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Book review: ‘In Defense of Food’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyTitle: "In Defense of Food"
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The tag line to Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” reads: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” In fact, Pollan, a professor of journalism at Berkeley and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, isn’t too fussy about those last two sentence fragments. The book is not an argument to join the movement of people who vow to consume as little as possible, on the theory that fewer calories leads to longer life. And while he does defend vegetarianism, citing nutritional, environmental and ethical grounds, he allows plenty of wiggle room, concluding that he “hasn’t found a compelling health reason to exclude [meat] from the diet.” Fish is recommended as a means to reducing heart disease, and possibly even increasing happiness. The “Mostly Plants” section, subtitled “What to Eat,” is placed toward the back of the book; “Not Too Much: How to Eat,” is the final chapter.

Which leaves the bulk of “In Defense of Food,” and the bulk of Pollan’s attention, focused on “Eat Food.” The two-word command seems obvious: What else would we eat if not food? But the core of Pollan’s thesis here is that so much of what we Americans consume is not the stuff that sustained our ancestors for several thousands of years, but a product of 20th-century agribusiness. What we are jamming down our gullets are “edible foodlike substances,” processed and packaged for stability while spending months traveling across the globe and sitting quietly on store shelves. That such a system is designed for profit and convenience rather than wellness is evident in our rates of obesity, cancer, tooth decay and diabetes.

Pollan frequently cites studies that have linked traditional diets with health, and makes his point clear: living on local, fresh foods has been good for tribes from Aboriginals in Western Australia, to Eskimos (who eat almost no plant food). Over centuries, humans developed bodies that could live off their particular land.

This perhaps idealized equilibrium was thrown awry by industrialization. Pollan lays a good portion of the blame at the feet of John Harvey Kellogg, who not only created the shelf-stable foods that still bear his name, but also preached a diet high in carbohydrates and absurdly minimal in protein. Kellogg helped usher in, in the 1930s, what Pollan calls “the first golden age of American food faddism.”

Pollan claims that such fads ” probably well-intended, but most definitely profitable ” have interfered with the natural relationship between food and health.

“Nutritionism,” a science-driven method of breaking down foods into component parts like vitamins and minerals, has replaced nutrition, a time-honored practice of eating that treats genuine, no-doubt-about-it foods ” be it an apple or bacon slices ” as something more whole, and more wholesome, than the sum of its parts. Even products pitched as “health” foods ” with fat removed, fiber added, enriched with riboflavin ” are suspect.

The bottom line, which Pollan cooks up with a digestible balance of science, common sense and gentle persuasion: drop the energy bar, and its claims of health benefits, and eat things your grandmother would recognize as foods.


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