A Thumbs Down Book Review
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 2008
Reviewed by Ellen Ussery
Michael Pollan is an elegant and engaging writer. He can take a complex subject and weave its many threads into a seamless narrative that is both highly informative amd eminently readable. With his best selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he opened the eyes of the masses to the ecological and ethical dimensions of our food choices. No wonder so many people concerned with the future of agriculture and our food supply began to think of him as Saint Michael.
It feels a bit like blasphemy, then, to take issue with his current offering, In Defense of Food. It has much to recommend it, especially when he delineates how we came to the current sorry state of affairs in which human beings—who have been eating for millions of years—suddenly find themselves in need of expert guidance for this most basic activity. He gives us a history of the confluence of well intentioned government policy, flawed science, industrial profiteering, and regulatory idiocy. As a result, food itself now needs to be defended against the Nutritional Industrial Complex, which conspires to disassemble and then reconfigure it in beguiling new forms, in response to ever changing nutritional ideology.
The concept of “Nutritionism” is one of the catchy hooks upon which he hangs his story. It is the central theme for his powerful case against our modern food culture. Essentially, nutritionism is the widely shared but unexamined assumption that the key to understanding food lies in its individual nutrients. Because these are abstract and invisible, we need scientists and journalists to explain them to us. We then begin to think of food only in terms of bodily health, and lose sight of its pleasurable and social aspects. Food becomes nothing more than a nutrient delivery system, and the distinction between whole and processed foods is lost.
Nutritionism is complex and reductionist, Pollan says. His antidote to the resulting confusion is this simple admonition: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” Clever. And it works. But only up to a point. At the end of the book, as he fleshes out these simple phrases, he offers invaluable guidelines to help reprogram the victims of nutritionism: Accept as food only things that your great-grandmother would have recognized as such. Buy a good portion of it from local farmers who raise “well-grown food from healthy soils;” or better still, grow some of it yourself, if only a pot of herbs. Take time to prepare meals yourself, and sit down at the table with family and friends to enjoy it together in a leisurely way.
His goal is to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters by opting out of the Western Diet. But we may not get there from here using his directions, because there is a fundamental disconnect between his excellent analysis and some of his recommendations—often obscured by his enormous skill as a writer.
He tells us to eat less meat and that just about any old traditional diet will do. He tells us to eat more plants, but never more saturated fat. Indeed, he continually refers to saturated fat as something to be avoided. It is hard to understand how he comes to such conclusions when they contradict what he has said elsewhere in the book.
We will come back to these points later, but first let us look at what he has to say about the rise of nutritionism. As he tells it, the crucial moment was in 1977, when the McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs formulated their Dietary Goals for the United States. Because they embraced the “lipid hypothesis”—which held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol was responsible for the rapidly rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century—they initially advised Americans to “reduce consumption of meat and dairy products.” In the face of pressure from the powerful meat and dairy industries, however, the wording was changed to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” According to Pollan, the implication of this apparently simple change was profound: The focus was now on individual nutrients rather than on actual foods.
This shift of focus supplied the “ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.” What followed was thirty years in which we replaced fats with carbohydrates, and have become less healthy and considerably fatter. But now, Pollan tells us, scientists have come to see that the whole low-fat campaign was bogus. He quotes prominent scientists as saying that “it is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended consequences.” An example of flawed evidence and logic cited by Pollan is the promotion of the lipid hypothesis even though “during the decades of the twentieth century when rates of heart disease were rising in America, Americans were actually reducing their intake of animal fats (in the form of lard and tallow). In place of those fats, they consumed substantially more vegetable oils.” He devotes an entire chapter to this logical sleight of hand, “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis.”
So far so good. But round about here he opines that it is hard for him “to imagine the low fat/high carb craze taking off as it did or our collective health deteriorating to the extent that it has if the Committee’s original food based recommendations had stood: Eat less meat and dairy products.” Actually, I seriously doubt that the original wording by the McGovern Committee would have prevented the increasing presence of ersatz carbohydrate foods in the American diet. As Pollan has explained so well, both here and in his many other writings, the forces of agriculture and the food industry were perfectly poised to take advantage of any opportunity by which they could increase the sale of corn and soy, using all the food engineering, marketing and regulatory influence that money could buy. The taboo against the eating of traditional fats itself was all the opening they needed to push such an agenda.
More crucially, Pollan makes a compelling case that the lipid hypothesis on which the McGovern Dietary Goals were based, whatever the choice of words, was seriously flawed. By what logic does Pollan demolish the foundational hypothesis itself, but then accept with approval the major recommendation it engendered? Pollan doesn’t say, and that is one of the puzzles of this book.
Such contradictions continue to crop up, as for example: “But eaters worried about their health needn’t wait for science to settle this question [what it is about a meat-heavy diet that causes higher rates of coronary disease and cancer] before deciding that it might be wise to eat more plants and less meat. This of course is precisely what the McGovern committee was trying to tell us.”
Pollan’s frequent refrain that we should “eat less meat” seems to assume that the unhealthful consequence of eating a lot of meat is settled science. It is not—he makes it seem so by sleight of hand. He slips in references to research on the matter without giving it the kind of scrutiny he himself applies to nutritional studies in other parts of the book. For example, is it known what kind of meat the subjects in these studies were eating? Was it grain-fed or grass-fed? Pollan makes it abundantly clear that the two are completely different foods, and advocates eating only the pastured variety. Studies with conclusions about meat tell us nothing unless this distinction is made.
