Books

Go to the archives

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Michael Pollan

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2008
Category: Food and Wine

What’s better for you — whole milk, 2% milk or skim?

Is a chicken labeled “free range” good enough to reassure you of its purity? How about “grass fed” beef?

What form of soy is best for you — soy milk or tofu?

About milk: I’ll bet most of you voted for reduced or non-fat. But if you’ll turn to page 153 of “In Defense of Food,” you’ll read that processors don’t make low-fat dairy products just by removing the fat. To restore the texture — to make the drink “milky” — they must add stuff, usually powdered milk. Did you know powdered milk contains oxidized cholesterol, said to be worse for your arteries than plain old cholesterol? And that removing the fat makes it harder for your body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins that make milk a valuable food in the first place?

About chicken and beef: Readers of Pollan’s previous book (I review “The Omnivore’s Dilemma" here) know that “free range” refers to the chicken’s access to grass, not whether it actually ventures out of its coop. And all cattle are “grass fed” until they get to the feedlot. The magic words for delightful beef are “grass finished” or “100% grass fed”.

And about soy…but I dare to hope I have your attention by now. And that you don’t want to be among the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight and the third of our citizens who are likely to develop type 2 diabetes before 2050. And maybe, while I have your eyes, you might be mightily pissed off to learn that America spends $250 billion — that’s a quarter of the costs of the Iraq war — each year in diet-related health care costs. And that our health care professionals seem far more interested in building an industry to treat diet-related diseases than they do in preventing them. And that the punch line of this story is as sick as it is simple: preventing diet-related disease is easy.

In just 200 pages (and 22 pages of notes and sources), “In Defense of Food” gives you a guided tour of 20th century food science, a history of “nutritionism” in America and a snapshot of the marriage of government and the food industry. And then it steps up to the reason most readers will buy it — and if you care for your health and the health of your loved ones, this is a no-brainer one-click — and presents a commonsense shopping-and-eating guide. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If you are up on your Pollan and your Nina Planck, you know the major points of the “real food” movement. But if you’re new to this information or are disinclined to buy or read this book, let me lay Pollan’s argument out for you:

– High-fructose corn syrup is the devil’s brew. Do yourself a favor and remove it from your diet. (If you have kids, here’s a place to start: Heinz smartly offers an “organic” ketchup, made with sugar. And an "original" Heinz, with no sugar.)

– Avoid any food product that makes health claims — they mean it’s probably not really food.

– In a supermarket, don’t shop in the center aisles. Avoid anything that can’t rot, anything with an ingredient you can’t pronounce.

– “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.”

– “You are what you eat eats too.” Most cows end their days on a diet of corn, unsold candy, their pulverized brothers and sisters — yeah, you read that right — and a pharmacy’s worth of antibiotics. And they bestow that to you. Consider that the next time there’s a sale on sirloin.

– “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By which Pollan means: Eat natural food, the kind your grandmother served (and not because she was so wise, but because the food industry had not yet learned that the big money was in processing, not harvesting). Use meat sparingly. Eat your greens, the leafier and more varied the better.

In short: Kiss the Western diet as we know it goodbye. Look to the cultures where people eat well and live long. Ignore the faddists and experts. Trust your gut. Literally.

In all this, Pollan insists that you have to save yourself. And he makes a good case why. Our government, he says, is so overwhelmed by the lobbying and marketing power of our processed food industry that the American diet is now 50% sugar in one form or another — calories that provide “virtually nothing but energy.” Our representatives are almost uniformly terrified to take on the food industry. And as for the medical profession, the key moment, Pollan writes, is when “doctors kick the fast-food franchises out of the hospital” — don’t hold your breath.

“You want to live, follow me.” I loved it when Schwarzenegger said that in “Terminator.” It matters much more when, in so many words, Michael Pollan delivers that same message in “In Defense of Food.”