Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sitting on Defense

By now, I'd guess it's safe to say that almost every regular reader of this blog has heard of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and now of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

By now, of course, Pollan's latest book has been reviewed up and down and all around, most articulately by Bonnie at The Ethicurean and Leah at The Jew and Carrot, and he's in the midst of a major book tour and publicity rush (where lucky people like Bri can catch him in person).

And by now, I've finally gotten hold of a copy and read through it myself.

Thanks to the fair Titania, who heard him speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia (podcast available) and met him afterward, I'm the proud owner of a signed copy of his book. And though you've probably had enough of the reviews and the hype and all, I'm going to share with you a few thoughts that I had in reading the book as well as a few favorite quotes.

In a nutshell, Pollan delivers a politely scathing review of the Western diet and its direct correlation to our declining health, as well as a dismissal of the blind adherence to "nutritionism" and the obsession with the latest fad nutrient, and he follows this overview with his "algorithms" for selecting real food and eating a healthy diet. (The clue is in the artfully simple book jacket: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.")

His exposé of nutritionism shows that as a science, it remains in its hubristic adolescence, making bold claims for good and bad nutrients and presenting the image of nutrition as being so complicated that we need experts to tell us what to eat. Yet most sensible nutrition experts (such as Marion Nestle) admit that we do not have enough understanding of the interactions between nutrients and their role in the food itself to make reliable statements on isolated nutrients. (I don't know about you, but I'm hearing the Wizard's words echoing in my head: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!")

Why has nutritionism become so pervasive? Among other reasons, it serves the interest of the big food processing corporations:

"When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in food (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. ... Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing" (p.32).

Thus we find ourselves in the midst of the supermarket, agog at the sight of cereals loaded with sweeteners, preservatives, and chemicals that are touted as "healthy" because of their added fiber or vitamins or the nutrient du jour, whatever it may be. And the more we eat these "food-like products," the less we remember how to recognize the real food with which our ancestors developed fruitful and symbiotic relationships:

"...long familiarity between foods and their eaters leads to elaborate systems of communication up and down the food chain so that a creature's senses come to recognize foods as suitable by their taste and smell and color. Very often these signals are 'sent' by the foods themselves, which may have their own reasons for wanting to be eaten" (p.103).

"One of the problems with the products of food science is that, as Joan Gussow has pointed out, they lie to your body; their artificial colors and flavors and synthetic sweeteners and novel fats confound the senses we rely on to assess new foods and prepare our bodies to deal with them. Foods that lie leave us with little choice but to eat by the numbers, consulting labels rather than our senses" (p.149).

I also found one of his less-developed comments about nutritionism fascinating: Despite nutritionism being heralded as a very progressive, balanced, and "potentially unifying answer" for those Americans wondering about the best diet, he points out that "it is also a way to moralize about other people's choices without seeming to" (p.58). Considering that locavores, vegetarians, and a host of other "picky eaters" are often accused of being elitist and rigid about telling others what to eat, this comment strikes me as being right on the mark. After all, who would dare argue with the high moral tone of the low-fat police, the anti-carb cops, or the sweet-tooth SWAT team?

So how do we get beyond nutritionism and eat a healthy diet? Let's start, Pollan suggests, by spending "more time, effort, and resources in providing for our sustenance" –- beyond the 10% or less of our income, beyond the hour or less of our day (p.145). Let's get back to making food a more central place in our lives -– not as an obsession, but as an expression of ourselves and our culture.

He spends a good deal of time and ink on the question of spending more for our food, probably because it's a point that will draw a good deal of criticism and complaint. (I've got my own beef with it.) Our industrialized food system was designed to deliver an abundance of cheap food, though not necessarily of high quality. So if you want better-tasting and more nutritionally good food, you'll generally end up spending more money because it's grown outside this mainstream food system and probably requires more labor-intensive practices. Pollan puts it bluntly: "Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should" (p.184).

Now, I've talked before about my willingness to spend more money in order to get the best possible food for my own table. But let's get real, Michael, dear: how am I supposed to feel when I can afford to buy high-quality food for myself but I have to watch My Wonderful Parents settle for the cheap, lower-quality, highly-processed food on their fixed retirement income, knowing that they have to pay close attention to labels and sales and that they are more likely than I am to run the risk of eating food that ends up being recalled for safety issues?

