Michael Pollan Answers Readers’ Questions
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, October 6, 2011
These questions for Mr. Pollan were submitted by New York Times readers. The first 10 questions below were the most popular among those we received. They were answered by Mr. Pollan on Oct. 6, 2011, after the Food Issue was originally published.
Our family is on a budget and can’t afford to eat all organic. Where should we direct our money to get the most benefit? Organic produce? Meats? Dairy?
This was the most popular question by far, and it’s a good one: some organic products offer the consumer more value than others, so if you’re on a budget, it’s important to buy organic strategically. Here are a few quick rules of thumb:
If you have young kids, it’s worth paying the organic premium on whatever they eat or drink the most of organically. So if they drink lots of apple juice — which they shouldn’t, by the way — or milk, then spring for it there.
On produce, some items, when grown conventionally, have more pesticide residue than others, so when buying these, it pays to buy organic. According to the Environmental Working Group, the “dirty dozen” most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables are: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collars. The “clean 15″ are onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms. So if you’ve only got a little money to devote to organic, buy the organic apples and skip the organic onions. But do keep in mind that it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables regardless of how they’re grown.
In meat, organic is very expensive, and doesn’t necessary ensure that the animals didn’t live on feedlot. I look for grass fed for beef instead, milk and butter, too.
If you could rewrite the farm bill from scratch, with no political constraints of any sort, what would it look like?
I don’t have the space, and you don’t have the time, to sketch out a complete alternative-reality farm bill. But as a guiding principle, I would say it needs to be aligned with our public health and environmental goals. That is, every provision in it — from crop subsidies to meat inspection — needs to be “scored” for its impact on public health and nutrition.
I went into more detail on the farm bill in a 2008 piece for The Times, “Farmer in Chief.”
There’s research to suggest that vegetarians and vegans are generally healthier than the rest of us; however “flexitarians” — carnivores who eat meat once or twice a week — are just as healthy. I know vegans who thrive on the diet, but also many who have trouble keeping it going: it takes a lot of work and care, much more than vegetarianism, which I would count as a con. You really have to organize your life around your eating. It’s also possible now to be a “junk-food vegan,” eating all sorts of processed vegan foods and mock meats. I guess if your goal in life is to keep from eating animals, this option makes sense, but from a health standpoint processed food is processed food. But I admire anyone who has gone to the trouble of thinking through the full implications of their eating choices, and then acted on that knowledge.
How much soy is too much? Can I eat tofu and drink soymilk every day? What are the true pros and cons of soy? I cannot seem to find unbiased information.
The honest and complete answer is that we don’t know — the jury is still out on soy. I do know we’re eating soy in forms it was never eaten before — highly processed and novel. The F.D.A. has declined to list an additive like soy isoflavones as “GRAS” (“Generally regarded as safe”). It’s worth noting that Americans are now eating more soy than Asians, and we eat it in novel new forms. Asians eat it only after it has been processed in traditional ways — fermented, or curdled in the form of tofu. These products have been eaten for centuries, which is reassuring. Now soy protein isolate, soy isoflavones and soy lecithin are found in myriad processed foods. If you see any of these in your snack foods, I would+ lay off. Soy can act like estrogens in the body, which may or may not be a good thing. There’s a section on soy in my book, “In Defense of Food.”
I’m torn between artificial sweeteners and regular sugar. I know that both aren’t good for your health, but if I just can’t live without some form of sweetener in my morning coffee, which would you pick? In other words, which one is better for you health-wise?
Sugar is probably the biggest culprit in obesity and diabetes, but I wouldn’t make a capital case of a teaspoon of sugar in coffee. In soda, there’s research suggesting that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss, so whether they’re safe or not, they may not do what they purport to. For more, see Gary Taubes in the food issue.
It depends on what you value most. If keeping pesticides out of your food is your highest value, then buy organic. If you care most about freshness and quality or keeping local farms in business and circulating money in your community, buy local. But very often you can do both. Some local farmers are organic in everything but name, so before you decide to pass them up, ask them not “Are you organic” — to which the answer must be no if they haven’t been certified — but rather, how do you deal with fertility and pests? That starts a more nuanced conversation that may convince you to buy their produce.
