On the Media (NPR), January 4, 2008
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For decades, the consumption of news has complicated our consumption of – food. Nowadays, what we buy to eat is determined by shifting health studies. Carbs are good for you. No, they’re bad. Fats make you fat. No, they don’t. And food labels only increase our confusion.
Michael Pollan, journalist and professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California Berkeley, has written a new book called In Defense of Food, in which he inveighs against nutritionism, a kind of ideology that sees foods as mere packets of nutrients whose interactions must be interpreted by scientists.
And he says we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by studies or news reports or especially food labeling. Humans can thrive on all sorts of diets. Some live healthy lives on nothing but cattle or seafood. In fact, he says, there’s only one diet that has consistently proved hazardous to our health.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah — ours.
The western diet.
It’s actually, you know, people who have done the sort of ethnographic research around food have found this astonishing array of different traditional diets on which people have been extremely healthy. But there is one diet that it appears that we are poorly adapted to, and that is what we call the western diet.
And this diet makes people fat. It makes them diabetic. It gives them heart disease. It gives them an assortment of cancers. It’s just very toxic to our bodies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say by the early ’80s the American supermarket underwent a kind of transformation. So Michael, if I fell asleep in the ‘40s and woke up in the ’80s in an A&P, what would I notice about the food?
MICHAEL POLLAN: You would have noticed that the packages would talk about how much cholesterol or how little cholesterol, how much fat, how much sugar – a whole lot of science. The whole discourse surrounding food underwent a revolution, and that’s where we are today. We speak about food as if they are a collection of nutrients and the nutrients are what matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s talk about some of the guidance that you do offer, in very clear terms. Some of the rules for healthy eating are: don’t eat anything that doesn’t rot, don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, don’t eat anything that has an unfamiliar, unpronounceable name, don’t eat anything with high fructose corn syrup, don’t eat food that features health claims on their labels.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. [LAUGHS] That might seem a little counterintuitive. [LAUGHS] But the reason I concluded that health claims should be essentially avoided is by looking at the kinds of products that carry them. You find health claims on processed foods. Fruits and vegetables, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have the packaging. The healthiest food is silent.
So the kind of advice I offer is an attempt to bore back through the science to the native wisdom that we once had. Tradition around food is not just turning back the clock. It’s the distilled wisdom of the group. I mean, what people eat is the result of generations upon generations of essentially dietary trial and error to figure out what keeps people healthy and happy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you suggest that the science, or the pseudoscience, behind nutritionism is based on very, very little.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The nutrition science on which all these dietary recommendations are based is very well meaning but it’s also very crude. We may figure this out at some point. We may understand nutrition better. And I’m not saying we should stop doing the science.
I’m saying that the media and the consumer should take it all with many, many grains of salt, and watch it and be interested in it but not change your behavior based on the latest nutritional study, because it’s simply not strong enough as a guide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you also talk about the succession of nutrient fads. You know, this season’s Omega-3 follows last season’s oat bran. It seems news consumers can’t really find reliable information about how to be food consumers.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I think that that’s true. I think that the media has done us a disservice as well by basically over-promoting whatever the newest wrinkle is in these health studies and not examining the quality of the research or reminding us that science is an incremental kind of dialectical process. Small bits of knowledge are advanced and then they’re overturned. And that’s not an unusual thing, but the media tends to kind of lock everybody into a position.
So that’s why I worry about these new rating systems that are poised to take over the supermarket. And very soon there’ll be these ABC ratings or 1 through 100, helping you distinguish whether the Nilla Wafers are better than the Chips Ahoy.
What science will those ratings be based on? Will they be based on the old-think about dietary fat or the new-think about carbohydrates? And what will they do in five years when the new-think is now the old-think?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder, Mike, how self conscious you were in writing this book. Your book is a warning, a prescription for better eating and health. It’s a kind of manifesto. Don’t you risk employing the same sorts of tactics as the journalists that you critique?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. It’s always an awkward place to be. But I don’t write as an expert. I write as an eater. I write as someone who tried to get to the bottom of what’s going on in nutrition science. And I tried very hard to escape this ideology of nutritionism.
As much as possible, I’m trying to get eaters to take back the fork —
— to take back control over their diets and not be baffled and intimidated and daunted by experts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Pollan’s new book is called In Defense of Food.