Pollan: Nutrition ‘Science’ Has Hijacked Our Meals — and Our Health

Much of what lines supermarket aisles is not food. It’s merely foodlike, and it’s making us sick.

April 3, 2008  |   Why would anyone need to write a book called In Defense of Food? If we can afford it and can get our hands on it, we eat food several times a day. Or do we?

According to Michael Pollan, most of what Americans consume isn’t food. He calls it “edible foodlike substances.” He also says that the way we consume it is not really eating. It’s something we do pretty unconsciously as we work or drive or watch TV.

We all know about the U.S. epidemic of obesity and diabetes over the past 25 years, on top of the steady rise of chronic diseases over the past hundred. Paradoxically, this happens just as Americans and the food industry are ever more aware of nutrition. What’s going on here?

Pollan claims that in the Western diet, good old food has been replaced by nutrients, mom’s good advice by nutritional experts, common sense by confusion, and for most, a relatively good diet by a bad and dangerous one. The book in which he makes all these claims and advises us simply to “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” has topped the New York Times bestseller list.

Michael Pollan’s 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. Pollan is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a Knight Professor of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley.

Terrence McNally: How did you grow to focus on plants and then food?

Michael Pollan: Well all my work really begins in the garden. I was a very passionate gardener beginning at age 8, although I fell away from it for a few years. In the 1980s I was living in New York and took up gardening at a weekend house in northwestern Connecticut. I got very absorbed in the garden as a place to look at our relationship to nature.

Like a lot of Americans, my understanding of nature and our relationship to it was shaped by Emerson and Thoreau and Melville and Whitman. When I actually started to garden, I realized all those ideas about the romance of nature were distinctly unhelpful. Thoreau’s love of wilderness and worship of the wild really doesn’t equip you when the pests come and destroy your crops, when the woodchuck attacks your broccoli.

I got into trouble following their philosophy. I didn’t have a fence, for example. I thought a fence was too alienating from the natural world. I got into a war with a woodchuck — just like Bill Murray in Caddyshack — until I was defoliating my property and pouring gasoline down a woodchuck burrow. I was like William Westmoreland in Vietnam, willing to destroy the village to save it.

I realized then that the garden was a very interesting place to examine our relationship to the natural world. Traditionally, when Americans want to think about nature, we picture the wilderness, we go camping, we go to Yosemite. But nature is happening in our homes, in our gardens, in our lawns, and on our plates.

TMN: At that point you were writing about other things?

MP: I was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and I began writing a series of essays about what was happening to me in my garden, my woodchuck war, my dad’s battle with the neighbors over his front lawn. These kinds of issues became my first book, Second Nature.

I started looking at our relationship to plants and animals, and at drugs, since a lot of drugs are plants that change our consciousness.

TMN: And that shows up in The Botany of Desire?

MP: Yes. When I was working on Botany of Desire, I visited industrial farms in Idaho to see how industrial agriculture works, and I was shocked. I was absolutely floored by these vast monocultures, the amount of pesticides that are used, the fact that the farmers are afraid to go into their fields for five days after they spray for fungus, because they know how neurotoxic this stuff is.

TMN: Stuff which will later end up on our plates?

MP: In fact, they would often have a little patch of organic potatoes by the house for themselves, because they could not eat the food coming out of their farms.

I suggest they are more irresponsible than they are. Over time the potatoes leech out the worst chemicals, so you can’t just dig industrial potatoes and eat them right away, or you’ll get too heavy a load of residues.

I also visited organic farms and realized that there were alternatives. People were having great success growing organic on a fairly large scale in Idaho with a completely different mind-set. Not monoculture being the key fact. Heavy rotations, poly-cropping.

When I realized that eating is our most profound engagement with the natural world, I got very excited to take a hard look at the food chain that we’re a part of.

What happens on our plates dictates the composition of species in the world, which ones we favor, which ones we don’t — the reason there are plenty of cows and not too many wolves left. It’s the way we’ve shaped the landscape in terms of deforesting it for our fields. What we choose to grow and not grow has a huge bearing on our health and our happiness.

TMN: You point out a paradox. As people talk more about nutrition, food becomes less healthy.

MP: It’s not a coincidence. We’ve stuffed our brains with biochemistry. Ordinary people in the street are talking about antioxidants, cholesterol, fiber, polyphenols, phytochemicals, all this has become the language of food, while the food is disappearing. If you read packages in stores, it’s all about nutrients.

This is an ideology: nutritionism — an ism, not a science. The ideology has four premises.

The first is that nutrients are what matters, not food. See that you’re getting enough of the good ones and avoiding the bad ones.

Second, like any other ism, it divides the world into good and evil.

