Review - In Defense of Food
In Defense of Food, an Appreciation
In Defense of Food
Penguin Group, 2008 (P)
205 pp., (plus 25 pages of sources and resources)
I am not what I would call a voracious reader. I read fairly widely, and enthusiastically, but I tend to reread what I enjoy the most rather than move on irrevocably. I say this by way of emphasizing that I estimate that In Defense of Food, the newest offering by Michael Pollan (yes, he of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire fame) is probably the single most important book I have read in the past decade, maybe longer.
It is comprehensive in its exploration and compelling in its arguments. And on another, entirely different level, it is a beautiful example of Cayce’s model of the Law of Karma in action and an unequivocal demonstration of our role, implicit or otherwise, in shaping the world we live in.
Rather than attempting to entice you by highlighting a few of the many insights found in this book, I’m just tempted to say “READ IT! NOW!” and let it go at that. But here goes.
Is Eating for Dummies next? To begin with, Pollan marvels at the very need to write a book defending food. “My aim in this book is to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters…an exercise that at first blush might seem unnecessary if not absurd…” p. 7 “I mean, what other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?” p. 2
But he gets straight to the point. “The story about how the most basic question about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science, and ---ahem--- journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. [Today]… a large gray cloud, a great Conspiracy of Scientific Complexity has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition – much to the advantage of everyone involved.” P. 6 [Food marketing alone is a $32 billion industry, on an annual basis. p. 4]
History and culture. The more conscientious we are about eating, the more we are stumped by figuring out what to eat (not to mention “how much to eat, in what order to eat, it,” eating it “with what, when and with whom”, p. 3), especially if we follow the latest research on diet and health. For thousands of years, this wasn’t a problem – we followed tradition and the guidelines of our culture, i.e. Mom (almost any culture works, as it turns out).
“Most of us no longer eat what our mothers ate, and historically speaking, this is an unusual state of affairs….”p. 3. “Her parents wouldn’t recognize the foods we [now routinely] put on the table. … Today in America the culture of food is changing more than once in a generation.” P. 4
Food Science & Nutritionism. The advent of Food Science expertise to help use navigate these tricky waters has only led to “an ideology of nutritionism that … has convinced us of three pernicious myths:
- What matters most is not the food but the ‘nutrient”
- Because nutrients are invisible…, we need expert help in deciding what to eat.
- The purpose of eating is to promote the narrow concept of physical health.” P. 8
Because nutritionist thinking has become so pervasive as to be invisible, we forget that “As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.” P. 8.
Cultural Choice Wins. And yet our modern diet is increasingly linked to chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, some cancers). This is a tale of the limitations of reductionist science applied to something as complex as food. Whole grain diets reduced mortality rates from all causes, independent of the presence of all specific nutrients identified by science. This gave rise to the concept of “food synergy” in 2003 – i.e. a whole food is more than the sum of its parts. The industry has ignored this concept. The big money has always been in processing, not selling whole foods (pp. 109-111).
What? Karma? I thought this was about food. At the outset, I mentioned the Law of Karma in action, and how our “food situation” is an unequivocal demonstration of our role, implicit or otherwise, in shaping the world we live in. (These are my thoughts, not Pollan’s but I think the relationship is compelling.) Food, or industrialization for that matter, is not inherently good or evil. Like most things at our disposal, it’s how they’re used that tells the tale. Consider these facts:
- We voted with our wallets for efficiency and low cost over cultural values related to food as an experience.
- We do the things we choose very well, but are not always well informed in our choices. Our food choices have led to an absence of several important elements in our diet - micro-nutrients, Omega-3, probably others we don’t yet understand.
- The current Western diet has links to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and more.
- Just as we have elected this diet and its consequences, by applying the same principles, learning from our past, and making a better choice, we can change the picture, again.
Or as Cayce puts it, “Thus ye may find in thy mental and spiritual self, ye can make thyself just as happy or just as miserable as ye like. How miserable do ye want to be?” (Edgar Cayce Reading 2995-3)
Some of the other intriguing topics in the book, written as only Michael Pollan’s wit and intelligence allows, include “Eat Right, Get Fatter,” “Nutritionism’s Children,” “The Elephant in the Room” [the Western Diet], and “Eat Food: Food Defined.”
Having done my best to provoke your interest, I’m left with this one thought -
“BUY THIS BOOK! READ IT! NOW!”