Friday, October 23, 2009

Foods and Fools

So it looks as if sustainable food guru Michael Pollan, whose bestselling In Defense of Food picks up where The Omnivore’s Dilemma left off, has ticked off agribusiness yet again—so much, in fact, that they’ve pressured Cal Poly to transform a Pollan talk into a roundtable discussion featuring their own representatives.

Figures. Trying to help people become slim and healthy runs afoul of the multi-billion-dollar industries—not only food production but advertising, dieting, and medicine—that profit from keeping people fat and sick.

In a sane society, Pollan’s book would be entirely uncontroversial. (In fact, truth be told, it’s a bit dull.) In Defense of Food exposes the perils of “nutritionist” thinking—that is, the assumption that what matters to human health is the individual nutrient instead of the whole food. As Pollan shows, this belief that “foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” abets the preposterous health claims that scream from the packages of the unhealthiest of food products: claim that Snack Wells or Cocoa Puffs are full of some nutrient or other, and you can convince people they’re eating healthy when they stuff their faces with junk. Hence what Pollan calls “the American paradox: a notably unhealthy population preoccupied with nutrition and diet and the idea of eating healthily.”

Where Pollan’s argument sticks in the craw of the food industry is in his claim that “the chronic diseases that now kill most of us”—coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer—“can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn, and soy.” Against this backdrop, the ideology of nutritionism can offer only partial and quick fixes: a little less saturated fat here, a little more Omega-3 fatty acids there. By contrast, Pollan argues that we are “in need of a whole new way of thinking about eating,” a way that emphasizes whole foods over processed food products, that privileges local and organic farming, and that changes our rituals surrounding food consumption from our current “grab and gulp” mentality to a culture of family- and community-oriented dining.

So essentially, what Pollan is saying is that we should grow our own food (or at least know by name those who do); that we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables; and that we should sit around the dinner table with our families and friends when we eat. That such advice could be seen as radical and threatening is simply a measure of how distant we as a culture have become from the reality—and sanity—of our ancestors.

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