In Partial Defense of In Defense of Food

Debbie says:

Michael Pollan is probably the most popular food journalist of our time, and I always find him worth reading. His newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is a short volume in which he attempts to define “food” and set forth some basic advice for healthy eating in 21st century America.

cover of In Defense of Food

Let’s start with the problems:

1) His awareness of class issues is woefully nonexistent. He writes as though everyone has as much money, and as much access to ingredients, as he does. This has never been more obvious than in this book, where at one point he has the nerve to include a recommendation that people be affluent and educated. (“Be the kind of person who take supplements.”) He also frequently recommends spending more on food, for reasons I find useful, but never acknowledges that many people may be unable to do this. This class-blindness undercuts everything else he says.

2) He’s anti-fat. Worse, he’s stupid about it. He consistently throughout the book refers to fat and obesity as a “disease,” which is not part of contemporary medical theory. He’s able to use the famous “nurses’ study,” which is a keystone of the health-at-any-size movement to help show that dietary fat may not be dangerous, but he’s unable to use it to show that weight may not be dangerous, even though the scientific conclusions are inescapably similar. He also repeatedly cites the “Americans have gained an average of 12 pounds since the 1960s” (I’ve also heard six pounds), and yet constantly refers to the obesity epidemic, as if he never looked at those two sentences together. (It doesn’t help that he spends some time relying on the nurses’ study and similar studies, and also spends some time criticizing that same study enough to make us doubt his conclusions in the earlier sections.) Fat-acceptance folks may well decide not to read this book.

Those things being said, Pollan does have a lot of information about food history that I found invaluable. One of his key areas of examination is what he calls “nutritionism,” the shift from looking at what we eat as food to looking at it as a combination of nutrients. He traces a lot of history here, and also looks specifically at a 1977 report from the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which issued a trial recommendation of “reduce consumption of red meat and dairy products” and was lobbied into changing that to “choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.”

The fat intake isn’t the point here; the point is thinking about foods versus thinking about nutrients. That trend, which started well before 1977, is how we now get to the point where the doughnuts in the store on the corner are labeled “prepared with 0 grams transfat,” and supermarket bread, loaded with high-fructose corn syrup and other additives, is covered in health labels promoting “whole grains” and “enriched flours.”

Two important nutrition takeaway messages which Pollan makes clearly are: 1) all vegetables are not created equal. You can’t quantify the amount of beta-carotene in a carrot, because carrots have different nutrients in different seasons, in different soils, grown organically versus on a factory farm, etc., etc.; and 2) even the best nutrition science doesn’t understand what it is in foods that contributes to making or keeping us healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids probably are important, but they are differently important in the fish that produces them than they are in a pill.

By dissecting the history (and the money trail) that got us from food to nutrients, Pollan does a real service to understanding food, and why we eat so many things that we think of as food but really aren’t.

Pollan ends with a long advice section–I disagree with a few of his conclusions but support most of them, and am taking a few more to heart than I used to. The three basics get quoted a lot:

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

He defines food as “something your great-grandmother would recognize as food.”

Overall, he’s a good writer, he does (at least some of) his homework, and he’s entertaining. So if you can take the fat and class issues with a grain of salt (or a snack that makes you happy), read the book.

11 thoughts on “In Partial Defense of In Defense of Food

  1. He defines food as “something your great-grandmother would recognize as food.”

    So, gefilte fish, potato latkes, and matzoh ball soup, then?

    City people almost never ate fresh veggies in my great-grandma’s time, Mike, and she lived in frigging Toronto. Not only is he classist and fattist, he thinks everyone in this country is descended from American farmers. Sorry, but that doesn’t place his book high on my priority list.

  2. I had the experience of proofreading a Michael Pollan interview and listened to the video in order to do so. I was impressed by the intelligent way he presented what are still very radical views. What I took away from it, oddly, was one behavior change that I hadn’t expected. He took a few seconds to describe how most eggs are produced. Hearing that affected me deeply enough that no matter how broke I have been since, and no matter that the alternative free range eggs cost twice as much, I can never bring myself to buy the factory farmed kind again.

  3. But here is where I always get confused with this kind of thing: if you live in the northern US, especially in a landlocked part, then you either have to take supplements or you have to fly in food from elsewhere. There’s not a lot of fresh salmon available in Iowa without a plane and some serious freezing. Same with fruit and vegies (especially in winter, but also there are fewer plants that grow here at all, or they need too long a season to produce), etc. So it’s supplements or non-local food.

