan's argument that we must look to past cultures—whether our own or any other—to absorb their eating patterns as well as traditional recipes. I have no doubt that, as he writes, "people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet." But too many of the factors affecting our food choices today—our increasingly sedentary work, the geographic dispersal of our communities, the makeup of our households, our constant exposure to food-related marketing—are social structures that our great-great-great-grandmothers never operated within. Just as it's critical that we look beyond nutritional science to improve Americans' health, we also have to look for new patterns of eating, both at home and in restaurants, that fit the society we live in today.

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