Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

First, allow me to confess: I did not read The Omnivore's Dilemma. I started to read it, but had to return it to the library when outside influences were causing me to question whether my food philosophy (summed up well in La Leche League's "eat a variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible") is in fact radical to an extreme. In Defense of Food has quieted my doubts.

Pollan begins his defense of food with a manifesto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Perhaps his most radical assertion is that many (even the majority) of products sold as "food," in fact are not. The additive filled shelf stable foodstuffs found in abundance on the shelves of supermarkets is as far removed from real food as artificial baby formulas are from breastmilk.

He goes on to decry nutrition science, which he refers to as "nutritionism," as full of missteps and fallacies. He focuses on the "lipid hypothesis": "Between the end of World War II and 1976, per capita consumption of animal fats from all sources dropped from eighty-four pounds to seventy-one, while fats from seed oils approximately doubled. Americans appeared to be moving in the direction of a 'prudent diet' and yet, paradoxically, having more heart attacks on it, not fewer."

The chapter on "Food Defined" was of particular interest. Pollan advocates for traditional diets, in the sense of eating foods that your great grandmother (or even great-great grandmother, depending on your age) would recognize. He has a list of things to avoid on an ingredient list that is remarkably similar to the rules of thumb I've been operating under for several years. He avoids ingredients that are; "a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, and that include d) high-fructose corn syrup." My personal list includes both a & b, but c is a more informal "as short as possible" and d is soy, in all of its many permutations. He also recommends avoiding foods that make health claims (a sure sign of nutritionism at work!), shopping the periphery of the store, and staying away from supermarkets as much as possible. While I practice the first two, the third is one of my areas of improvement, and brings me to my only real complaint about the book.

Pollan dismisses cost as a factor in what we eat ("Traditionally people have allocated a far greater proportion of their income to food--as they still do in several of the countries where people eat better than we do and as a consequence are healthier than we are. Compared to the 9.9 percent of their income Americans spend on food, the Italians spend 14.9 percent, the French 14.9 percent, and the Spanish 17.1 percent."), but he fails to recognize that costs can be prohibitive for some. I often hear people claim that a highly processed diet is more expensive than an organic, whole foods diet. I don't know whether or not that's true, but since we already focus on minimally processed foods, switching to organics does necessitate a budgetary increase. Access to the DeCA system complicates our situation further. DeCA says that families save 30% at commissaries over civilian supermarkets. While we are gaining more and more organic options in the commissaries, the benefit makes the price of outside sources of organic foods seem even more prohibitive than they would if we were paying 30% more for our regular purchases. Pollan does conclude with a strong push for gardening, but dismisses efforts like homesteading as unfeasible.

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