Book Review/Annotation of
In Defense of Food; An eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan
I love this book! Michael Pollan has a home-run book again. In Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, he exposed the many faces of the American food system and has dramatically influenced the whole foods revolution in America with his contagious phrase, Vote with Your Fork. “In Defense of Food” offers a new catch phrase that is bound to be just as effective as the last, Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. In a very concise and “to the point” style, Pollan questions the obsession Americans have with nutrition, and suggests that people return to a more simplistic approach to food and eating. He points out the fact that nutrition has become a sort of religion called “nutritionism”, and a constantly exploding industry has resulted in the need to study each and every individual chemical that can be discovered in food. Pollan closes the book with a concise, yet effective, socio-economic view of contemporary eating. The best way to annotate this book is to list some of my favorite quotes from this fantastically written book. *Note for people concerned about the “mostly plants” part of his mantra: Consider the fact that people who eat nutrient-dense animal foods eat much less of it than the average amount of nutrient-less animal foods most fast-food Americans eat and/or waste. ”Mostly plants with nutrient-dense animal foods and traditional preparations” would be a better final phrase, but that wouldn’t be as catchy.
“(The age of Nutritionism has come)…which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help.”
This brings us to another unexamined assumption of nutritionism: that the point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health…(this) is not shared by all cultures and, further, the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, regarding food as being about things other than bodily health – like pleasure, say, or sociality or identity—makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe it may make them more healthy…So there is at least a question as to whether the ideology of nutritionism is actually any good for you.
“The history of modern nutritionism has been a history of macronutrients at war: protein against carbs; carbs against proteins, and then fats; fats against carbs.”
“Like so many ideologies, nutritionism at bottom hinges on a form of dualism, so that at all times there must be an evil nutrient for adherents to excoriate and a savior nutrient for them to sanctify.”
“The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another…and still to this day babies fed on the most “nutritionally complete” formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk. Even more than margarine, formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”
This brings us to one of the most troubling features of nutritionism, though it is a feature certainly not troubling to all. When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. “If foods are understood only in terms of the various quantities of nutrients they contain,” Gyorgy Scrinis wrote, then “even the processed foods may be considered to be ‘healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”
Yet the beauty of a processed food like margarine is that is can be endlessly reengineered to overcome even the most embarrassing about-face in nutritional thinking—including the real wincer that its main ingredients might cause heart attacks and cancer. So now the trans fats are gone, and margarine marches on, unfazed and apparently unkillable. Too bad the same cannot be said of an unknown number of margarine eaters.
The Year of Eating Oat Bran—also known as 1988—served as a kind of coming out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America.
It shouldn’t be long before we see chocolate bars bearing FDA-approved health claims. (When we do, nutritionism will surely have entered its baroque phase.) Fortunately for everyone playing this game, scientists can find an antioxidant in just about any plant-based food they choose to study.
…Every course correction in nutritionist advice gives reason to write new diet books and articles, manufacture a new line of products, and eat a whole bunch of even more healthy new food products. And if a product is healthy by design and official sanction, then eating lots of it must be healthy too—maybe even more so.
How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.” To make food choices more scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutritionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking, and potentially unifying answer to the question of what it might mean to eat like an American.
*Side bar authors note on Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calorie, who describes the developing carbohydrate hypothesis at great length:
Even if refined carbohydrates do present a more serious threat to health than dietary fat, to dwell on any one nutrient to the exclusion of all others is to commit the same reductionist error that the lipophobes did.
Page 61: (From the chapter “Bad Science” in response to the “evidence” that a low-fat diet reduces heart disease):
Reducing mortality from heart disease is not the same thing as reducing the incidence of heart disease…A ten-year study of heart disease mortality published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998 strongly suggests that most of the decline in deaths from heart disease is due not to changes in lifestyle, such as diet, but to improvements in medical care. (Though cessation of smoking has been important.) For while during the period under analysis, heart attack deaths declined substantially, hospital admissions for heart attack did not.
“The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”
…So if you’re a nutrition scientist you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: Break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring the subtle interactions and contexts and the fact that the whole may well be more than, or maybe just different from, the sum of its parts. That is what we mean by reductionist science.
