Book Review: In Defense of Food

My wife glanced at the cover of Michael Pollan’s new book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (The Penguin Press, $21.95, 256 pages). On it, a head of lettuce is banded (or branded) with the slogan “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

“Why don’t we do that?” she asked.

Pollan’s previous book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” led readers through the levels of American food hell (feedlots, monoculture, McDonald’s drive-throughs, organic produce shipped from Chile). As I made my way through it recently, I shared its ethical challenges with my spouse.

“Then what are we supposed to eat?” she finally asked.

“In Defense of Food” is Pollan’s answer, the needle through which we must squeeze our fatted high-fructose selves to find salvation. But first, how we got here.

“Here” is the end-product of our industrialized Western diet. Cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity can all be directly linked to “the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy,” writes Pollan.

Pollan dishes up plenty of blame: the food industry’s $32 billion annual marketing effort; science’s endless nutrient debate, in which the sum of parts never quite equals a whole food diet; the government, with its politically motivated and industry-driven standards; and the journalists who herald every new silver-bullet tonic.

The business of food is adding value to raw ingredients. With the help of farm subsidies, it’s no wonder that two-thirds of our daily caloric intake comes from corn, soy, wheat and rice. Since 1980, Pollan says, sweeteners and added fats have gotten 20 percent cheaper, while fresh fruits and vegetables — products that have, incidentally, lost nutritional value over the past half-century — cost 40 percent more.

And it’s the triumph of misguided food science over food culture that has enabled much of this descent. The belief that the human body’s food needs could be broken down into fats, proteins and carbs, then further broken down into subsets of each, loses sight of the food for the nutrients, says Pollan.

Thirty-five different antioxidants have been identified in thyme. Olive oil improves the body’s use of lycopene in tomatoes. So much of what comes from eating real food, versus food products, takes care of us naturally, without scientific intervention. “You don’t need to fathom a carrot’s complexity in order to reap its benefits,” he writes. And so, the suggestions:

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Avoid products that make health claims. Shop the peripheries of supermarkets, where the real food is, rather than the center aisles. Or skip the grocery and hit the farmers markets. Have a glass of wine. Eat plants, especially the leaves. Spend a little more and eat a little less. Plant a garden. Cook. Eat meals, at a table, together.

Forty years ago, Pollan says, eating this way would have amounted to a crackpot’s manifesto. Today, with the proliferation of fresh, local, real food, we may have excuses — but no excuse.