In Defense of Food

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Michael Pollan quotes Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, on the farm bill now before Congress: “This is not just a farm bill. It’s a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it.” Pollan may be skeptical about whether American eaters can thwart passage of a bill that includes $42 billion in subsidies for the big cash crops — corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton — but he firmly believes that “the eaters have spoken [and] a new politics has sprouted up.”

That optimism fueled two of his earlier books: “The Botany of Desire,” about our relationship with food, and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which urged variety in our diet. It’s most evident in the last of the trilogy, “In Defense of Food,” whose simple message is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The good news is, he thinks we can do it. Twenty years ago, it might have been difficult, but today organic, regionally grown food is more available than it has been since the food industry began controlling our consumption.

Pollan subtitles his new book “An Eater’s Manifesto,” but he’s way too polite to tell us what to eat. Instead, he uses his familiar brand of carefully researched, common-sense journalism to persuade, providing guidelines and convincing arguments. “[W]hat other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?” he asks. Once, we had culture (“just a fancy word for your mother”), but culture has been replaced by “scientists and food marketers (often an unhealthy alliance of the two).” Americans are “increasingly sick and fat. Four of the top ten causes of death today are chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.”

We have been buffeted so often by conflicting studies that we’ve stopped thinking of food as food. We think of it as nutrition. (Recess at my children’s schools in Santa Monica is no longer called recess, but “nutrition.”) Pollan argues that food needs defending from “nutrition science on one side and from the food industry on the other — and from the needless complications around eating that together they have fostered.”

“In Defense of Food” is in three parts. The first explains the perils of “nutritionism,” like most isms a reductionist, contextless ideology. Nutritionism divides our food into nutrients (Pollan shows the complexity involved by listing the astonishing number of antioxidants in thyme) and pits them against each other: fats versus carbs, carbs versus proteins. Moreover, it “has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions among foods,” allowing marketers to avoid thorny issues of how food is grown and how humans process it. Nutritionism is a boon to food marketers, not only because it helps with splashy packaging but also because it lets them advise buyers to eat more of a particular food, exacerbating an already imbalanced, unvaried diet.

There’s an all-too convenient relationship between the scientists and the marketers, he writes: “The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model.” The medical community also benefits; Pollan notes that as Americans spend less on food, they spend more on healthcare.

The second part, titled “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization,” begins with a 1982 study, in which a group of Aborigines who had left the bush, taken up a Western diet and developed Type-2 diabetes were returned to the bush and their native diet. The diabetic abnormalities all but disappeared. Pollan uses this and other studies to show how we can regain our own lost health. “What would happen,” he asks, “if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship?” If we consume foods grown in degraded soils, or beef from cattle that have eaten grasses grown in such soils, or milk and cheese from those cattle, we won’t get the nutrients we need. This is why processed food so often has to be fortified (something marketers trumpet as a bonus).

The third section offers rules (rather, gentle suggestions) for how to “escape the Western diet.” Many are familiar, if you’ve spent any time paying attention to what you eat — for example, don’t eat packaged foods with lots of chemical ingredients. Some involve behavioral changes: Eat mostly plants, avoid supermarkets whenever possible, buy a freezer, “don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” pay more to eat less and don’t buy food where you buy gas. Some are more about how we eat than what we eat — for example, do all your eating at a table, don’t eat alone, eat slowly.

Here’s the manifesto part. Pollan isn’t just asking us to consider changing the way we eat. He’s asking us to join a movement that’s “renovating our food system in the name of health . . . in the very broadest sense of that word.” By “health,” he means avoiding diseases that kill us, but he also means happiness, pleasure, community — factors ignored in studies or marketing plans or by government agencies such as the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern in the late 1970s, so vulnerable to free-market bullying. Government and business together can stand between human beings and their instincts. That pernicious link has been weakened, Pollan believes; it has certainly become a weak link in the food chain. We know what to eat. We just have to remember it.