The Mediterranean diet is widely believed to be one of the most healthful traditional diets, yet much of what we know about it is based on studies of people living in the 1950’s on the island of Create—people who in many respects led lives very different from our own. Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and more fish than meat. But they also did more physical labor. As followers of the Greek Orthodox church, they fasted frequently. They ate lots of wild greens—weeds. And, perhaps most significant, they ate far fewer total calories than we do. Similarly, much of what we know about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet is based on the studies of Seventh-Day Adventists, who muddy the nutritional picture by abstaining from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat. These extraneous but unavoidable factors are called, aptly, confounders.
“To really know what a person is eating you’d have to have a second invisible person following them around, taking photographs, looking at ingredients, and consulting accurate food composition tables, which we don’t have.” (Pollan goes on to say that you can’t adequately score the amount of nutrients consumed because not all kinds of a specific food are created equal, with the same nutrient content.)
A few years ago, Rozin presented a group of Americans with the following scenario: “Assume you are alone on a desert island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health.”
(Of the given choices)…The most popular choice was bananas (42 percent), followed by spinach (27 percent), corn (12 percent), hot dogs (4 percent), and milk chocolate (3 percent). Only 7 percent chose one of the two foods that would in fact best support survival: hot dogs and milk chocolate.
Now, all of this might be tolerable if eating by the light of nutritionism made us, if not happier, then at least healthier. That it has failed to do. Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished. This is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: in need of a whole new way to think about eating.
Much lip service is paid to the importance of prevention, but the health care industry, being an industry, stands to profit more handsomely from new drugs and procedures to treat chronic diseases than it does from a wholesale change in the way people eat.
Is steak from a feedlot steer that consumed a diet of corn, various industrial waste products, antibiotics, and hormones still a “whole food”? I’m not so sure. The steer has itself been raised on a Western diet, and that diet has rendered its meat substantially different—in the type and amount of fat in it as well as its vitamin content—from the beef our ancestors ate.
The following are Pollan’s rules for “Eat Food: Food Defined”
1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
…You may need to go back to your great-or even great-great grandmother.
…John Yudkin a British nutritionist whose early alarms about the dangers of refined carbohydrates were overlooked in the 1960’s and 1970’s, once advised, “just don’t eat anything your Neolithic ancestors wouldn’t have recognized and you’ll be ok.”
…There are in fact hundreds of foodish products in the supermarket that your ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food: breakfast cereal bars transected by bright white veins representing, but in reality having nothing to do with, milk; “protein waters” and “nondairy creamer”; cheese like food-stuffs equally innocent of any bovine contribution; cakelike cylinders (with creamlike fillings) called Twinkies that never grow stale. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting is another personal policy you might consider adopting.
…Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to sell us more food by pushing our evolutionary buttons—our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt. These qualities are difficult to find in nature but cheap and easy for the food scientist to deploy, with the result that processing induces us to consume much more of these ecological rarities than is good for us.
2. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than five in number, or that include D) High-Fructose corn Syrup.
…None of these characteristics, not even the last one, is necessarily harmful in and of itself, but all of them are reliable markers for foods that have been highly processed to the point where they may no longer be what they purport to be. They have crossed over from foods to food products.
3. Avoid food products that make health claims.
…For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed than a whole food.
…No doubt we can look forward to a qualified health claim for high-fructose corn syrup, a tablespoon of which probably does contribute to your health—as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn’t increase the total number of calories in our day.
…The American Heart Association currently bestows (for a fee) its heart-healthy seal of approval on Lucky Charms Cocoa Puffs, and Trix cereals, Yoo-hoo lite chocolate drink, and Healthy Choice’s Premium Caramel Swirl Ice Cream Sandwich—this at a time when scientists are coming to recognize that dietary sugar probably plays a more important role in heart disease than dietary fat. Meanwhile, the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce sections, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute. But don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.
4. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.
5. Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
…Food safety didn’t become a national or global problem until the industrialization of the food chain attenuated the relationships between food producers and eaters. That was the story of Upton Sinclair told about the BeefTrust in 1906, and it’s the story unfolding in China today, where the rapid industrialization of the food system is leading to alarming breakdowns in food safety and integrity.
…Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote—a vote for health in the largest sense—food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.
6. Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
…It’s more important to eat as many different kinds of plants as possible: They all have different antioxidants and so help the body eliminate different kinds of toxins. (It stands to reason that the more toxins there are in the environment, the more plants you should be eating.)
…But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet. (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or environmental reasons to do so.) That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantities we do (each American now consumes an average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.
7. You are what what you eat eats too.
…That is, the diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and the healthfulness, of the food itself, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.
…For most of our food animals, a diet of grass means much healthier fats (more omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid or CLA; fewer omega-6s and saturated fat) in their meat, milk, and eggs, as well as appreciable higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.
8. If you have the space, buy a freezer.
9. Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
10. Eat wild foods when you can.
…The nutritional profile of grass-fed beef closely resembles that of wild game.
11. Be the kind of person who takes supplements.
(Pollan suggests that supplement takers are generally more health conscious, regardless of the pills they take.)
12. Eat more like the French or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
…People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet.
…I’m inclined to think any traditional diet will do; if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around.
13. Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
…But today we’re eating soy in ways Asian cultures with much longer experience of the plant would not recognize: “Soy protein isolate,” “soy isoflavones,” “textured vegetable protein” from soy and soy oils (which now account for a fifth of the calories in the American diet) are finding their way into thousands of processed foods, with the result that Americans now eat more soy than the Japanese or the Chinese do.
…As a senior scientist at the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research wrote, “Confidence that soy products are safe is clearly based more on belief than hard data.” Until those data come in, I feel more comfortable eating soy prepared in the traditional Asian style than according to novel recipes developed by processors like Archer Daniels Midland.
14. Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
…Yet when researchers extract a single food from a diet of proven value, it usually fails to adequately explain why the people living on that diet live longer or have lower rates of heart disease or cancer than people eating a modern Western diet.
…The only way to profit from the wisdom of traditional diets (aside from writing books about them) is to break them down using reductionist science and then sell them for their nutrient parts.
15. Have a glass of wine with dinner.
…Someday science may comprehend all the complex synergies at work in a traditional diet that includes wine, but until then we can marvel at its accumulated wisdom—and raise a glass to paradox.
From the last section, “Not too much: How to Eat”
Nutritionists pay far more attention to the chemistry of food than to the sociology or ecology of eating. All their studies of the benefits of red wine or foie gras overlook the fact that the French eat very differently than we do.
Pay more, eat less. What the French case suggests is that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality.
…Americans pay much more attention to external than to internal cues about satiety. By comparison the French, who seem to attend more closely to all the sensual dimensions of eating, also pay more attention to the internal cues telling us we feel full.
…It is the cheaper and less healthful…calories on which Americans have been goring.
…How often would you eat French fries if you had to peel, wash, cut and fry them yourself, then clean up the mess? Or ever eat Twinkies if you had to bake the little cakes and then squirt the filling into them and clean up?
Is it just a coincidence that as the portion of our income spent on food has declined, spending on health care has soared? In 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of national income on health care. Since then, those numbers have flipped; Spending on food has fallen to 9.9 percent, while spending on health care has climbed to 16 percent of national income.
To counter the rise of the snack and restore of the meal to its rightful place, consider as a start these few rules of thumb.
- Do all your eating at a table.
- Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
- Try not to eat alone.
- Consult your gut.
- Eat slowly.
… To eat slowly, in the Slow Food sense, is to eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and to the table.
… By comparison, eating a grass-fed burger when you can picture the green pastures in which the animal grazed is a pleasure of another order, not a simple one, to be sure, but one based on knowledge rather than ignorance and gratitude rather than indifference.
- Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
…Having retaken control of the meal from the food scientists and processors, you know exactly what is and is not in it…
…To reclaim this much control over one’s food, is to take it back from industry and science, is not small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts.
…In the eye of the cook or gardener or the farmer who grew it, this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight.
—It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by. The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but “health” is simply not one of them, because it is given.