Seeing the Whole: A Review of In Defense of Food
by Nidhi Kulkarni
Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.
-- Margaret Wheatley, Never Eat Alone
Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008) is an engaging, eye-opening analysis of the American food industry and the anxiety-riddled relationship many of us currently have with food. He cuts through layers of ill-conceived scientific studies, misconceptions and confusion that have accumulated over the last fifty years to provide us with a piece of advice that should be obvious but has not been for a while: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He traces the history of nutritionism and the industrialization of food in an attempt (I think a successful one) to answer the question of how and when "mom" ceded control of our food choices to nutritionists, food marketers and the government.
Pollan's history of U.S. government involvement with the food industry is particularly illuminating and does much to answer this question. Equally important is his emphasis on the human food chain and the interdependence of every link in that chain. He points out that we tend to think of our health as an isolated issue without relationship to other parts of the chain--a particular manifestation of a larger theme in the American mentality. We tend to assume that our well being is not dependent on that of the rest of the world, an attitude manifested in our foreign and domestic policy as well as in our attitudes toward food and health.
If you are a young adult like me, you probably take the food guide pyramid for granted. Of course, you think, the carbohydrates and starches go on the bottom, then fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and poultry above that and finally, at the very top corner, the "evil" saturated fats category. I remember being quizzed on the pyramid in elementary school as well as having to take a health class with an entire unit devoted to nutrition. We did not learn about what Pollan calls "whole foods," but rather about individual nutrients. The teachers taught us to associate pasta and cereal with carbohydrates, milk and eggs with protein, oranges with vitamin C and cookies with fat. For many of us, these associations are now automatic. As Pollan astutely points out, "Distinctions between entities as different as beef and chicken and fish have collapsed. These three venerable foods, each representing not just a different species but an entirely different taxonomic class, are now lumped together as mere delivery systems for a single nutrient."
Why, I asked myself for the first time as I read Pollan's introduction to In Defense of Food, did students need an entire class devoted to food? Isn't food something so basic, so obvious that it does not need to be taught? Suddenly, I could think only of the absurdity of having a class on eating. In Defense of Food is full of such paradigm-shifting moments. If you pick up this book, be prepared to profoundly question ideas that seemed unshakeable truths, such as the connection between saturated fat and heart disease, and even the notion that science can be effectively applied to any subject.
... when did we reach a point where a textbook was necessary to explain food? Exactly when food started to be described in term of nutrients .
So when did we reach a point where a textbook was necessary to explain food? Exactly when food started to be described in term of nutrients. When we began to speak of "saturated fats and antioxidants rather than beef or broccoli," as Pollan puts it. But why, you may ask, did we switch to this new dietary language? One of the answers lies in Washington. Pollan gives a detailed and highly informative history of the food industry's influence in Washington that is one of the most enlightening sections of the book. He cites the release of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs 1977 report Dietary Goals for the United States as an event that helped to push America down this "unfortunate and dimly lighted path" of eating nutrients rather than food. Chaired by South Dakota Senator George McGovern, the Committee originally recommended that people reduce consumption of red meat. Not surprisingly, the recommendation met with strong opposition from cattle ranchers and McGovern was forced to reword the report in terms of eating less saturated fat rather than meat. Pollan writes, "notice that the stark message to 'eat less' of a particular food had been deep-sixed; don't ever look for it again in any U.S. government dietary pronouncement.you are not officially allowed to tell people to eat less of it or the industry in question will have you for lunch" (24). You can however, get around this restriction by speaking in terms of nutrients instead of food.
Some of these "industries in question" have strong lobbies; the sucrose and corn lobbies are especially powerful. These groups spend millions of dollars to influence government policies and regulations. Pollan reveals that Americans on average get an incredible 554 calories a day purely from corn. Why? Corn, in the form of high fructose corn syrup, makes about half the sweeteners we consume and also winds up in the feed of the chickens and other animals we eat. Pollan points out that corn is very easy to grow, citing this as the main reason for corn's emergence as a dominant monoculture. He also briefly mentions government corn subsidies--something I believe may be equally responsible, as we will see in a moment.
