Review by Jane Bollinger
Here’s an idea to chew on—eat more foods that have just ONE ingredient. If this simple, yet profound bit of advice intrigues you, then read Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food.
Pollan spells out what you’re really eating when you consume the highly-processed foods that are pervasive in the American diet. Instead of eating a variety of vegetables, he says we eat far too much of the top three crops our farmers raise: corn, soybeans, and wheat. He makes no secret of his opinion of these end-products, referring to fake food, novel products of food science, and edible food-like substances to describe many of the ingredients in the manufactured food products we eat.
What’s wrong with processed foods? Pollan explains how processing foods typically robs them of their nutrients. Manufacturers have to then re-insert nutritional additives but also–hip to our inborn taste preferences for sweet, salty and fat– add other sugar, salt and oils, as well as fake sweeteners and chemical flavorings to “fool our senses” and encourage eating more.
I don’t eat that stuff, you say? Think again. “You may not think you eat a lot of corn and soybeans, but you do,” Pollan reveals, pointing to the statistics. “Seventy-five percent of the vegetable oils in your diet come from soy (representing 20 percent of your daily calories) and more than half the sweeteners you consume come from corn (representing around 10 percent of daily calories).” Factory farms produce so much of these government-subsidized commodities that it makes them cheap for food manufacturers to use and to sell to us in relatively low-cost food products.
Consider the case of white flour, which Mr. Pollan calls nutritionally worthless. When white flour was first created, people got sick from pellagra and beriberi due to deficiency in B vitamins. Adding nutritional supplements, he says, may not solve all the problems caused by refining grain. A diet high in refined carbohydrates is implicated in diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, whereas eating whole grains reduces risks for these diseases.
“Today,” Mr. Pollan reports, “corn contributes 554 calories a day to America’s per capita food supply and soy another 257. Add wheat (768 calories) and rice (91) and you see there isn’t a whole lot of room left in the American stomach for any other foods. Today these four crops account for two thirds of the calories we eat.”
In Mr. Pollan’s indictment of “Big Food”—as some people call the mass-market food industry—there’s plenty of blame to go around. In this book, he takes on food scientists for studying nutrients as chemical compounds only, “ignoring the subtle interactions and contexts [of a diet of whole foods] that may be more than the sum of its different parts.” He tackles nutrition scientists, food marketers, journalists and the government for telling us what to eat by talking about single nutrients instead of whole food. Take the examples of three recent trends to eat Omega-3, anti-oxidants, and probiotics.
What is the consequence of eating so much processed food? Mr. Pollan examines the dismal statistics about Americans’ health. Four of our top ten chronic diseases are linked to diet: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer.
Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Fifty-four-million have pre-diabetes. Twenty million have Type 2 diabetes, now up to 7.7 percent of the population from 4 percent in 1990.
One quarter of us have metabolic syndrome, which is caused by consuming large amounts of refined carbohydrates combined with a sedentary lifestyle; this combination interferes with how the insulin hormone regulates metabolism of carbs and fats in the body.
Along with criticism, Pollan also offers some solutions—hence manifesto. First, he asks us to think differently about food and health. He calls on us to see food more as a relationship than as a vehicle for nutrients. He asks us to revive healthy food traditions (often from other cultures), to change our eating habits, and to use common sense.
Finally, Mr. Pollan also is an advocate of eating locally. He contends that the mass market food industry breaks the links to real food, and that each of us needs to create a lifestyle that values local food grown in local soil by local people. His message is, “The more eaters vote with their forks for a different kind of food, the more commonplace and accessible such [real] food will become.”