TMN: There’s always a good nutrient and a bad one, and when one is up the other is down.

MP: I remember my mother dutifully giving us all margarine instead of butter. She would say, “Some day they’re going to figure out that butter is actually better for you than margarine,” and we thought she was nuts. In fact, it turned out that margarine was lethal and butter is fine.

TMN: She was still feeding it to you suspecting that would happen…?

MP: The authority of mothers was essentially destroyed by the food industry. The $32 billion a year in marketing muscle out there has undercut culture’s role in determining what we eat, and culture is a fancy word for your mom.

TMN: Just to emphasize that number, that’s not the food industry, that’s the food marketing industry.

MP: That’s advertising, studying us, packaging, figuring out how to get us to eat more.

TMN: Food industry folks say, “We don’t think we should regulate this sort of thing because Americans believe in individualism and free choice, but we’re all for public education.” So maybe we’ll throw $100 million of education up against that $32 billion of marketing.

MP: $100 million is one snack food’s annual budget. The entire USDA/FDA effort to educate people about food equals one chip. [laughs] There’s no contest. They control the information about food.

Third premise: the whole point of eating is to advance or ruin your health, and that’s what food is about.

Americans accept that idea, but it’s actually quite strange. If you go to other countries, you remember very quickly that people have eaten for a great many reasons other than health. They eat for pleasure, they eat for community and communion, they eat to express their identity. And these are all equally legitimate reasons to eat.

The fourth premise is, of course, that 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. You need scientists. You need journalists. It’s like a religion. If what matters is invisible and inaccessible to you directly, you need a priesthood. And now we have a food priesthood.

And we have the health claims on the packages. We have the nutritionists that we listen to on radio and television. And we have lost any confidence in our mothers or in ourselves, in our instincts to determine what is good food. It’s understandable that we would not trust our instincts, because so many of the foods now lie to us with artificial flavors and sweeteners and fats.

In this book — by taking apart the science — I’m trying to show you that we can’t rely on food scientists to feed us. Their advice hasn’t been that good. Not out of any evil intent, but to put it charitably, nutrition is a very young science. They’ve only been at it for about 170 years. They may get better.

The whole 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 you’d send men on long sea voyages with plenty of carbohydrate, protein and fat — and they still got sick.

So then we discovered we need vitamins, but baby formula still wasn’t successful. What was missing? Well, it turns out omega 3 fatty acids were missing.

That’s the whole history: Every decade or two discovering another level of absolutely critical nutrients that we’ve previously overlooked.

TMN: Science does get better at pulling things apart and finding the single nutrients, not necessarily better at actually delivering something that’s good for us.

You’ve got just three basic recommendations: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

But you also lay out corollaries from those to navigate our way through those big three. One of them is: “Avoid anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” Our mothers and grandmothers have been around as things have gotten cloudy. How did that begin? What led to this crazy upside down reality?

MP: I think it’s built into the nature of the food industry and the economics of selling food. It’s very hard to make money selling normal unprocessed foods. Ask any farmer who’s growing broccoli or oats; it’s a very hard way to make money.

The more you process the food, the more profitable it is. If I go to the supermarket, I can buy a pound of organic oats for 79 cents. Now that’s a lot of oats, and nobody’s making much money. But if you turn it into Cheerios, suddenly you have a brand. You’ve got your little doughnut shape, you’ve got an ad campaign, and suddenly you’re charging four bucks for a few ounces of oats.

Then you come up with a Honey Nut Cheerio Cereal Bar with a layer of artificial milk in the middle. Now you’ve got a convenience food that’s very much your own, because you’ve got this special formula to make your fake milk. And kids can 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. That’s the gist of the food industry. That’s the economic imperative.

TMN: So, as usual, follow the money.

I was in Battlecreek, Michigan, a couple of years ago — the home of Kellogg’s. Some local women told me cereal sales were way down. I asked why, and they said, “Because you can’t eat them in the car.” Thus your cereal bars.

MP: Exactly right. And now we have cereal straws.

The problem is that the more you process food, the less nutritious it is. So the economic imperative takes you in one direction, while the biological imperative is saying, “Leave it alone.” There’s nothing better for you for breakfast than plain oats. Cook them yourself.

To counter that, you need to make a health claim for your processed product. So you fortify it. You throw in whatever the hot nutrient of the moment is.

TMN: When you process it, you remove some of the value and nutrients. That’s why you have to —

MP: — add them back in.

TMN: You purify, you process, you refine. Then you add things back in and make claims for what you’ve added back in.

MP: As if you’ve done a big favor.

TMN: If the stuff that our great grandmother was putting on the table gives us what we need and tastes good, why have we fallen for this?