Single best? Probably whole grains — they offer a lot that’s missing from the industrial diet, from fiber to important antioxidants and healthy fats. People who eat lots of whole grains are generally healthier and live longer than those who don’t. But if I could add to the list of important foods missing from the standard American diet, I would add leafy greens and fermented foods with live cultures.
“In Defense of Food” focused on debunking nutritionism and the lipid theory. What about our carb consumption? A lot of research I’ve seen lately indicates they’re the real culprits in our diets.
Current trends in nutritional research implicate refined carbohydrates and, to a large extent, exonerate most fats. The increase in sugar consumption alone can account for the obesity and diabetes epidemic, and scientists have come a long way in understanding the mechanisms by which calories from refined carbs — fructose especially — have a disproportionate effect on weight and insulin resistance — see the work of Robert Lustig and Gary Taubes for more.
It’s a challenge, no doubt about it. Airports are the worst. If I absolutely must have a meal in an airport, I’ll look for a Mexican place and get a rice-and-bean burrito. “No airport meat” is a rule with me. But I find that today, nearly every city in America has at least one restaurant that focuses on the best local ingredients, and the Internet makes it much easier to find that place.
Eggs are great and always were. The nutrition researchers have rehabilitated them in recent years — they used to think that cholesterol in eggs raised cholesterol in the blood, but this turns out not to be the case for most people. So enjoy, but look for at least “cage-free,” (most other laying hens are raised in crowded cages) and ideally “pastured” eggs, which come from chickens that have actually been out on grass. This makes for happier, healthier hens and tastier, more nutritious eggs.
You can’t, unless you’re willing to move to Europe or Japan, where the government requires that it be labeled. Ours doesn’t, so there’s no way to tell. This is despite the fact that 80 to 90 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want it labeled, and Barack Obama, as a candidate, once promised to make it happen. But the industry is afraid you won’t buy genetically modified foods if they’re labeled — and they’re probably right. Why would you? So far at least, genetically modified food offers the consumer no tangible benefit. In America, the only way to be certain you’re not buying genetically engineered food is to buy organic; the U.S.D.A. rules for organic prohibit it.
My best guess is that the food system will look very different in 100 years, for the simple reason that the present one is — in the precise sense of the word — unsustainable. It depends on fossil fuels that we can’t depend on and exacts a steeper price in human and environmental health than we can afford. So it will change, whether we want it to or not. We certainly won’t be eating nine ounces of meat per person per day, as Americans do now — there won’t be enough feed grain, worldwide, to continue that feast, and presumably we will have faced up to meat-eating’s disastrous toll on the environment. If we haven’t, we’ll have much bigger problems on our plate than what to have for dinner.
I have yet to hear of a traditional diet — from any culture, anywhere in the world — that is not substantially healthier than the “standard American diet.” The more we honor cultural differences in eating, the healthier we will be.
I think I’ll pass, but probably won’t have to. Cloning meat, or making it in an incubator, is an interesting thought experiment for animal rights philosophers and journalists, but I doubt we’ll actually see it on menus any time soon. Meat has a lot more to it than muscle cells — not to put you off your feed, but you also have to get the fat and sinews, the connective tissue and the blood right to make it organoleptically acceptable. To date, our food scientists have not demonstrated they have the technical or aesthetic skills to simulate real foods with notable success. I will be surprised if they come up with synthetic meat that is as close to the real thing as margarine is to butter. Think about baby formula: we’ve been working on that one for a century and a half, and for reasons we don’t totally understand, it still doesn’t do all that genuine mother’s milk does. We flatter ourselves by thinking we can outdo or even approximate nature’s foods. Though come to think of it, it might be possible to simulate a chicken nugget, which is already once removed from the real thing.
Frozen vegetables and fruits are a terrific and economical option when fresh is unavailable or too expensive. The nutritional quality is just as good — and sometimes even better, because the produce is often picked and frozen at its peak of quality. The only rap is that freezing collapses the cell walls of certain fruits and vegetables, at some cost to their crunch. But this has no bearing on nutrition. Do look for frozen foods with a single ingredient — no fake herb-butter sauce!
Why Is the expiration date on organic milk sometimes a couple of months away while regular milk has a sell-by date normally within a week or 10 days?
