What’s Eating at Michael Pollan?

Michael Pollan started out as a gentle soul cultivating his own garden, but in the past couple of years he has stepped forth as a crusader bent on slaying the devious fiends who have ruined our food.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” his last book, targeted corn, and its perniciously processed derivative high-fructose corn syrup, as the culprit responsible for a lot of what’s wrong with food production and consumption in this country. Now he’s back with “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin, 231 pp., $21.95), a brisk new volume that probes deep–literally–into our bulging stomachs and congested veins to analyze what the stuff we ingest is actually made of, how it came to be so chemically complex and what we can do about it.

Pollan’s bugbear this time is the so-called science of nutrition. Back in the good old days, people ate plants and animals raised (or foraged) close to (or at) home and prepared accordingly to age-old traditions. But once nutritionists started isolating the chemical components of what we ate and putting them back to together in “new, improved” and highly processed ways, Americans began growing steadily more obese, more prone to diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and more stressed about our dietary options. These days our food is cheap, convenient and increasingly plastered with health claims–but it’s making us and everyone else who eats it fat and sick.

It’s not just that “nutritionism” is imprecise, confusing and constantly changing its mind–remember when margarine was healthier than butter and no one knew what trans-fats or Omega 3s were? In Pollan’s view, the very idea of approaching food as “a matter of biology” is dead wrong. The evidence speaks for itself. The “Western diet” engineered by nutritionists, food industry executives, advertisers and journalists has ushered in something new under the sun: “the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished.”

Pollan wants to put a stop to this first by exposing how and why it happened, then by helping us “reclaim our health and happiness as eaters.” So this time, he jumps the fence from reporting to preaching, guiding us through the supermarket (or better yet farmers market), the kitchen and the dining room. His advice, grounded in common sense and folk wisdom, strikes this eater as eminently sound: never eat anything your great grandmother would not have recognized as food; avoid anything with more than five ingredients; eat more plants than animals and more leaves than seeds; grow your own whenever possible.

“In Defense of Food” is written with Pollan’s customary bite, ringing clarity and brilliance at connecting the dots. If the book is not quite as engrossing as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it’s because fats, carbs and calories simply do not offer the narrative possibilities of hunting a pig or following a steer from prairie to feedlot.

As the Senate’s recent rubber-stamping of yet another pork-filled farm bill demonstrates, America still lacks the political will to reform the agricultural practices at the root of our dietary woes. But to Pollan, that’s no reason why enlightened eaters can’t rise up and start changing the Western diet one meal, one garden, one family farm at time. At heart, this mild-mannered journalist-gardener is not only a crusader but a revolutionary. More power to him, I say.