Why would anyone need to write a book called In
|April 22, 2008||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Why would anyone need to write a book called In Defense of Food?
Pollan: Nutrition ‘Science’ Has Hijacked Our Meals — and Our Health
According to Michael Pollan, most of what Americans consume isn’t food but “edible foodlike substances.” His book has topped the New York Times best-seller list. His previous books include The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and The Botany of Desire. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles. Both commentators overlooked the crucial role of agri-business subsidies and the absence of a big enough tax on ground rent to preclude concentration of land ownership. We abridge their long 2008 interview posted on AlterNet on April 3.
interview by Terrence McNally
Michael Pollan: When Americans think about nature, we picture the wilderness, go camping, to Yosemite. But nature is happening in our homes, gardens, lawns, and on our plates.
I visited industrial farms and was absolutely floored. Farmers are afraid to go into their fields for five days after they spray for fungus because they know how neurotoxic this stuff is. In fact, they would often have a little patch of organic potatoes by the house for themselves.
I also visited organic farms. People were having great success on a fairly large scale: heavy rotations, poly-cropping.
What happens on our plates dictates the composition of species in the world — the reason there are plenty of cows and not too many wolves left.
Nutritionism is not a science. The ideology has four premises.
- 1, nutrients are what matters, not food.
2, like any other ism, it divides the world into good and evil; get enough of the good foods and avoid the bad ones.
3, the whole point of eating is health; yet humans have eaten for many reasons: pleasure, community and communion, to express identity.
4, the nutrient is the key unit in food.
Nutrients are invisible. No one’s ever seen, tasted or smelled a nutrient. So you need experts to guide you in your food choices. We have health claims on packages, nutritionists on radio and television. And we have lost confidence in our mothers or in ourselves, in our instincts to determine what is good food, because so many of the foods now lie to us with artificial flavors and sweeteners and fats.
We can’t rely on food scientists. The history of nutrition science is one missed nutrient after another. They would design a baby formula with macronutrients. Somehow the babies didn’t thrive. Or send men on long sea voyages with plenty of carbohydrate, protein and fat — and crews still got sick. They discovered we need vitamins, but baby formula still wasn’t successful. What was missing? Turns out omega 3 fatty acids were missing. Every decade or two they discover critical nutrients previously overlooked.
It’s very hard to make money selling normal unprocessed foods. The supermarket sells a pound of organic oats for 79 cents. But turn it into Cheerios, you can charge four bucks for a few ounces of oats.
Add a layer of artificial milk in the middle. Now you’ve got Honey Nut Cheerio Cereal Bar, a convenience food. Kids eat them in the car or on the way to school. Now you’re charging $10 or $20 for a few penny’s worth of oats. The more you process the food, the more profitable it is.
The problem is that the more you process food, the less nutritious it is. To counter that, you add them back in. As if you’ve done a big favor.
How do you distinguish food from edible food-like substances? Shop the perimeter of the supermarket. That’s where you’ll find the foods that have been least fiddled with: fresh produce, meat, fish, dairy products. What’s really going to get you in trouble is the stuff with the long shelf life.
You’ll be even better off if you leave the supermarket entirely, and do your shopping in a farmer’s market.
The amount we’re eating is a big part of our problem, especially because we’re so sedentary. The Chinese have a cultural rule that you eat until you’re four-fifths full. So stop before you’re completely full.
People want to be liberated from the drudgery of cooking.
TMN: And even the drudgery of eating.
MP: We also eat too fast. It takes the stomach about 20 minutes to notify the brain that it’s had enough. But, if you finish your meal in ten minutes, that will never happen. The French get more food experience on fewer calories. Spending time with food, enjoying food, savoring food, thinking about it, anticipating it.
Also, eat a plant-based diet; you’ll be consuming far fewer calories, since plant foods — except seeds — are typically less “energy dense” than other things you might eat.
TMN: Look at systems and relationships. Rather than food, I could be having this conversation about the American healthcare system.
MP: When I was a boy in 1960 we spent 18% of our national income on food — twice as much as we do today — and only 5% on healthcare. Today it’s flipped. We spend 16 or 17 percent of our income on healthcare and only 9% on food. The more we’ve settled for processed, highly refined, cheap, fast food, the more our healthcare problems have escalated.
TMN: That statistic is even more amazing considering the fact that we eat out much more than we used to.
MP: Half our food dollars.
TMN: You point out that we’ve learned to increase yields, to make calories cheaper.
MP: We’re taking 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. There’s value in seeing the whole system.
JJS: Then please note by paying taxes you subsidize what you criticize, both reliance on fossil fuels and factory farming. Lose the subsidies. Pay out surplus public revenue to citizens as a dividend. Let people choose. And let unaltered prices guide them.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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