Much of the organic milk in your market is “ultrapasteurized” rather than simply “pasteurized” — that is, it has been heated to a higher temperature in order to extend its shelf life. This is a holdover from when organic milk sat longer on grocery shelves. Some nutritionists believe that ultrapasteurization damages the quality of milk; many cheese makers won’t use it. In some busier markets, you can find organic milk that has not been ultrapasteurized.
This is the $64,000 question. There are certainly steps the government can take to make healthful food somewhat less expensive: underwrite farmers’ transition to organic and other kinds of sustainable agriculture; support the renaissance in local meat production by making it easier to build and run small slaughterhouses; use crop subsidies to reward farmers for diversifying their fields and growing real food rather than “commodity crops” like corn and soy; enforce federal antitrust laws to break up the big meatpackers and seed companies.
But these measures will never make high-quality food as cheap as industrial food, some of which will only get more expensive if we take the steps needed to civilize feedlots, clean up water and protect farmworkers from exploitation. Faux populists in the food industry battle such measures on the grounds they want to keep food prices low for the poor. But the institution of slavery kept crop prices low, too — at a cost we ultimately decided was too great for a democratic society to pay. (Come to think of it, slavery still exists in parts of the food system, according to reports out of Florida.) Cheap food has become a pillar of our low-wage economy, one reason Americans have managed to stay afloat as their wages have declined since the 1970s. In the end, if we want healthful and conscientiously produced food for everyone, we’re simply going to have to pay people enough so that they can afford to buy it.
Less is more: the big trick to cooking fish is to undercook it. The center of a fillet should still be slightly translucent when you take it off the heat. (Remember, it will continue to cook for a few minutes.)
Raw milk is delicious and nutritious — and more risky to drink than pasteurized milk. It also makes much more interesting cheeses, because some of the bacteria and enzymes destroyed during pasteurization contribute striking flavors. But producing raw milk safely takes a lot more care, and in recent years there have been several cases of people, especially children, getting sick after consuming raw milk.
There is a strong libertarian streak among many in the food movement, who demand the right to eat whatever they want, without interference from the government. They have a point — how is it that cigarettes are legal in this country while, in most states, raw milk can’t be sold in stores? On the other hand, doesn’t the government have a compelling interest in protecting children from a product about which they can’t make an informed decision?
You do have to wonder about the Food and Drug Administration’s priorities. Why is the government putting its resources into shutting down raw-milk producers, a teeny-tiny “industry,” when there are many more serious threats to food safety on factory farms? (In fact the overwhelming majority of illnesses tied to milk and cheese come from pasteurized products.) While Amish dairymen are being raided by the F.D.A., Jack DeCoster, the notorious Iowa egg producer whose filthy, salmonella-infected eggs were linked to an outbreak that sickened more than 1,500 people last year, received a mild warning letter from the F.D.A. What is going on here? Sounds like political theater to me.
There are generics, and then there are generics. Some generic products may be the exact same as the branded product they resemble — they’re made by the same manufacturer and simply sold under a different, usually more boring, store label. These are a great deal — you save by not paying for the marketing and advertising behind the big brand. But there are also many more generic products that are reformulated or made with cheaper ingredients. So how can you tell what kind of generic you’re getting? Compare the ingredient and nutrition label: if they’re identical, then the products are almost certainly identical, too.
When I purchase vegetables and meat labled ‘organic,’ why are they so much more expensive than similar items without the ‘organic,’ label?
There are several reasons organic food costs more than conventional food. First, the demand for it exceeds the supply, and presumably, as more farmers transition to organic, the price will fall, though it will never match conventional prices. For one thing, organic farmers receive virtually no subsidies from the government. (European governments significantly subsidize the transition to organic; ours doesn’t.) But even on a level playing field, farming organically would probably remain more expensive. Farming without chemicals is inherently more labor-intensive, especially when it comes to weeding. In animal agriculture, raising animals less intensively is always going to cost more.
Think about it this way: The “high” price of organic food comes a lot closer to the true price of producing that food — a price we seldom pay at the checkout. It’s important to remember that when you buy conventional food, many costs have been shifted — to the taxpayer in the form of crop subsidies, to the farmworker in the form of health problems and to the environment in the form of water and air pollution.
