Acclaimed author takes an enlightening trip through our food chain

Rare is the day when yet another new book about food isn’t dropped onto my desk. Rarer still is the occasion when the latest reaches beyond the usual fare. After a while, food publishing be comes a blur of recipes punctuated by pretty pictures, or one more round of dietary diatribe.

Michael Pollan is a rare exception to those generalizations. Author, journalist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley – he’s also been called an environmental activist – Pollan has an uncanny knack for focusing on a commonplace reality in the food world and peeling away layers to reveal the deeper secrets and meanings harbored within. His New York Times best seller, “The Botany of Desire,” was named an American Booksellers Association book of the year.

If you had the good fortune to read “This Steer’s Life,” Pollan’s acclaimed 2002 New York Times Magazine portrait of a single head of cattle, you’ve experienced one of the author’s most compelling explorations. Pollan takes the reader from the purchase of a young calf, which he named Butch, through feedlot and slaughterhouse. Over the course of the journey, readers learned not only the process of meat production in America today, but the industry’s profound environmental, cultural and health impact on our nation.

That experience became an aspect of Pollan’s latest book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (Penguin Books, 2006; $26.95), a masterful journey through modern America’s food system. In it he explores the three main food conduits that provide sustenance for the majority of Americans: conventional industrialized food production; organic alternatives; and a decreasingly common alternative, foraging and hunting.

“How we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world,” he writes. Yet, he adds, America suffers from “the lack of a steadying culture of food.”

We discussed several key issues cited in his book during a telephone conversation last week.

Talk with me a moment about what you call that “lack of a steadying culture of food.” Is this a case of a breakdown of standard family food ways, or a result of the cacophony of conflicting headlines and advertising messages – or what?

It’s all of those things. The “culture of food” is a fancy way of saying “your mom.” It’s our mothers that carry the culture of food through the generations, and their wisdom of what to eat and how to prepare it and how to eat it has guided us – until very recently.

With the industrialization of food there has been a breakdown. The family dinner has become endangered. Food marketers are selling to each member of the family individually, essentially going over Mom’s head, directly to the kids. And then we have all this conflicting scientific advice. The result is a great deal of conflicting info about what to eat.

From your research, is there some well-grounded shorthand to defusing all the confusion?

It’s going to sound very simple, but the answer is to eat real food – the kind that your great-grandmother would have recognized as food. If you showed her a tube of Go-Gurt or a Pop Tart, chances are she wouldn’t have known quite what to do with it. We should take a lesson from that. Those aren’t foods – they’re food products. And one of the fundamental points is, that to the extent possible, avoiding highly processed foods is a good idea. We should treat novelty in the food supply with a very skeptical eye. Here’s another case where Mother knew best: All through the 1960s, my mother kept saying, “You know, eventually they’re going to find that butter is healthier than margarine.” It turns out she was right. The same appears to hold for high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats in the forms of hydrogenated shortening.

Your concept of cheap food intrigues me. You’ve asserted that there’s no such thing – that one pays for low-priced foods either in terms of personal health, or environmental impact, the cost of government subsidies . . .

It [cheap food] is actually very expensive. And that’s because the real costs are not reflected in the price. The real cost gets charged to your health, to the public health, to the Treasury, and gets charged back to the national defense. This cheap food chain reaches all the way back to the Persian Gulf. It’s a very high-energy- consuming process. We use about one-fifth of our fossil-fuel consumption for the production of food.

There are a couple of ways to look at it. We only spend 9 percent of our (per capita) income on food. When I was a kid, in 1960, we only spent 18 percent on food. It’s fallen in half in those past 45 years. In that same period, the amount of money we spent on health care has gone from 5 percent to 16 percent of our income. I can’t help but think that if we spent a bit more money on food, we might spend less on health care.

Yet it’s hardly difficult to understand why today’s consumers are so boggled by what is the right diet.

I don’t think we need science to tell us what to eat. The basic message is clearer than ever: Eat a wide variety of things, including lots of different plants and grains, because we need about 50 nutrients, most of which come from plants – and don’t eat too much. Period. The strongest correlation between diet and health – if, for example, you want to prevent cancer – is calorie restriction.

People who use science to argue for anything they want to eat – well, that’s an argument the food marketers would happily embrace. They prey on our confusion and sell a lot of confusion with health claims. Beware that confusion. The underlying common-sense advice about food had not been effectively challenged.