First, I should point out that his name isn’t pronounced like “pollen” as I’d assumed until today. It’s PO-lan, with a long “o”. Just in case you get asked on the street.
All in all I have to say the session I went to (and I call it that because it’s wasn’t a lecture per se, more like an hour of moderated Q & A) was a good time. Mr. Pollan came off a very affable and educated fellow, albeit on a mission. And what is that mission? Why to save the future of American eating of course. And maybe he just will. Despite the fact that it’s only been out a week, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto will debut at #1 on the New York Times best seller list next week. A pretty serious accomplishment, certain to add new urgency to the ongoing national debate about what and how we Americans eat.
Over the course of the hour, Mr. Pollan answered questions on a range of topics relating to the American food system. His base message: that we can and should eat better than we do, and we can enjoy ourselves doing it. And who could possibly argue with that? He showed a considerable knowledge of food production, especially at the farm level. Yet what impressed me most was that even though he is highly opinionated (unlike some, ehem, bloggers) he’s not what I’d call a zealot. He’s a man who’s seen too much of the reality of how food is produced in this country to believe that there are simple answers to our most contentious issues (agricultural pollution, pricing, farm subsidies, etc).
But while I’ll credit him for all that, he does have the annoying habit of making sweeping generalizations. For example, of fast food, that “nobody feels good after eating it” (a claim I can personally debunk, since I had a cheeseburger and fries on the way over and felt great), or of the Western diet that it “is of course making everybody so sick”. This kind of talk may be accepted as gospel in the faculty lounge at UC Berkeley (where he teaches) but out here in the wider world a bit more substantiation is required. I’d think a professor of journalism, particularly one as visible as he is, would know that.
Which brings me to another problem I had with the afternoon’s event, Mr. Pollan’s habit of retreating to the claim that he is “just a journalist, not a policy maker” when presented with thorny political questions. “All I do is shine a little light on something that I think is interesting”, he said. But of course he does far more than that given that he is, for all intents and purposes, the mouthpiece of a movement with undeniably political aims (should you doubt that, ask yourself why he calls his new book a “manifesto”). It’s a dodge that’s become a favorite of political table-thumpers everywhere, from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh to Michael Moore. Don’t ask me to give you the answers, I’m just an entertainer!
For the facts are that despite claims to the contrary, we aren’t a sicker nation as a result of the foods we eat. If we were, the CDC wouldn’t be issuing reports, as it did last August, proclaiming that the overall mortality rate (from all causes of death, including disease) is at an all-time historical low, and that the average life expectancy has increased nearly 20% since 1940 (coincidentally the same time period over which our hideous industrial food system was created). Add to that a New Year’s Eve Gallup poll that found that 85% of Americans are happy with the way things are going for them personally. Doesn’t sound like a nation of sickies to me (then again there probably wasn’t a check box for “except for this darn hangnail”). Still and all this premise, that the corrupted state of the American diet is sending all of us to our early graves, is the foundation of the new book (which yes, I did buy).
But before I start pounding the table myself, I should wind down. After one more thing. The last question of the hour was about high fructose corn syrup, arguably Mr. Pollan’s favorite topic, asking why it is so pervasive. He gave the standard answers that I’ve given here: that it’s cheap and highly useful, adding as an aside of course that it’s a killer. Yet not two sentences later (and yes, my friends I had my hand in the air at that point), he admitted that HFCS was no different chemically than standard crystalline sugar. Got that? The man who is the most directly responsible for the hysteria surrounding HFCS said in front of an audience that HFCS is no different than table sugar. Anecdotally he went on to say that as a result of the furor he has helped create over HFCS, a few of the larger packaged food producers are now reformulating some of their products to use crystalline sugar instead of HFCS.
What will be the upshot of that? First it will be more expensive. But more importantly, because HFCS only tastes sweeter than table sugar rather than delivering more calories, manufacturers will be forced to add more sugar than they now do to create the equivalent taste. Those products will therefore be more fattening than they otherwise would be, thus worsening the obesity problem Mr. Pollan and his like-minded fans claim to be so upset about. And people say grass roots activism never accomplishes anything.