Green Giant

On a train journey several years ago, I overheard a couple presenting their daughter with a packed lunch: “There are carrots to protect you from cancer, tomatoes with Vitamin A for your skin, and here’s an orange for your Vitamin C.” Her lunch thus anatomised, the girl looked up and asked: “What’s the bread for?” Michael Pollan’s latest manifesto, In Defense of Food, warns against such reductive attitudes to food. A meal, he argues, should be greater than the sum of its nutritional parts.

Pollan knows this subject well, having scrutinised modern food choices in his magisterial The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here he is concerned that we are in the clutches of an industry using food scientists to legitimise its most profitable products. We must escape, before we all succumb to the condition of orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. As he points out, healthy food has become a national preoccupation in the US, but at the same time, two-thirds of the population are overweight.

Pollan’s prescription for this social illness is pithy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By “food” he means real, whole food, not the processed “foodlike substances” that dominate supermarkets. His elaboration on these strictures can be comically blunt: “Avoid foods that make health claims,” he says; first because they are sold in packets (a bad sign); but second because nutritional warnings can be misleading. Margarine, for example, was recommended until recently because it had less saturated fat than butter. Yet trials have failed to find a clear link between saturated fat and heart disease.

The solution, Pollan argues, is to revert to traditional foods: “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” Some will regard this notion as rose-tinted, but Pollan is persuasive.

The book’s argument gets more contentious with Pollan’s claim that what is good for one’s health also tends to be better for the planet. It is true that cutting down on meat would reduce the livestock industry’s contribution to water shortages. Less conveniently however, governments, including Britain’s, have advised people to eat two portions of fish a week–despite over-exploiting rivers and oceans.

In this slight volume, which is really a postscript to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there is insufficient room to thrash out the tense relation between personal wellbeing and environmental responsibility. But with his lucid style and innovative research, Pollan deserves his reputation as one of the most respectable voices in the modern debate about food.