You Are What You Eat (And You Are in Serious Trouble)

Food and nature writer Michael Pollan’s manifesto itself is deceptively simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His new book, “In Defense of Food,” continues his ongoing investigation into what we eat, why we eat it and what’s wrong with it.

“You don’t need to spend much time in an American supermarket to figure out that this is a food system organized around the objective of selling large quantities of calories as cheaply as possible,” Pollan declares. Indeed, the word “food,” he explains, is no longer merely the definition for anything we put into our mouths at mealtimes: most items on supermarket shelves are not food at all, but imitations of food. Because of a crafty loophole in FDA regulations, they aren’t required to be labeled as such, and so we are fooled into thinking a “nutritious” sugar cereal with added vitamins and minerals is as good for us as plain oatmeal. Really it’s an alarming amalgam of chemicals, preservatives and derivatives of cheap grains: corn, soy, wheat and rice, the cornerstones of Agribusiness.

Pollan lays bare with impassioned but clear-eyed intelligence the sinister machinations of the contemporary American food industry, the corporate greed that fuels the prevalence of these “food products,” and the systematic stripping of nutrients from our soil and species variety from supermarket shelves in the interest of maximizing yield and profit. He also presents a convincing hypothesis for explaining both the obesity epidemic and the prevalence of “Western diseases,” i.e. diabetes, heart disease and cancer: the shift from leaves to seeds in the modern American diet. That, “helps to account for the flood of refined carbohydrates in the modern diet and the drought of so many micronutrients and the surfeit of total calories. From leaves to seeds: It’s almost, but not quite, a Theory of Everything.”

But Pollan isn’t histrionic or fatalistic. He isn’t setting out to make us feel hopeless, he’s trying to show what’s wrong in order to give us the knowledge we need to fix it. A resident of Berkeley, Calif., Pollan is firmly in the Alice Waters camp: those who can afford it (and he is admirably realistic about the fact that not everyone can) should buy and eat locally-grown produce, supporting farmers who farm in ways that don’t deplete the soil, because doing so helps everyone in the long run. “Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote – a vote for health in the largest sense – food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.”

Pollan delves into various traditional ways of eating, as varied as Italian, Japanese, French and Greek. These ancient, conventional ways of eating, different as they are, all involve real food, combined and cooked in traditional ways, eaten slowly and enjoyed at a table, often with moderate amounts of alcohol, and (this seems to be key) with other people, socially, convivially. “The point,” he writes, “is to make sure that we don’t eat thoughtlessly or hurriedly, and that knowledge and gratitude will inflect our pleasures at the table.”

This is an important book, short but pithy, and, like the word “food,” not simple at all.