He cites as a particular authority for the conclusion that we should limit meat The China Study, by Colin Campbell. This was an epidemiological study, subject to a myriad of misinterpretations— as Pollan demonstrates when he explores the pitfalls and limitations of modern nutritional studies in the chapter “Bad Science.” He closes that section with this comment from a noted epidemiologist: “I don’t believe anything I read in nutritional epidemiology anymore.” But inexplicably, Pollan evinces no such qualms about swallowing The China Study.
Finally, in suggesting that we needn’t wait for science to settle exactly what it is about eating meat that supposedly causes coronary disease and cancer, Pollan ignores his previous implication that our present national dietary disaster was created when the McGovern Committee acted in a similarly precipitous manner.
Here is another puzzle: Why does he disregard major portions of the work of Dr. Price in preference for others? He gives us a lengthy discussion of the findings of Dr. Weston A. Price, some of which are slightly misrepresented—just enough so to support the anti-meat stance Pollan seems bent on taking. For example, he says that Price found populations who “thrived on diets in which fruits, vegetables and grain predominated.” This statement is not accurate, since it gives the impression that animal foods were not fundamental among the populations Price studied; and is contradicted when he himself says, “Price found groups that ate diets of wild animal flesh to be generally healthier than the agriculturists who relied on cereals and other plant foods . . .” with “the healthiest of all the populations” Price studied being “. . .tribes that subsisted on milk, meat, and blood from pastured cattle as well as animal food from the Nile River.”
He reports that Price found these diets to be “on average ten times higher in vitamins A and D than modern diets.” Pollan implies that the discrepancy had to do with the stripping of nutrients from grains in modern processing, but in so doing ignores the essential point that these vitamins are only found in animal fats. However, later on he does observe that organ meats with their high levels of fat-soluble vitamins were particularly prized. He notes as well the degree to which the health of pastoral populations was a reflection of the quality of the pasture on which their animals grazed, and the resulting levels of A and D in their butter.
But it is only the connection between the soil and the health of the eaters—the ecological aspects of Price’s work—that Pollan focuses on when making his recommendations. He is content to leave behind all of Price’s conclusions on the value of animal fats, and take away only the partial truth that “the human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them.”
He did not see that animal fats are the key to reversing the damage done by industrializing our food supply—and indeed, many of the worst aspects of nutritionism. Animal fats are what is missing in Pollan’s attempt to restore us to our proper relationship to food. In this endeavor he notes five different changes that have taken place since we have industrialized our food supply. We have gone from whole foods to refined, from complexity to simplicity, from quality to quantity, from leaves to seeds, and from food culture to food science.
In explaining these transformations Pollan finds that he must borrow from nutritionism’s reductive vocabulary to delve into the implications of a change that he feels is the most egregious of all—that from leaves to seeds. He almost apologizes for doing so. But he needn’t. The fact is, you can’t unopen Pandora’s box. You can’t navigate the modern food world by ignoring nutritionism as part of the landscape. You need to understand what it is and be able to know it when you see it or you will soon find yourself on the road to nowhere. This is what is so valuable about Pollan’s work: It fills in the map with all the new sideroads and subdivisions. But your journey to the land of optimal health and happiness will be impeded by an uncrossable desert if you ignore guidance from earlier explorers who actually got there.
Price did. And he was unambiguous about the need for animal fats.
We cannot transform the relationship of humans to the soil, as Pollan advocates, without adding back the missing link, that most miraculous of food processors, the grazing animal—a creature who takes leaves from the soil, disassembles and reconfigures them, producing foods that contain the optimal balance of an unimaginable variety of nutrients, many of which science hasn’t even identified, all packaged in their own appetizing and satisfying nutrient delivery systems: meat, milk, and fat.
This is a food system based on plants. And that is exactly what Pollan says we need in order to redress the harm that has been done in the shift from leaves to seeds. But he is in the land of wishful thinking if he believes we can do this by eating more plants, only a tiny bit of meat, and ignoring animal fats. If we follow his directions we will find ourselves still in the grips of nutritionism, but this time with the Nutritional Industrial Complex busily providing us with things like high omega-3 asparagus. We may not be fat, but you can bet we will be very hungry.
We should be grateful that, even though he misses the major import of Dr. Price’s work, he does introduce it to a wider audience; and he does show that the lipid hypothesis was a flim-flam.
We should also be grateful that his next book will be about orchids.
As a challenge to Pollan’s 2-3-2 word sequence “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” a New York Times blog asked participants to come up with their own “Pollanisms.”
Among the ingenious entries:
Eat pie. Very good pie. Not often.
Spend time. On useful things. Not this.
Read Pollan. Take his advice. With salt.
Make promises. Don’t break them. Find loopholes.
Seek wisdom. Think for yourself. Avoid maxims.
The winner manages to challenge Pollan’s original edicts and elicit a laugh:
Ate plants. A big heap. Still hungry.
And this one from your editor:
Eat plants. Always with butter. Or cream.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2008.