Book Review: In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan

Everybody’s had the experience: you’re standing in a line, or sitting on a train or in a bus, and you share a laugh with a complete stranger. A comment about a politician or a movie star, or some scandal in the news, and suddenly you find yourself in a conversation. The first few moments pass pleasantly enough, though as the minutes tick by you notice you’re not doing much of the talking anymore. Odd comments are made, and with increasing frequency, until you realize that you’re engaged with, for lack of a better term, a nut. A Rosicrucian say, a JFK conspiracy theorist…or a food blogger. Oh please oh please, you think behind your nodding grin, somebody get me out of here! Such, I am very sad to say, has been the trajectory of my relationship to Michael Pollan.

In truth, I’d stop short of calling him a “nut”. The fellow is a fabulously talented writer. And indeed I have found much in his past work to recommend: Omnivore’s Dilemma, but especially the earlier Botany of Desire, which I consider an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written collection of essays. Sure, both contained sections that were indicative of radical leanings, but they were easy enough to gloss over, since information abounded and the prose sparkled. The diatribes grew longer in Omnivore, but how was I to know that what he was really warming up to was a full-fledged sermon? And that, unfortunately, is what In Defense of Food is: the purest distillation yet of Mr. Pollan’s thinking on nutrition and the American diet. Just like a sermon it moves fast, and is filled with angels, devils, sin, hell fire and damnation. It is also, even more so than Unhappy Meals, the New York Times Magazine article from which it sprung, extremely selective about its facts, being meant primarily for the ears of true believers.

The base premise of In Defense is that nutritional science is junk, at best worthless and at worst a manipulative lie, in which nearly everyone is complicit: nutritionists, food journalists, politicians (especially George McGovern, and later the Nixon administration), regulators and nonprofits (especially the USDA, FDA and the American Heart Association), farmers, food manufacturers, advertisers…even the health care establishment. Anyone, in short, who benefits in any way, whether directly or indirectly, from the way food is grown, processed and consumed. The only people Mr. Pollan doesn’t blame for the state of the American diet are the ones who do the actual eating.

“Nutritionism” is what Mr. Pollan calls it (though in fact that is Gyorgy Scrinis’ term). It can be defined as any attempt to understand foods as anything less than the total sum of their parts. To refer to, say, an apple as a repository of energy, vitamins, fiber or other nutrients is to diminish what it represents in its whole state, and open the door to commercial exploitation. This, Mr. Pollan claims, is exactly what the food industry does when it has the temerity to attempt to make packaged foods healthier. “Adulteration has been repositioned as food science”, he writes, the upshot being that a whole food like a banana now has a harder time competing with say, a Lean Cuisine entrée. Seen in that light, the entire field of nutrition becomes one great enabler to commerce, providing a never-ending stream of opportunities for food manufacturers to create and sell products that make ever more outlandish health claims. It’s an argument that’s not entirely without its merits, however the logic upon which it depends is ultimately circular (we’ll get to that a bit later).

His enemy defined, Mr. Pollan sets out to demolish the credibility of nutritional science, and in fact does a darn good job of it. In the chapter Bad Science he reveals the myriad shortcomings of “reductionist” single-nutrient health studies, and proceeds to trash even the most sacred of the nutritional establishment’s sacred cows: the multi-million dollar, years-long Women’s Health Initiative and the Nurses Health Study. Along the way he makes statements that are truly astonishing in their presumption and audacity:

It’s important to understand doing nutrition science isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a lot harder than most of the scientists who do it for a living are willing to admit. For one thing, the scientific tools at their disposal are in many ways ill suited to the task of understanding systems as complex as food and diet.

I’m sure the researchers at, say, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health enjoy it as much as any when a non-scientist (Pollan is a professor of journalism) tells them they don’t know what they’re doing. And while this statement may in fact be true in the ultimate sense, the fact is that science is the only tool we have to evaluate the relative value — and safety — of food. Pitch out the bath water of nutritional science, and you find that more than a few babies go out with it.

Mr. Pollan very shortly discovers this when he tries to posit his own arguments in favor of whole foods, which are of course every bit as reductionist and myopic. He blasts the nutritional establishment’s obsessive focus on lipids and cholesterol in one chapter, only to return a few chapters later to extol the trendy science of omega-3’s, omega-6’s and soy isoflavones. Nutritional science has a value after all, it seems, so long as it props up Mr. Pollan’s own arguments.

