Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan


In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

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, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

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 enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and 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.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6

EAT FOOD

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible

MOSTLY PLANTS

  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner

NOT TOO MUCH

  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.