My supporting a large number of local farmers with my food dollars is great, but it's a drop in the bucket in the larger food economy, and it's going to take more than the money generated at farmers' markets to make more of this good, local, organic, sustainable, nutritious, healthy food available at an affordable price to everyone. It's going to take national action and legislation, better funding and expanded oversight for the federal agencies responsible for food safety, and a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people standing up and demanding it.

That said, I do appreciate his comment that when we pay more for food, we're "apt to eat less of it," thus further benefiting our health (p.184). I have definitely found this to be true for myself, noticing that my meal portions have been shrinking the more I depend on a limited pantry to get me through the winter. (And you know what? I'm not going hungry from it.)

I also have no argument with his many "algorithms" for how to decide what food to buy as they're all pretty straightforward and simple and sensible. (A brief summary of the key ones comes from Culinate.) And I confess that one of his comments –- "I may be showing my age, but didn't there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between-meal snack?" (p.191) –- has inspired me to try and curb my mid-morning coffee breaks at work (and the inevitable nosh on something sweet).

Ultimately, what eating real food according to these guidelines boils down to is this:

"To eat slowly, then, also means to eat deliberately, in the original sense of that word: 'from freedom' instead of compulsion" (p.196).

It's about freeing ourselves from the chokehold of nutritionism, experts, food corporations, disease, and disconnection from our food and the rest of the world. It may take some time, but we can reclaim real food for our plates and for our family meals –- garden by garden, farmers' market by farmers' market, little by little, person by person.

If any of this is news to you or makes you stop and ask "what is she talking about?" I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book and read it. (Some have argued that Pollan makes his points better in a lengthy article, available for free online; my response is, that's fine, but borrow the book from the local library if you want to read about these issues in more depth.)

Because sometimes the best offense is a good Defense.


At 2/14/2008 11:56 AM, Anonymous Janet said...

Thanks for your insights, Jennifer. You have been on a roll lately, and I'm in awe of your cooking and writing productivity. Keep up the good work!

At 2/14/2008 12:41 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks for the support, Janet... and here's me thinking I've been juggling way too much lately! :-)

At 2/15/2008 5:54 PM, Blogger Bri said...

Oh, I'm so glad you read it too, Jennifer. I know it seems like we have a major uphill battle, but I do feel that every little bit helps and people really are taking notice of what goes into their food (in time, fertile soil, farmers' efforts, chemicals, water, etc.). Pollan has also been active in getting people to stand up and take a part in the Farm Bill (he calls the Food Bill) when it comes up for debate, which I think has huge potential impact. I'm so glad you wrote about your thoughts on his book.

At 2/16/2008 12:17 PM, Blogger Tina said...

Pollan's books are *extremely* popular at the Ann Arbor library. I'm currently (finally!) 2nd in line for Omnivore, and 109th in line for "In Defense of Food". There are 47 and 67, respectively, behind me waiting for them. When I first signed up for Omnivore I was 43rd in line; the wait's been tough, but it's extremely encouraging to know that so many people are interested in these books!

At 2/17/2008 11:47 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I think you're right, Bri, in that every little step we take is getting us closer to some better solutions... but we've still got a way to go. I know Pollan has been vocal about the Farm/Food Bill but it didn't really come across enough in the book, and while I agree that a starting place is to make the personal changes in how we eat, I think there needs to be more acknowledgement that some folks can't make those changes as easily as others because of how our food system is currently structured.

Tina, hope you'll be able to catch up on the reading soon, especially since you almost have Omnivore in your hands! Maybe I'll have to loan you my copy of Defense... once I get the Chef Mother to read it, of course. ;-)

At 2/19/2008 3:27 PM, Blogger Ed Bruske said...

We had a very lively discussion in our family recently over some of these very same issues. I continue to think that the vast majority of Americans will be guided by price in their food decisions. We organic/locavore/ethicureans are a tiny minority. It may well take a cataclysmic event to bring the rest of the country around. Farmers servicing the local farmers market go where the money is, geographically and with the products they offer. Sometimes I wonder how far this movement can go without huge changes in our land use patterns, zoning laws, agricultural policies. There are huge issues of equity and fairness involved, all bumping up against the corporate/government food monolith.

At 2/20/2008 7:33 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I think you're right, Ed. Finding the best bargain has become so ingrained in us as a country that it's going to take bigger changes than we individual consumers can make to get everyone to go for quality over cheap food. It definitely requires changing how we use land and how we approach agriculture. I've been reading Wendell Berry lately (and hope to have a review of his The Unsettling of America soon) and keep saying "Yes!" to the many things he proposes.


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