Corn field in Ohio
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One of the major themes of In Defense of Food is the interdependence of every part of the food chain. Pollan poses the question:
What if we were to start thinking about food as less of a thing and more of a relationship? In nature that is of course precisely what eating has always been: relationships among species in systems we call food chains.that reach all the way down to the soil. Species coevolve with the other species that they eat, and very often there develops a relationship of mutual interdependence: I'll feed you if you spread around my genes.
If you are like me, you probably consider choosing low-fat foods and eating a fruit or serving of vegetables healthy eating. Before reading Pollan's book, the idea of eating vegetables produced without antibiotics in a diverse environment rather than as part of a monoculture or drinking milk from a cow raised on grass had never crossed my mind.
Pollan argues that the health of the environment and soil directly affects our health and says that if the animals and plants we eat are not healthy (as products of industrial agriculture are often not), then we cannot be healthy. I, like many Americans, have never associated my health with the other links in the food chain. ("Food chain," what a strange term. It feels incongruous to even use it when referring to humans; we feel so far removed from the images of the animal kingdom and jungles it conjures--precisely the kind of distance from the reality of our food that Pollan is talking about.) If you are like me, you probably consider choosing low-fat foods and eating a fruit or serving of vegetables healthy eating. Before reading Pollan's book, the idea of eating vegetables produced without antibiotics in a diverse environment rather than as part of a monoculture or drinking milk from a cow raised on grass had never crossed my mind. I simply did not think beyond the aisles of a supermarket or the label on the back of a product when considering what to eat.
As writer Wendell Berry points out in his essay "The Pleasures of Eating":
Most eaters think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture.most shoppers would tell you that food is produced on farms. But most of them do not know what farms, or what kinds of farms, or where the farms are.They apparently have little doubt that farms will continue to produce, but they do not know how or over what obstacles.
This kind of distance from or disregard of one's relationship to not only food, but also the world, has unfortunately become a hallmark of American attitude and policy. An important part of our policy in trade is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA has proved particularly deleterious to farmers in Mexico because it eliminated the Mexican import restrictions on U.S. corn. Since American corn is so heavily subsidized (yes, here is that powerful corn lobby again), Mexican farmers cannot compete with the cheap prices of U.S. corn. Farmers who lose their livelihood this way have to find work to support their families; many cross the border into the U.S. to find it.
In addition to contributing to the illegal immigration issue we hear so much about, corn subsidies make the price of corn very, very cheap. Food manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, while industrial and factory farms feed it to their animals to reduce costs and increase profits. This ubiquitous use of corn leads to the dangerous simplification of our diet that Pollan warns us about. But the consequences do not end there. The simplification of diet inevitably leads to increased rates of heart diseases, diabetes, and cancer--all of which drive up health care costs. Even though all of these things are related, Americans treat food and agricultural issues separately from trade issues and debates about illegal immigration or health care almost never mention the connection to food. We are failing to appreciate the interconnectedness of all these issues and until we do so, we will not be able to address any of them satisfactorily.
Pollan, in his In Defense of Food, reveals how Americans have gained such an unhealthy perspective on food and provides a few clear principles that can help us reclaim pleasure from food. He advises us to eat only things our grandmother would recognize, that is, foods without any unpronounceable ingredients or high fructose corn syrup. He tells us to stop eating on the go or in front of a television. This is not the challenging part. Pollan also warns us to beware the pitfalls of reductionist science, especially when it is applied to food. It is this part of Pollan's advice that I believe to be the most critical and fundamental--much more so than avoiding high fructose corn syrup or taking time with meals. It is the most challenging because it requires us to change the way we approach food. It requires a change not in something concrete such as the loaf of bread we choose to buy or the places and time we spend eating, but a change in the way we think. It requires us to think in terms of relationships (not only in the context of food). That kind of change is much slower. But if we can start to discuss food and health concerns along with health care, environmental, and immigration issues, recognizing that they are interrelated, maybe we can come closer to finding effective solutions.
Although In Defense of Food is primarily about food and food issues, it should also serve as a reminder that nothing exists in isolation or without a context. As Pollan reminds us, you cannot understand the nutrient without the food, the diet without the lifestyle. We will have to learn to see the relationships among things if we want to truly make the shift from nutrients back to food. Though a book about food and health seems an unlikely place to look for a critique of American culture, Pollan's In Defense of Food is really a first step to changing the isolationist and reductionist mentality that has characterized us for years.