The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


After his big success with THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, which is legitimately a great book, Michael Pollan's editors (including the legendary Ann Godoff) have evidently rushed him to get another one out there to capitalize on his "heat." IN DEFENSE OF FOOD is a slim little thing, rehashing many of the points made in THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA, but that doesn't make it not worth reading. If the structure of the DILEMMA was a "natural history of four meals," examining how food gets from the ground/hoof/wing/lab to your table, DEFENSE is much more of a manifesto. "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants," he says on the cover and throughout the book, and that turns out to be recommendation that the book leads to.

He starts, though, with a genealogy of "nutritionism," the idea that foods can and should be reduced to, and understood as, nutrient-delivery systems. This way of thinking about food began as a way to understand how we should eat, but as Pollan points out it is a system of thought peculiarly well-suited to an economy in which large food companies make most of their money by taking cheap raw materials (soybeans, corn, wheat, and rice) and processing them, adding value through this processing and packaging: resulting in what he calls the "Western diet," in which the vast majority of calories come from processed starches and meats. Nutritionism tells the public that these high-starch foods (and Pollan believes that the vast majority of processed foods are precisely that--starches from seeds, with chemicals added for flavors) can be made "healthier" by tinkering with their chemistry--adding a vitamin here and there, or a mineral, or a bit of fiber on top of what is all essentially the same processed starch. Nutrition science agrees with this, saying that to make food healthy we just need to adjust the proportions of molecules in it. Food, in this formulation, becomes fuel and nothing else.

Pollan rejects this, first by saying that the constant paradigm shifts about what is the basic sin in our diet (Fat! Saturated fat! Carbs! Trans-fats! Cholesterol!) result from the fact that we can't understand how nutrition works if we look at foods as nutrient-delivery systems. He of course alludes to the "French paradox": how can they eat everything we think is bad (butter, eggs, wine) and still be healthier and skinnier than we are? And why do people (such as Aborigines in Australia or Inuit in Greenland) with diets we'd ordinarily find to be horribly deficient NOT develop the kinds of diseases that they do end up developing--diabetes, heart disease--when they adopt the Western diet? Pollan argues--and here he comes very close to the good parts of Bill Buford's HEAT--that there is a deep cultural knowledge embodied in a culture's folkways of diet; trial and error over millennia have shown cultures how best to take advantage of what their particular "habitat" has to offer, both in terms of energy and in terms of health.

I think the most interesting, although ultimately depressing, thing he argued in this book was that even when we try to eat "mostly plants," we could be losing out if we're getting those veg at the supermarket. The vegetables grown industrially for supermarket sale, he points out, are generally the species with the greatest yield. That is, the species or variety of broccoli, beans, celery, or what have you that the supermarket carries is of the one species that grows biggest and fastest with the least investment of food, and these species have fewer "nutrients" than other varieties, which by growing longer produce more of what makes them good and which by sending down deeper roots suck more of the good things out of the soil. (Organic veg, of course, are better, because by being grown in organic soil they grow in a medium in which there is more good stuff to extract.) So, in addition to his tripartite slogan of how to eat better, he'd probably also add "Buy those plants at farmer's markets. And if they're organic, so much the better."



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