I was ready to dislike Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto before I even picked it up.
While I mostly enjoyed his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, I felt that he did an awfully complicated song and dance in the steakhouse chapter to try and justify eating meat. Then I read a quote from In Defense of Food by another blogger which said “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”, which riled me up excessively.
My own grandmother was all about baking fresh bread, canning tomatoes and picking blueberries, but she was also of a generation that fully embraced the new convenience foods. Not to mention that until 1973, she had never lived in a house with indoor plumbing – with four sons to feed, and then a handful of grandkids, can you blame her for throwing store-bought cupcakes and frozen pizza at us? The woman had to boil her dishwater on a kerosene stove!
Turns out Pollan’s quote is actually about GREAT-Grandmothers, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Well, unless you factor in the lack of indoor plumbing (those great grannies would likely have been all over the Twinkies too!).
All of this is my round-about way of saying that the man makes truckloads of sense. If we set everything else aside, all the fad diets, politics, marketing pressures and health claims, and just ate real food similar to what previous generations consumed, we’d all be a lot healthier and happier.
Pollan seems to have a real bone to pick with nutritionists, dieticians and the like, pointing out that the ideology of nutritionism, that is, in choosing foods based on their presumed nutritional value and the theory that we eat only to maintain health, we are missing out on the many other aspects of food in our culture, and that our obsession with health and nutrition might actually be making us less healthy.
Pollan spends some time examining the industrial food complex including the bad science that causes us to jump on the “superfood” bandwagon. As a sufferer of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, this section really hit home. One of the concerns of MCS is that the various chemicals in the everyday products we use have only been tested individually, not synergistically. That is, we know what effect sodium laurel sulphate will have on human skin by itself, but not what will happen when it is mixed into a product with, say, triclosan. And products have never been tested against other products to see if they might create either an adverse reaction or some new and improved, better product.
The same goes for the nutrients in food. Scientists study individual nutrients and the potential harm or benefits they might offer, but foods, like cosmetics, have so very many components that science just isn’t advanced enough to know exactly what components work together and which against each other. So while we know that the beta carotene from carrots is beneficial for human health, beta carotene from other sources doesn’t do as great. Which means there’s something else in carrots that helps us to better absorb and use that beta carotene present.
All of which, ultimately, boils down to the logical theory of eating a variety of foods in order to get the largest range of benefits, and taking the time to enjoy small quantities of all the foods we’re constantly being told are bad for us, but which we enjoy so much. Which makes a heck of a lot more sense than the common Western trend to treat food as medicine, eating pre-biotics and pro-biotics and fortified this and that, when everything we need is available in a varied diet of simple basic foodstuffs.
With chapters divided into sections such as “avoid foods that make health claims”, “regard non-traditional foods with scepticism” and advice to eat meals, cook, garden, and get a freezer, Pollan is encouraging his readers to not only rethink current food systems, but to take some small steps toward doing something about it.
Working on the theory that even scientists don’t have true concrete answers to our food issues, Pollan suggests that readers, and eaters, get back to basics. It’s good simple advice that is easy to follow. And it’s certainly got to be more enjoyable than eating all that low-fat, no-fat, sugar-free crap the supermarkets are filled with.