It’s probably only fitting that a book, devoted as it is to the virtues of whole fruits and vegetables, should contain this much statistical cherry picking. Though to be fair, Mr. Pollan does heavily favor studies of the least scientific sort: the interesting but ultimately unenlightening research on Australian Aborigines by Kerin O’Dea, and the work of early 20th century scientific pariahs Westin Price and Albert Howard. All are heavily populated with Rouseauian noble savages living in unspoiled freedom from the ravages of the modern diet, yet none provide any real insight into what exactly it is that results in their comparatively low incidence of Western maladies like obesity, diabetes, and cancer (their comparatively high incidences of Third World maladies like infectious disease, child mortality and truncated lifespan are conveniently omitted).

Which brings me to my chief complaint about In Defense of Food, Mr. Pollan’s near-total obsession with the what of the Western diet. Hyperventilating over that, he almost completely glosses over the how much. Might not the volume of food consumed have something to do with the so-called “Western diseases”? Might not obesity (to say nothing of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease) be at least as much a result of overindulgence (a clear factor of wealth) as about food quality? And what about other possible causes? Exercise is scarcely mentioned in the book, yet not a doctor I’ve ever encountered considers it to be something we Westerners get nearly enough of. Occupational stress is another of the great hazards of Western-style living, yet it goes entirely unmentioned. How about smoking? The bell curve that describes the increase, then fall-off, of smoking in America corresponds almost exactly with the national incidence of heart attack, yet it receives only the most cursory nod.

That said I don’t wish to minimize the seriousness or the impact (human and economic) of the so-called “Western diseases”. They are the maladies that we in the West mostly die from vis-à-vis the maladies that people in other cultures die from. Thus it is both fair and right to ask ourselves “why?” and look for a cause. The problem I have with Mr. Pollan is that he seeks to prove that the sole cause of these diseases is dietary, a reductive error on par with any he criticizes in the book.

On a more minor note, In Defense is riddled with aggravating factual errors: the claim that trans fats are a “biological novelty” (when in fact 5% of the fat in the milk or meat of any ruminant animal is composed of trans fat), the assertion that the main reason white flour was created was for fashion’s sake (the reality being that unlike whole wheat flour, it doesn’t go rancid) and the implication that the human body is somehow biologically pre-adapted to fresh corn, a New World crop that the wider world had no experience with prior to the Age of Exploration. Furthermore it is peppered with cheap cynicism, of which but one example is this testy aside:

No doubt we can look forward to a qualified health claim for high-fructose corn syrup, a tablespoon of which probably does contribute to your health — as long as it replaces a comparable amount of, say, poison in your diet and doesn’t increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.

Forget that there isn’t a shred scientific evidence to support a statement this preposterous (a fact he lately admitted), it’s just plain embarrassing. But then In Defense of Food isn’t a serious piece of either scholarship or journalism, it’s a screed. It’s intended targets are the ears of the faithful, not the critical reader or thinker. Though I should also add to that short list of demographics “the fearful” for another key point Pollan admitted at a recent live event here in Louisville is that he elected to promote his local/organic foods movement’s policy aims from the vantage of health “because people think a lot about their health and worry a lot about their health”. By his own words then, his decision to appeal to the public on the basis of their health concerns was strategic in nature.

There’s a word for a style of writing that selectively plays upon fears in pursuit of broader political objectives: propaganda. There’s also a word for a person who perceives the world as one gigantic racket that everyone — from the president to your doctor on down to the corner grocer — is in on but keeps secret from you: paranoid. Put those two things together, and well, I’m not entirely sure what you have, but whatever it is it sure ain’t science, and it definitely isn’t helpful for dealing with the real issues facing a small planet with steadily growing numbers of hungry mouths (at least through about 2050, at which point they will level off and begin to decline).

There’s a point in the book where Mr. Pollan exults that thanks to the modern local foods movement it is now possible to enjoy the benefits of Western civilization while at the same time opting entirely out of the Western diet. Personally, I find the elitism inherent in that notion appalling. Yet in a free society it is the prerogative of everyone to do just that should they wish to, and if they can afford it. I think I’d find that sort of permanent opposition to our food culture to be a rather sad — not to mention stark and lonely — way of living (there’d be no pastries for one thing). The best advice I’ve ever heard on the subject of eating, and you hear it a lot in medical circles, is to “eat a mix”. Supplemented with moderation and exercise, I can think of no better regimen for utilizing — and enjoying — all that our modern food system (including the new local food system) has to offer.

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