"In Defense of Food" author dishes on eating trends
Author Michael Pollan tracks a rising movement around food.
Latest from our Living blogs
Latte art: The ongoing, online throwdown NEW - 7/12, 01:01 PM
Edamame hummus: the do-it-yourself recipe NEW - 7/13, 11:37 AM
Here's how Michael Pollan describes what he does:
"I tell stories about our food and how we eat. I show people where their food comes from. I'm something of a food detective, asking where that hamburger and fries come from. I like thinking about things that people take for granted, scratching the surface of everyday life and factoring in history, science and politics."
Pollan's 2006 book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and his 2008 follow-up, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," have put him at the forefront of a push for a sustainable, locally focused U.S. food system. From "Oprah" to NPR to the new documentary "Food, Inc.," he's been hard to miss.
"I am addressing an issue that people care intensely about, but they weren't getting the story they wanted or needed," says Pollan, 54. "There is a movement rising around food, and the zeitgeist turned out to be right at my back."
Here are edited excerpts from a telephone conversation with the author.
Q: "You've made a giant step from a "dilemma" to a "manifesto." Can you chart your progression?"
A: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was an attempt to figure out where our food comes from and explore all the implications of our eating choices environmentally, morally and philosophically. It was not a prescriptive book, and some readers were disappointed.
... Having learned everything I had of the food system — I didn't want to eat feedlot meat, would eat less meat and it would be sustainably grown, grass-fed and free-range — I just thought it would be a good idea to spell out a way of eating that is implicit in the earlier book.
I also wanted to really take up the question of health. That is what people care most about: What should I eat for my health and the health of my family? ... The food industry makes it complex by the way it markets food and hides a lot of what it is doing.
One of the things that most struck me was that science had less to tell us than I thought, and culture — Mom — had more. There was so much of culture that was getting overlooked.
Q: "What's the next front line of the food war?"
A: There's a counter-offensive, a trend to make processed food appear to conform to some of the rules in "In Defense of Food" like not eating food with more than five ingredients. Now Haagen-Dazs is boasting about its five-ingredient ice cream.
That's not the point. It's better to simplify, but it's still ice cream. Tostitos is talking about its chips with just three ingredients. It leaves the impression that if we demonize foods with more than five ingredients, the consumer is liable to believe that this is health food. But it's still chips, it's still junk food.
Also, there's a move to get high fructose corn syrup out of many products. Snapple now touts "real cane sugar." But both are sugar. High fructose corn syrup is not necessarily worse... .
I would revise the rule and say: Don't buy any foods that are advertised on television. Only six percent of ad budgets go to advertising fresh fruits and vegetables. All the rest is for processed food, which is the culprit. It has more salt, fat and sugar — more than anything that you would cook yourself.
Q: "Then again, you were once busted while grocery shopping, weren't you?"
A: I was reaching for a sweetened cereal for my son. I live in Berkeley, where everybody eats just perfectly. There I was, reaching for Pebbles and somebody caught me just as my hand was touching the box. He said: "I'm watching Michael Pollan shop for groceries." The cereal was just crap. It just happened to be the brand that my son was fixed on that particular year.
Q: "Are there any positive food implications in the current economic downturn?"
A: There are some positive and negative trends. One negative trend is that McDonald's is doing very well. People are trading down from more expensive restaurants to the cheapest. However, more people are cooking, buying ingredients. Home gardening is way up. Seed sales are booming. Invariably, they're eating healthier food.
Historically, public health improved during tough economic times because people ate fewer calories, less sugar, less fat. Now we have something that we didn't have before — seductive, cheap, fast food.
Make no mistake, people who are cooking are doing something for their health. The best predictor of a healthy diet is whether you cook it yourself. Rich or poor, they're healthier.
Q: "Of the many legislative/policy changes you recommend, which is the most important?"
A: Insulate government nutrition messages from the food industry. Make sure that the CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general, whoever, be free from corporate interference.
... As for the planet, there are many moving parts. To the extent that you can encourage farmers to diversify their crops, that will do a lot for the planet and health. Diversity on the farm will lead to the diversification of the diet. We're now eating processed corn and soy — and the meat that you can get from that.
Q: "Is the sustainable-food movement elitist?"
A: That comes from the media focusing on chefs from the coasts and not noticing that there is someone like urban-garden proponent Will Allen in Milwaukee and the health-oriented People's Grocery in Oakland.
Q: "And if you have to choose your last meal ever on Earth?"
A: I was having a really delicious dinner that we cooked. If I had to name a last meal, this would be it. It was roast chicken I had cut into pieces, brined in salt, herbs, garlic and sugar. I coated it with olive oil and put it in the roasting pan with some potatoes, celery root, parsnips and fresh local asparagus. I said: "Can't beat this."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
NEW - 10:07 AM
Obese people asked to eat fast food for health study
NEW - 7:00 PM
Wine Adviser: Some good Washington wineries got away
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.