    And WRT to the class thing: one thing that always used to drive me crazy when we lived back in the Phillips neighborhood in Mpls. was that we had a lovely garden there… but could not grow food. Our area was on a big arsenic plume in the groundwater, from pesticides dumped in the early half of the 20th century. We were all warned not to grow food in the soil there (though I did grow some in containers). The community garden sites had to be certified for food growing and they trucked in a bunch of soil from elsewhere to get the arsenic level down enough.

    But the only reason people knew about the arsenic is that we had a really activist neighborhood in a relatively responsively-governed city, so that testing was done. I wonder whether there are places that might be similarly poisoned but people might not know about it, so if they do start growing more of their own food, it might be dangerous. And I don’t just mean urban areas either.

  4. This book was actually on my course list recently for a Community Economic Social Development class. It was only recommended, not required, so I didn’t read it, but I did browse it and this inability to recognize class and money problems jumped out at me right away.

  5. He also frequently recommends spending more on food, for reasons I find useful, but never acknowledges that many people may be unable to do this.

    I agree with you re: Pollan’s atittudes towards fat, but I disagree with the statement above. Pollan is consistent in his beliefs that if you are able to spend more money on better quality foods, you should. I also had the opportunity to hear him speak in person and again, he reiterated this and other class issues that may prevent this (without prompting from the audience). And the reason he doesn’t fully address class issues or even dwell on them is because class issues are not the subject he’s focusing on in his book. While his book is part social commentary, it’s more so a combo of social history and health and nutrition recommendations that is intended to serve as an aspirational model for all classes. Critiques on who can and who cannot afford the food he advocates and the reasons contributing to access and availability problems is an issue worthy of its own book altogether.

  6. Yes, I agree with Rachel. In the “eat less, spend more” section he specifically says that this is something not everyone can afford to do.

  7. Quoting from p. 184:
    “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health [..] but also the health of the people who grow the food as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of teh farms where it is grown.”

    Makes sense to me.

  8. Lynne, yes:

    Rachel, Anne, and Janet: I would say he gives very scant lip service to that point, although you’re all correct that he does say it, in the one sentence Rachel quotes. In the section that got up my nose, he says, “To the extent you can, be [more health conscious, better educated, and more affluent].” So I wasn’t fair to call his class awareness nonexistent; I’m willing to shift to “minimal.” Jen, you saw it the same way I did, and I still recommend the book.

    Stefanie, this is one of the complex issues of contemporary food thinking. Pollan isn’t opposed to taking supplements per se, he just cites the studies (I’ve seen the same or similar ones) that say they don’t work, but the people who take them are nonetheless healthier. People certainly ate locally before there was easy transportation of food; did that contribute to shorter lives? Perhaps; even with perfect data, it would be almost impossible to tell because of external factors like antibiotics.

  9. Thoughtful review, thank you. I liked the book but appreciate a review that points out its weaknesses. Pollan’s central thesis — which I take to be that reducing food to a collection of nutrients tells us nothing about either food or health — is worth taking to heart.

  10. But here is where I always get confused with this kind of thing: if you live in the northern US, especially in a landlocked part, then you either have to take supplements or you have to fly in food from elsewhere.

    Or preserve it, which is what people did before the modern food transportation system. Canned foods have a bad rep because commercially canned foods are so awful, but canned fruits and vegetables can actually be quite delicious and nutritious, and throughout human history were what allowed people to get through the winter without malnutrition (and to colonize parts of the world with short growing seasons). Home canning is a huge effort, though, and almost nobody does it any more, except as a hobby. It’s easy enough to find preserved foods of various varieties at farmer’s markets, but that’s about the only way I know of ensuring that the canned food you eat is local. I certainly wouldn’t recommend any person with a day job to try to get through the winter on home-canned produce. Freezing involves less effort, but if you’re really going to put away food for the winter, you’d need to invest in a big freezer.

    But what it comes down to is that the “eat local” injuction doesn’t have to be absolute. It’s a relative thing — you do what you can. I mean, I’m not ready to give up tea, chocolate, spices, or mangos, and a lot of people would freak if you suggested taking away their coffee.

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