Sunday, April 13, 2008

Book Review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Note: The following book review was written by K. Rashid Nuri from Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms in Georgia. Rashid does a great job with this; I couldn't have said it better myself....

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This is how Michael Pollan begins his latest book, In Defense of Food, an Eaters Manifesto. His previous book, The Omnivores Dilemma, gave a comprehensive overview of food production in America. This new book brings food from the field to the table. Mr. Pollan elegantly explains why Americans are so confused about what to eat. He offers simple rules that will help us unravel what, until the past hundred years or so, was a very simple process of obtaining and consuming healthful, life sustaining food.

Part I - The Age of Nutritionism. Pollan defines the fundamental food problem as "nutritionism". We have been trained to believe foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts. Nutrients, as compared with food, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious. It falls to scientists and journalists to explain the hidden reality of food to us. In 1842 Justus von Liebig proposed a theory of metabolism that explained life strictly in terms of a small handful of chemical nutrients. Science and industry followed suit and have led us to the conditions we find today.

To a large extent, most Americans have stopped eating real food. Instead, most of us consume chemical soup. Food scientists believe they can create higher quality food than nature. They take individual nutrients and combine them into a compound and call it food, when it truly is only a combination of chemical elements. Soon we will be able to purchase an organic Twinkie proclaimed for its antioxidant properties and health benefits to those who eat one, because of the nutrient additives the scientists provide.

Part II - The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization. Case studies ad infinitum have proven that societies adhering to the so-called Western Diet (McDonald's, microwave dinners, canned and processed food) face an inevitable increase in heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes and many other ailments. One of the key features of the modern diet is a shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates and sugar. We have come to accept disease as one of life's givens. We expect modern allopathic medicine to intervene and minimize the inconvenience of disease and thus prolong our lives. Meanwhile, Americans no longer top the list of the world's healthiest peoples; most industrial nations have better health statistics than Americans.

The same nutritionism that has defiled food also defiles the soil. Utilizing Liebig's concepts, farmer's no longer concern themselves with improving the quality of the soil. They only provide the minimal nutrient required to grow a plant. The maxims of organic agriculture are ignored. The quality of the soil determines the quality of the plants. The quality of food determines the quality of an individual's health. There is a direct correlation between this health decline and the quality of food production. It stands to reason that chemically simplified soil would produce chemically simplified plants and poor health.

Part III - Getting Over Nutritionism. Some of Michael Pollan's rules in defense of food:

  • Stop eating a western diet
  • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that 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
  • Shake the hand of the farmer that feeds you
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • You are what you eat eats too
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Eat meals
  • Do all your eating at a table
  • Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook and, if you can, plant a garden

"The work of growing food contributes to health long before you sit down to eat. There is something particularly fitting about enlisting your body in its own sustenance. Much of what we call recreation or exercise consists of pointless physical labor, so it is especially satisfying when we can give that labor a point. Gardening consists of mental work as well: learning about the different varieties; figuring out which do best under the conditions of your garden; acquainting yourself with the various microclimates---the subtle differences in light, moisture and soil quality across even the tiniest patch of earth; and devising ways to outwit pests without resorting to chemicals."

"When the basket of produce lands on the kitchen counter there are no ingredients labels, no health claims, nothing to read except maybe a recipe. As cook in your kitchen you enjoy an omniscience about your food that no amount of supermarket study or label reading could hope to match. Having retaken control of the meal from food scientists and processors, you know exactly what is and is not in it: There are no questions about high-fructose corn syrup, or ethoxylated diglycerides, or partially hydrogenated soy oil because you did none of these things to your food."

"To reclaim this much control over one's food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts."

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