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Kick off the New Year with In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

Posted Dec 23 2008 9:44pm
There's a new Michael Pollan book to enjoy in 2008! I could probably end this article right here, as that's enough for fans like me to go out and buy the book, but here is sneak peek at what's inside.

The cover of Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food, repeats the same three sentences that his popular Farm Bill article in The New York Times Magazine began with: "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants." The book is about going back to eating real food, not food-like substances or even supplements. He accuses us of having orthorexia, a new term to describe the nutrient-obsessed who lose track of the concept of a whole food.

In this NPR interview with Steve Inskeep he slams Go-Gurt as the antithesis of healthy eating (though he cheekily warns us to avoid any food labeled "healthy"):

The implication of Pollan's advice, however, is that what we're eating now isn't food.

"Very often, it isn't," he says. "We are eating a lot of edible food-like substances, which is to say highly processed things that might be called yogurt, might be called cereals, whatever, but in fact are very intricate products of food science that are really imitations of foods."

Pollan acknowledges that distinguishing between food and "food products" takes work. His tip: "Don't eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."

Take, for example, the portable tubes of yogurt known as Go-Gurt, Pollan says. "Imagine your grandmother or your great-grandmother picking up this tube, holding it up to the light, trying to figure out how to administer it to her body — if indeed it is something that goes in your body — and then imagine her reading the ingredients," he says. "Yogurt is a very simple food. It's milk inoculated with a bacterial culture. But Go-Gurt has dozens of ingredients."

I cracked up at this image of grandma trying to douche with Go-Gurt tubes. I felt like that Grandma when I shopped at a Japanese market recently and could not decipher product labels. Analyzing the shape of a white plastic bottle, I concluded this item was Japanese deodorant. Nope. My friend informed me it was in fact soup.

The book is also reviewed here in the New York Times Book Review. I can't choose just one quote from the article, so I'll paste the bulk of it below:

Do we really need such elementary advice? Well, two-thirds of the way through his argument Mr. Pollan points out something irrefutable. “You would not have bought this book and read this far into it if your food culture was intact and healthy,” he says. Nor would you eat substances like Go-Gurt, eat them on the run or eat them at mealtimes that are so out of sync with friends and relatives that the real family dinner is an endangered ritual. Other writers on food, from Barbara Kingsolver to Marion Nestle, have expressed the same alarm, but “In Defense of Food” is an especially succinct and helpful summary.

Among the historical details that underscore a sense of food’s downhill slide: the way a Senate Select Committee led by George McGovern was pressured in 1977 to reword a dietary recommendation. Its warning to “reduce consumption of meat” turned into “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

When Mr. McGovern lost his seat three years later, Mr. Pollan says, the beef lobby “succeeded in rusticating the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein squatting in the middle of its plate.” [Note: this piece of history was also detailed very well in Marion Nestle's book, Food Politics.]

Mr. Pollan shows how the story of nutritionism is “a history of macronutrients at war.” If the conventional scientific wisdom has moved from demon (saturated fat) to demon (carbohydrates), creating irreconcilably different theories about the health benefits of various foods, it has also created an up-and-coming eating disorder: orthorexia.

“We are,” he underscores, “people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” This book is biliously entertaining about orthorexia’s crazy extremes. A recent “qualified” F.D.A.-approved health claim for corn oil makes sense, Mr. Pollan says, “as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn’t increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.”

Since a Western diet conducive to diabetes has led us not to improved eating habits but to a growing diabetes industry, complete with its own magazine (Diabetic Living), Mr. Pollan finds little wisdom from the medical establishment about food and its ramifications. “We’ll know this has changed when doctors have kicked the fast-food franchises out of the hospitals,” he says.

Until then he recommends that we pay more attention to the reductive effects of food science, recognize the fallibility of research studies (because to replicate the healthy effects of, say, the Mediterranean diet completely, you need to live like a villager on Crete) and dial back the clock. Mr. Pollan advocates a return to the local and the basic, even at the risk of elitism. He recommends that Americans spend more on food: not only more money but also more time. Eat less, and maybe you make up the financial difference. Trade fast food for cooking, and maybe you restore some civility to the traditional idea of the meal.

In Pollan's previous food book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, he erroneously described pasta as one of the most "wholesome" foods. With the publication of In Defense of Food, I have the feeling he discovered pasta to be a nutrient-free food and has changed his mind on that one.

I'll close out with the Go-Gurt ingredients list. Is this really food or sugar in a tube spiked with unnatural ingredients? Notice by sweetening with two sweeteners (sugar and HFCS), sugar is not even listed as the first ingredient:

Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Milk, Sugar, Nonfat Milk, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Modified Corn Starch, Kosher Gelatin, Tricalcium Phosphate, Potassium Sorbate (To Maintain Freshness), Carrageenan, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Colored With Carmine

Happy 2008! Put this book on your reading list, and please, parents, I hate to get preachy, but I hope you can find some alternatives to Go-Gurt for your child's lunch box this year.
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