In Defence of Food

In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto has received favourable reviews in the LA Times and the Sunday Times (of London), and is a bestseller at this point in time. Michael Pollan is an experienced journalist and writer. He reviews a fair amount of history and science in a short book. He tries to talk about food from a common sense perspective. He is cautious about food science, which is often bad science. He is skeptical about anything the food industry, nutritionists and journalists say about food. All too often, claims about food are made to sell new kinds of processed foods, or to sell books, diet plans, supplements and fads.

His advice for eating well, to avoid malnutrition and obesity is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His idea of food is something pretty close to the original plant or animal – fresh, dried, frozen – cooked at home, not processed at a factory. Don’t buy or eat processed and packaged things that claim to produce health benefits or weight loss. If you want to avoid obesity, eat less.

Pollan advocates a natural diet, organic produce and Slow Food. He describes the Western diet as a disaster, and cites the studies of people who return to a traditional diet from a Western diet. He says that there are many traditional diets incorporating indigenous resources and cultural traditions – and all of them are healthier than the Western diet, which manages to produce malnutrition and obesity at the same time. Many of the themes of In Defence of Foods were developed in his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Defence of Food summarizes those themes and adds a discussion of the research into traditional diets – many of which are high in fats – and why people who stick to those diets don’t have the same problems with obsesity, diabetes and heart disease as people who eat a high-carb Western diet.

His main criticisms of the Western diet are that it is based on a handful of plants and animals raised under industrial conditions, heavily processed, mixed with chemicals that are not food, and served in gargantuan portions. He suggests that refined white flour, processed in mills with steel rollers is probably the first true fast food. It was the first food processed to the point that vitamins have been added back in to avoid contributing to vitamin deficiency diseases.
Throughout the book, he flirts with the French paradox. The French diet, like the Italian diet features wheat flour, carbs, meat, fat, sugar and alcohol, but it doesn’t seem to produce as much heart disease or other health problems. The French eat small portions at long meals, and to some degree they invest in diverse fresh ingredients.

The problem with food in America is that it is cheap, and served in large portions. North Americans don’t know when they are full or when to stop. The food processing industry has succeeded in securing a supply of cheap ingredients – partly because of government agricultural subsidies, and it sells lots, cheap, with the full force of modern marketing. Medicine, science and journalism don’t provide eaters with valid information, because science is too fond of trying to refine the idea of food into the idea of essential ingredients. The problem is that the science never gets it right. Science has not identified all the key nutrients and the idea of adding vitamins back in to make food healthy is, in his view, ridiculous. It isn’t completely ridiculous, but he makes a very good point about the marketing of processed food on the basis of health claims. Food should be nutritious – nutrition shouldn’t have to be a marketing point.

The history of food science has been blotted by disasters. Margerine was marketed as a healthy alternative to butter – it has been easier and cheaper to make, but the hydrogenation of vegetable oils has produced a toxic chemical. There is a long history of processed baby foods that prove to be nutritionally deficient. Nothing has come close to mother’s milk.

Pollan doesn’t think that buying fresh food is the answer, because the food industry has already colonized the production of fresh produce. Intensive production and specialized fertilizers grow large vegetables full of water and fertilizer. I was a little surprized – I thought that the people who said that fresh produce was lacking in nutrients were trying to sell vitamin supplements, but it turns out that there is something to that claim. He doesn’t push vitamin supplements though – he suggests finding organic vegetables grown in healthy soil, and he encourages home gardening.

In large part, he encourages investing more money in good real food, more effort in cooking it, and more time enjoying it, eaten slowly, in the company of family and friends, and savored. My main criticism of the book is that his recommendations are aimed at affluent Westerners who can afford to purchase organic produce. He ignores the green revolution – the genetic programs that produced healthy high yield grains and other scientific advances, in favour of a rather Arcadian view of life. He does, in the end, align himself with the organic food snobs, as Rob Lyons’s review in Spiked agrees. But Pollan makes a lot of sense.