“Unhappy Meals”

I want to say this now because it might not be obvious later: I like Michael Pollan. I like his books. I greatly enjoyed and regularly recommend his latest, Omnivore’s Dliemma. Likewise his previous effort, The Botany of Desire. Both are elegantly written collections of essays on his adventures in the world of food. They’re witty, charming and by and large well researched. The problems I have with them are more what you’d call philosophical, since I disagree with most of his base assumptions, and view much of his work as an exercise in pursuing his own foregone conclusions.

It’s the same with his latest effort, Unhappy Meals, a lengthy Sunday Magazine article in last weekend’s New York Times. The argumentative skeleton of the thing is practically a parody of what you’d expect a Berkeley journalism professor (which he is) to say about the food industry: It’s a grand conspiracy between food scientists, manufacturers, journalists and the health care industry, all of whom profit equally from our confusion over the foods we eat. If only we’d listened to good old George McGovern back when we had the chance, none of this mess would ever have happened. Seriously. Fortunately the flesh on that skeleton is more interesting (though only marginally so, particularly when compared to his books).

The article is Pollan’s own effort to find the root cause for what he considers our national (actually Western) eating disorder. Alarmed by rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases (as all of us ought to be), he sets out to uncover the rat’s nest of ne’er-do-wells who perpetrated it. Along the way he fingers food scientists (misguided if well-intended people who invent it all), food journalists (who obligingly talk about it in the press), pre-packaged food makers and marketers (who cynically force-feed it to us) and the health care industry (which is too busy making money treating food-related diseases to gripe much). It all makes for a pretty neat package, a likely set-up for his next book in the same way his 2002 NYT essay This Steer’s Life: The Highly Unnatural Journey of No. 534, from Calf to Steak set up last year’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But what set the whole sad state of affairs in motion to begin with? Apparently sinister food industry lobbyists, who back in 1977 watered down McGovern’s plain-English directive from his Senate Select Committee on the American diet, which plainly instructed us all to eat less meat and more vegetables. Dang! So that’s what it was! If only we’d known we might have stopped this whole thing! Sarcasm aside, it doesn’t take much reflection to see how absurd this is. Most of us give more credence to late night informercials than we do the government when it comes to advice on living our lives. Senate committees put out volumes of recommendations each year on everything from diet to sexual practices to appliance purchasing. Every consulted one before you shopped, took your spouse to bed or bought a refrigerator? Anyone?

It seems to me that just about anybody who took a moment to consider the problem would look to broader cultural trends for the source of our dietary woes, not some seminal incident. But then for every person who looks out at the food world in all its flawed glory and sees a mix of intended and unintended consequences, the upshot of cultural drives toward convenience, low cost, health and customer satisfaction, there’s someone else who sees a dark cabal who “done it to us”. And never the twain shall meet.

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