MP: A lot of reasons: marketing and convenience. We want to be liberated from the drudgery of cooking, or at least we’ve been convinced that we do.

TMN: And even the drudgery of eating.

MP: That’s right. I mean as Wendell Berry said back in the ’70s, if the food industry could profitably digest your food for you, they would. They would reach down your throat and mush it up for you. They want the meal in a pill. That’s the ultimate dream of the food industry. They have to show value added, and the value they’ve added most successfully is convenience. Liberating women from the kitchen, cooking for us, chewing for us.

TMN: I often say that this civilization is going to die by convenience.

How did you come up with your three rules, and what’s underneath them?

MP: I tried to boil everything down as much as I could, and realized I could say this whole thing in seven words. I give it away on the cover.

Eat food seems obvious, but how do you distinguish the food from the edible foodlike substances that are masquerading as food? So I spend 14 pages defining food in this book, which is something that really shouldn’t need to be done.

TMN: If you’d told someone 100 years ago —

MP: — I’m going to write a bestseller telling people how to eat real food — it’s a crazy idea to contemplate.

I have a bunch of rules to help you find the actual food. One is, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” That’s kind of an algorithm. Carry her with you in your imagination as you’re rolling down the aisles of the supermarket. Would she know what to do with portable yogurt tubes? Would she recognize the ingredients in it? And the answer is no, she wouldn’t. That’s not really food. Yogurt is a very simple, wonderful food. It’s milk in a bacterial culture. So what are those other 15 ingredients doing there?

Another rule: “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 with added fat, sugar and salt, 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. That’s food your great grandmother would recognize. There might be some exotic vegetables, but basically she knows what that stuff is, and she knows what to do with it.

TMN: Okay — “Not too much.”

MP: The amount we’re eating is a big part of our problem, especially because we’re so sedentary. It’s not enough to tell people to eat less. I try to find other cultures and cultural rules that would govern appetite. The Japanese in Okinawa, and this is true of the Chinese too, have a cultural rule that you eat until you’re four-fifths full. How do you know when you’re 80 percent full? Well, if you just stop before you’re completely full, that would be huge progress.

TMN: About eight years ago, I noticed I weighed about a dozen pounds more than I ever had. My metabolism must have changed with age. I decided to simply be more conscious about when I wasn’t hungry anymore, and in a little over a year I lost 25 pounds. I’ve regained some so that I’m back where I want to be.

MP: Americans are particularly driven by visual cues in their eating. Psychologists have compared us to the French. Ask an American, when do you stop eating? And they’ll say, when the plate or the bag is empty. If you ask a European, they’ll say when I feel full.

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. Slowing down is a very important part of eating better.

TMN: So not too much and not too fast.

MP: The slower you eat, the less you will eat — even if you’re spending a lot of time. The French get more food experience on fewer calories. Spending time with food, enjoying food, savoring food, thinking about it, anticipating it.

What do you really want? Do you want calories, or do you want food experience? I think most of us would say we want food experience. The two things aren’t necessarily correlated — except in the mind of the American consumer, who’s been taught that food is about quantity rather than quality.

TMN: “Mostly plants.”

MP: Especially leaves. Scientists may disagree on what’s so good about plants, but they do agree that they’re probably really good for you. Also, by eating 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: I want to finish with a big question. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the privilege to interview Lester Brown, founder of WorldWatch, about his book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, a big-picture look at energy and environment. And Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohammed Yunus, about creating a world without poverty through social business. And Laura Flanders, about the power of the grass roots in the presidential campaign.

All of these share something: They look at systems and relationships, at bottom-up and local rather than top-down and mass market. It makes me hopeful that all this stuff is percolating, and it seems that it’s about a worldview. Rather than food, I could be having this conversation with someone about the American healthcare system where we focus on symptoms, we look for magic bullets, we suffer with side effects …

MP: That’s a great example. The food issue and the healthcare issue are seen as separate. Of course, they’re not. When I was a boy in 1960, we spent 18 percent of our national income on food — twice as much as we do today — and only 5 percent on healthcare. Today it’s flipped. We spend 16 or 17 percent of our income on healthcare and only 9 percent on food. The less money we’ve been willing to spend for 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 energy and calories cheaper.

MP: We’re using the original solar technology, photosynthesis, making food from sunlight, but we’ve mistakenly focused on fossil fuel. We’re taking 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. It doesn’t have to be that way.

No question about it, there’s value in seeing things as systems — seeing food as a system and your body as a system and these two things interacting. And learning to think ecologically, asking where did the energy come from that’s feeding me? Of course, thinking ecologically is not strictly about the environment — it’s about the whole system in which we live.

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