Thursday, February 19, 2009

In Defense of Food; Michael Pollan

It took me a long time to read this, not because it's difficult but because I wanted to read it at times when I could devote my full attention (HA! pathetic as it is) to what Mr. Pollan has to say. As I have mentioned before one of my interests is nutrition, policy related areas, eating disorders and the food supply in general. I read Mr. Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I've not reviewed here, but is well worthwhile and available in paperback. Link to his site in title above.

In a nutshell, Mr. Pollan writes in depth about how the US food supply has become concentrated around a small number of crops: wheat, corn and soy. This is the result of significant amounts of meddling from numerous sources: Congress, agriculture lobbyists, nutritionists, scientists and even journalists. He goes into much more detail than I will here, but essentially Mr. Pollan makes the case that that Americans have been led around by the stomach by said special interests, and our good health has suffered from these unwonted attentions. It is Mr. Pollan's opinion, and I concur, that the concentration of the American diet around starches, sugars and highly processed foods over the last several decades has resulted in the current epidemic of 'Western diet diseases': cardiac diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, various allergies, etc.

The first section of his book centers on making his case as I (badly) summarized above. The second part, much shorter, details what Mr. Pollan feels might be a better way of eating. He does point out, ironically, that it's very telling that a journalist would be asked (after the publication of his previous book) how & what to eat. He feels that our innate knowledge of our own food culture usually passed down to us by our foremothers has been overwritten by scientists and nutritionists and lobbyists. So what should we eat? Produce, locally grown CSA and/or organic if possible. Some meat, but very little & only if the animal eats what it is supposed to eat, ie: 100% grass fed cows, etc. Pollan reminds us that our food, both protein and produce, is only as nutrient rich as what they are fed or grown in. Cows aren't actually designed to be grain fed, which is why they need so many antibiotics when raised in a standard environment. Their bodies aren't intended to eat grains & it makes them sick. Also, don't eat anything that has items in the ingredient list that you can't pronounce or don't know what they are. Like the kids in the Breyers commercials. And NO high fructose corn syrup- don't be fooled by their commercials either.

Generally, I agree with Mr. Pollan's observations and insights. His research and conclusions made me think and fed many conversations between various family members. However, I feel that Mr. Pollan completely ignored a large segment of those persons in the US who suffer the most from the Western diseases: the poor. Here in the metro DC area it's well known that there is one supermarket east of the Anacostia River in the District. The poorest, most challenged area of the city. If a mother wanted to buy an apple for her child? She's probably got to travel way way out of her way to get one from a store. If she was inclined to or financially able to take Metro that far out of her way in the first place. The rural poor aren't much better off either, if reports are to be believed.

It's all well and good to tell people to eat locally grown, preferably organic produce and properly fed and humanely treated animals if you're concentrating on those persons who can afford these things. I believe in reaching out a helping hand. Our country is already deeply divided into haves and haven'ts by virtue of class: Shall we allow access to decent nutritious food to be yet another cause for the divide? I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in these topics.

Image found on the Hunter College Library


CindyS said...

I think you did a great job summarizing this book.

I have gone through the supermarket before and wondered about the how, where, when, what etc. but then I see the next item on the list.

It was only this past summer that I started thinking about locally grown produce. We had bought locally grown food before but like you say, when you are on a budget, paying twice the price than a supermarket can hurt!

That said, the produce was fantastic and I plan on making it a weekly trip. As long as the budget can hold up!


Bookwormom said...

It's very sad when you read the ingredient list on a bottle of salad dressing and can't understand half of what's printed there.

I want to try to buy a CSA share, I think that's where you pay a flat fee to a farm & you get X# of bags of produce over the season. I'm unsure if we'll be able to swing it this year.

In the meantime, I try to buy local produce when I can find & afford it. Which isn't as often as I'd like. :(