28 May 2009

The Gospel of Michael Pollan

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
- Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

Last Wednesday at Unity Temple on the Plaza, after eating a delicious dinner of quinoa ("Pollan's Perfect Food" according to the menu) at Eden Alley, I got to hear Michael Pollan preach. Rainy Day Books hosted him on this visit - his first to KC since Botany of Desire (I was there for that one, too). He, like his books, is clear and compelling, and his notion of "nutritionism" from In Defense of Food, is a refreshingly straightforward and essential way to think about food in our world of mixed marketing messages and competing interests.

We Americans, according to Pollan, have obsessed about health but cannot get healthy. We over-emphasize nutrition but don't eat nutritionally rich food. We have limited our understanding of foods by breaking them down into individual components and processing out everything healthy and natural in order to fixate on one element.

Marketers have been "feeding" us everything they think we need or want to know. Even as consumers become more savvy, marketers step up their game by catering to our health concerns. (Like the ice cream that is called "5" because - in response to consumer concerns - it has no more than five ingredients.)

But the majority of those tidbits and "facts" about food that are going around in the public are as empty and hollow as high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soy bean oil themselves. And they miss the importance and value of what really matters which is whole foods in their naturally nutritious state. I liked Michael Pollan's final admonition, after his long and entertaining exposition on nutritionism, in which he encouraged us simply to not buy anything you see advertised on TV. That - to me - seems the best way to know you're buying food that has your best interests in mind.


Jessica said...

I read an article not too long ago about those Fiber One products. They have a whole line of yogurts and bars and cereals advertising that they have all this fiber, but with zero sacrifice of texture or flavor. But the catch is, the fiber they contain is a synthetic carbohydrate. It functions like fiber, but there's no evidence that it offers the same health benefits as ordinary, natural fiber.

I never jumped on the Fiber One bandwagon, but after I read that article, those commercials started to make me a little mad, because they're touting health benefits that may not be there. And they kinda make you want to say to the TV, "Hey, um, is it really that hard to, you know, eat a plant?"

Emily said...

Good point. You really have to be vigilant about advertising messages. Pollan's admonition about advertised food also aligns with another of his suggestions - which was to only eat things that are capable of rot. He suggested that bacteria are smarter about their diet than we are since we insist on eating things that are self-stable and non nutritious. Good point there, too.