O.K., apart from a clearer conscience, what does the premium paid for organic food get you as a consumer? Organic food has little or no pesticide residues, and especially for parents of young children, this is a big deal. There is also a body of evidence that produce grown in organic soils often has higher levels of various nutrients. (But whether these are enough to justify the higher price is questionable.) Probably for the same reason, organic produce often tastes better than conventional (though a cross-country truck ride can obviate this edge).
So it’s possible to make a case to the consumer for the superiority of organic food — but the stronger case is to the citizen. Farming without synthetic pesticides is better for the soil, for the water and for the air — which is to say, for the commons. It is also better for the people who grow and harvest our food, who would much rather not breathe pesticides. Producing meat without antibiotics will also help stave off antibiotic-resistance. If you care about these things, then the premium paid for organic food is money well spent.
They are very important if you have celiac disease or can’t tolerate gluten. But it’s hard to believe that the number of people suffering from these conditions has grown as fast as this product category. Gluten has become the bad nutrient of the moment, the evil twin of Omega 3 fatty acids. Could it really be that bread, a staple of Western civilization for 6,000 years, is suddenly making millions of us sick? I’m dubious.
Can’t go wrong with oatmeal. I like the steel cut that I soak in water overnight. (The soak speeds cooking and makes more nutrients available.) In the summer, I like fresh fruit with yogurt. But my favorite breakfast is two eggs from chickens raised on pasture, served on whole-grain toast.
Are there real opportunities for consumers to make an impact on factory farming, unsustainable agriculture and animal cruelty?
Absolutely. As the market for humanely raised meat grew in recent years, the industry responded. The egg industry recently committed to an effort to phase out tightly confining cages for laying hens; some pork producers are phasing out gestation crates; McDonald’s has taken steps to ensure that the meat it buys is slaughtered more humanely; Chipotle now buys only humanely raised pork. There is no question that agribusiness responds to the “votes” of consumers on these issues. The food industry is terrified of you. And PETA!
How would our food landscape change if the government no longer subsidized corn? Is there a better alternative — subsidizing fruits or vegetables?
I’m afraid it would change less than you might think. Though crop subsidies certainly helped to make corn (and its boon companion, soy) the mainstay of our food system, eliminating those subsidies might not by itself be enough to topple king corn. Decades of crop breeding, advances in farm machinery and the building of a rural infrastructure all devoted to these crops means a Midwestern farmer can produce a bumper crop of corn with just a couple months of work while at the same time holding down another job. Growing anything else would mean a lot more time and work in the fields, and at this point that farmer probably depends on the other source of income.
As for subsidizing vegetables, that, too, is trickier than it seems. Subsidies tend to result in surpluses, which in the case of grain is fine: you can store surplus corn or soy in a silo for years. Try doing that with broccoli. In the case of “specialty crops” — the U.S.D.A.’s term for crops you can actually eat — we would be better off subsidizing demand rather than supply: giving vouchers to the poor to buy fresh produce, say, or incentives to retailers to lower prices in the produce section.
I’m of Asian descent, and I don’t understand why everyone seems to be saying that white rice Is bad for you, when Asians have been eating it for thousands of years. Do I really have to give up rice to lose weight and prevent diabetes?
In general you’re better off eating brown rice than white, which (unless it has been fortified with vitamins) is pretty much pure starch. But a little white rice isn’t going to kill you or give you diabetes. Especially if you eat it with lots of vegetables and some fats, which will compensate for the lack of nutrients and slow your body’s absorption of all that glucose. That said, the Harvard School of Public Health estimates (how, I don’t know) that changing from white to brown rice will reduce your risk of diabetes by 16 percent.
Yes, it’s true that people have been eating white rice for centuries. But the rice has changed, and so have we. Millers today do a much more thorough job of “polishing” rice than they once did — that is, whitening it by removing the nutritious bran and germ from the grain. (The same is true of “white flour” as well — it’s a whole lot whiter now than it used to be and therefore less nutritious. Nice going!) As for the eaters of old-timey white rice, chances are they were working in the fields, and so burning those extra carbs that sedentary people store as fat.
If you don’t like brown rice, consider “converted rice.” This is rice that has been parboiled before it’s milled, which forces some of the nutrients — though not the fiber — out of the bran and into the kernel. As a result, converted rice is more nutritious than ordinary white rice and its sugars are absorbed more slowly by the body. Uncle Ben was onto something.
Feedlot meat. And tomatoes that have been in the refrigerator.