Monday, December 5, 2011

In Defense of Food

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
© 2009 Michael Pollan
256 pages

Michael Pollan's seminal work, The Omnivore's Dilemma, established that there's no such thing as a free, or even a cheap, lunch.  The low-cost processed foods that the American diet takes for granted exact their price in other ways. The abundance of food in the developed world has coincided, not accidentally, with a decline in its quality - - and so, curiously, while most of us can take the availability of food for granted, we can no longer take for granted that it is in fact food. Food has lost its meaning in the American mind, Pollan asserts here, and science and technology are to blame.

Pollan sees food as having fallen to the twofold assault of industrial agricultural and and ideological which he calls "nutritionism", which reduces food to nothing more than a carrier of nutrients. In his view, this misses the forest for a few twigs on a tree and ignores relationships between different food in traditional diets and the interplay of nutrients and body chemistry. Further, he believes that industrial agriculture  creates not food, but products resembling food -- and that nutritionism aids and abets this, creating a situation in which people are "overfed and undernourished".

In Defense of Food presents a problem for me. On the one hand, there are significant ideas worthy of consideration in here -- people do overly fixate on the value of one nutrient or another, industrial agriculture does sacrifice quality for quantity, and yes, the constant pattern of nutritional fixation does dovetail perfectly with relentless advertising-driven consumerism. Pollan's "food rules" make sense, like "Don't eat anything that doesn't look like food".  That is, if you want cheese, eat cheese -- not puffs of god-knows-what covered in orange powder.

The great problem for me is the anti-scientific attitude that develops from his attack on "nutritionism", an ideology which Pollan sees as being the spawn of scientists, journalists, and advertisers.  While scientists are just as human and potentially self-serving as anyone else, they attract the bulk of Pollan's ire. He mocks the fact that a half-century of nutritional advice has seen Americans grow not healthier, but fatter -- as if obesity and nutritional disorders were caused not by the popularity of fast food or a society dominated by cars, but by the fact that people followed the advice of a government study and got themselves fat by trying to stick to low-fat diets. A spirit of petty resentment pervades the book, as if Pollan is insulted that scientists would dare get their grubby lab gloves over his food. Those of us who are interested in science know all too well that the media does a horrible job at attempting scientific journalism, being irresponsible and ignorant of the subject --  leaving no room for nuance and pitching stories in such a way as to grab headlines. (PhD Comics did a GREAT comic on this.)  Pollan mentions the hype over resveratol, for instance, a compound found in many foods of the French diet which has been linked to health and longevity. While Pollan uses this as an example of nutritional fixation, I recently read an interview with the scientist whose work prompted the media frenzy (in Michio Kaku's The Physics of the Future), and he was dismayed by the way the media failed to understand that the variable he was studying was only one factor of many.  Here it is Pollan, not the scientist, who is overemphasizing the work.

In Defense of Food may be worth considering if you are just starting to become conscious or mindful about the foods you eat, but given Pollan's bias I can't earnestly recommend it to you. Given the importance of food, I'm sure there are superior books out there on the subject.


  1. I can't remember whether it was this book or another by him that so ticked me off a few years back. I think it was this one, from your description.

    I remember thinking that he had this attitude that since people couldn't currently identify which compounds in such-and-such a food made it better than this other one, that we would never be able to understand nutrition scientifically. NEVER! Because food is MAGIC! That seemed way too short-sighted and fatalistic to me.

  2. Quite so! And the way he puts his faith so whole-heartedly in traditional foods, as if they're all perfectly healthy choices...

  3. Quite so! And the way he puts his faith so whole-heartedly in traditional foods, as if they're all perfectly healthy choices...


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