Read Michael Pollan. Not his soundbites. Mostly books.

Interesting interview today on Democracy Now, where Amy Goodman chatted with Michael Pollan about the food industry, health, agriculture, and the environment:

Michael Pollan is one of the nation’s leading writers and thinkers in this country on the issue of food. He is author of several books about food, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In light of what he calls the processed food industry’s co-option of “sustainability” and its vast spending on marketing, Pollan advises to be wary of any food that’s advertised.

While I agree with Pollan’s main message, and much of what he has to say in his books, I do have some concerns about his growing food-guru status. Don’t get me wrong, I like his books, and have indeed used his excellent “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a text for my Human Ecology class. I worry, though, that sometimes in his activist zeal, and quite legitimate skepticism about food science (especially as it comes aligned with the food industry), he comes across as dismissing all food-related science. But, just because some/much of the nutritional advice was incomplete or wrong in the past doesn’t mean we can’t offer better advice now. We do understand our own evolved physiology much better than we did a decade or two ago, and that knowledge is still growing quite rapidly. Indeed Pollan draws upon much of the current science to make his case against the industrialization of food – and explains it all quite eloquently. So, I’m sure he understands the science well – but do people reading him (or simply hearing him) without adeaquate critical thinking skills or an understanding of basic biology (i.e., >70% of all who passed through high school in the US in the past decade) get the whole picture? Or are they, perhaps confirming their inherent suspicion of science, going to dismiss anything a medical practitioner or scientist tells them?

And this gets more worrisome as Pollan adopts more of a “guru” persona, dispensing simple soundbite advice such as “Don’t Buy Any Food You’ve Ever Seen Advertised” from the above interview. Back in January on Science Friday, Pollan advised, “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food.” (Curiously conservative advice from a self-professed defender and lover of food – but more on this below.) His new book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is quite the potent and timely polemic against the food industry, and is now oft-quoted for advice such as, “don’t buy high-fructose corn syrup” and “don’t buy products with more than five ingredients“. Then there is also his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” All sounds good and wholesome doesn’t it? And I don’t actually have much of a quarrel with the basic message – but we live in a soundbite culture, so shouldn’t we at least think about what these soundbites mean?

Tiptoeing around the elephant-in-the-room of food/diet related health issues among our ancestors, my great-grandmother would most definitely not have recognized any number of things in my pantry/fridge as food – and not just because she was vegetarian (I’m not) or hadn’t travelled much. Our world, for better or worse, is much more globally connected, and however ardent a locavore you are, it is difficult to argue that we don’t have access to new kinds of wholesome food not available a few generations ago! Pollan is, of course, arguing against highly processed “edible food-like substances”, which I too avoid as much as I can – but surely there are plenty of non-processed foods, found even in my local farmers’ market that even my mom won’t recognize as food! Just as I’ve seen more than one mystified customer at Ethiopian restaurants prod uncertainly at the Injera, the traditional wholesome bread from that land of our oldest ancestors, upon which the main course is served! Little do they know that the teff that Injera is made from is perhaps one of the very first grains to be domesticated by us, remains very healthy to eat – and is now even grown locally in Idaho!

Food with no more than 5 ingredients? There goes a large portion of my traditional Indian cuisine!! I can’t even buy a tandoori paste or mango pickle? Does even Pollan really eat only foods with 5 ingredients or less? i’d feel sorry for him. Yet his message has resonated enough in the market to convince even Häagen Dazs to introduce a new line of 5-ingredient ice creams!

As for avoiding food that’s ever (ever?!) been advertised – that’s a good bias to nurture against industrialized food which is the source of most advertising. Indeed, you would do well to avoid buying anything based on advertisements. But wait, what about them happy California cows peddling cheese, etc. on my telly right now? Should I give up on dairy? More importantly, I think this also exposes Pollan’s rather shallow analysis of the socioeconomic constraints shaping consumer choice. its all well and good to call for a return to great-grandma’s simple foods, cooked fresh every day for your family using only the best organic locally grown ingredients (<5 of course) bought from the farmers' market. But is this really feasible for the average modern-day lower-to-lower-than middle-class parents, harried as they might be juggling multiple jobs, maxed-out credit cards, long commutes, and their kids' complex school/after-care/sports/dance/music/art schedules? And how do we apply Pollan's prescriptions to the increasing number of poor in this crashing global economy? Corporations may be evil, and the food industry has certainly actively changed the landscape of food choices available to us – but is there nothing to be said for the economies (and efficiencies) of scale when it comes to feeding (affordably) the large number of people now occupying this planet? Allow me to play devil's advocate, if you will, and ask: how many could we actually feed on the Pollan prescribed diet? (I’ll stop with just that one question, and brace myself for backlash from my environmentalist friends).

I’m all for renewing our seriously damaged relationship with food. But do you see my problem with the soundbites? Curious, isn’t it, that someone railing against highly processed foods has fallen into the trap of allowing his own complex thoughts and arguments to be reduced into highly processed soundbites: tasty, easily gobbled up, but not very nutritious soundbites!

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