Pollan is a UC Berkeley professor. In his latest book, In
Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, he argues
that what most Americans are consuming today is not food but
“edible food-like substances.” His previous book,
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four
Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the
New York Times and the Washington Post.
is interviewed by Amy Goodman from Democracy
GOODMAN: Why do you feel you have to defend food?
POLLAN: Food is under attack from two quarters: the food industry
which takes perfectly good whole foods and tricks them up into
highly processed edible food-like substances; and from nutritional
science, which has over the years convinced us that we shouldn’t
be paying attention to food -- that it’s really the nutrients
that matter. That whole way of looking at food as a collection
of nutrients is very destructive.
GOODMAN: Shouldn’t people be concerned, for example, about
POLLAN: No. Cholesterol in the diet is actually only very mildly
related to cholesterol in the blood. We were sold a bill of
goods that we should really worry about the cholesterol in our
food, basically because cholesterol is one of the few things
we could measure that was linked to heart disease, so there
was this kind of obsessive focus on cholesterol. But the egg
has been rehabilitated; it’s very high in cholesterol,
but now we’re told it’s actually a perfectly good,
healthy food. So there’s only a very tangential relationship
between the cholesterol you eat and the cholesterol levels in
GOODMAN: How is it that when we purchase our food, we have to
read labels and learn words we have never heard of?
POLLAN: It’s a literary scientific experience now going
shopping in the supermarket, because basically food has gotten
more complex. You can’t really make money selling things
like oatmeal, plain rolled oats. There’s no money in that,
because it doesn’t have any brand identification. It’s
a commodity, and the prices of commodities are constantly falling
make money by processing food, adding value to it. So you take
those oats, and you turn them into Cheerios, and then you can
charge four dollars instead of 79 cents. And then after a few
years, Cheerios become a commodity, and you have to move to
the next thing, which can be cereal bars. And then you have
cereal straws that your kids are supposed to suck milk through,
and then they eat the straw. It’s made out of the cereal
material. It’s extruded.
level of further complication gives rise to intellectual property,
a product no one else has, which confers the right to charge
a whole lot more for these very cheap raw ingredients. And as
the food becomes more complicated, you need chemicals to make
it last, and taste good, because food isn’t designed to
last a year on the shelf in a supermarket.
GOODMAN: I was a whole grain baker in Maine, and our goal was
to get our whole grain organic breads into the schools for the
kids, but we just couldn’t compete with shelf life of
Wonder Bread; ours turned moldy after a few days.
POLLAN: One of my rules is don’t eat any food that’s
incapable of rotting.
GOODMAN: What is nutritionism?
POLLAN: Nutritionism is the prevailing ideology in the whole
world of food. It’s not to be confused with science. Like
most ideologies, it is a set of assumptions about how the world
works that we’re totally unaware of. Nutritionism's fundamental
tenets are that food is the sum of the nutrients it contains
and that since ordinary people can’t see or taste or feel
nutrients, we need experts to help us design our foods and tell
us how to eat.
assumption of nutritionism is that you can measure nutrients,
cholesterol and antioxidants and their effects on our body,
which is a dubious proposition.
also argues that we eat to advance our physical health, which
is also very dubious. People eat for many reasons other than
medicinal: for pleasure, for community, and family and identity.
But we’ve cast those values aside with our obsession with
is a pernicious ideology because there’s no trade-off;
our health has gotten collectively worse.
GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the diseases of Western civilization.
POLLAN: The Western diseases, named as such by an Englishman
doctor, Denis Burkitt, who noted that when Western diet was
introduced to Africa and Asia, a series of Western diseases
followed: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a specific set
characterizes the Western diet is a preponderance of processed
food, refined grain and pure sugar, red and processed meat,
contempt for whole grain foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.
About 80 percent of heart disease, at least as much Type II
diabetes, 33 to 40 percent of cancers come out of the Western
diet, a fact which doesn’t perplex or discomfit us. Odd
thing is that it doesn’t seem to discomfort us that much.
GOODMAN: When you specifically talk about sugar, refined wheat,
what actually happens in the body?
POLLAN: If you are not used to that kind of diet – especially
Pacific Islanders from Hawaii and Mexican immigrants coming
to America – you’re more vulnerable to obesity and
diabetes. Wonder Bread is sweet because it’s so highly
refined it turns to sugar as soon as it mixes with saliva.
grains have many nutrients, and omega 3s and B vitamins which
we remove when we refine the grain. It’s odd and maladaptive
that refined grain should be so prestigious, since it’s
GOODMAN: Talk about the funding of nutrition science.
POLLAN: Nutrition science is very compromised by industry. Organizations
like the American Dietetic Association take sponsorship from
companies who are eager to make health claims. This science
reliably finds health benefits for whatever is being studied.
You take a pomegranate to one of these scientists, and they
will tell you that it will cure cancer and erectile dysfunction.
All plants have antioxidants.
GOODMAN: Explain what an antioxidant is?
POLLAN: An antioxidant is a chemical compound that plants produce
to protect themselves from free radicals of oxygen that are
generated during photosynthesis. They absorb these mischievous
oxygen radicals, molecules, atoms, and disarm them. And as we
age, we produce a lot of these oxygen radicals, and they’re
implicated in aging and cancer. So antioxidants are a way to
quiet that response, and they have health benefits. They also
help to detoxify the body.
been benefiting from them for thousands of years without having
to worry what they are. They’re in whole foods, which
is why whole foods are good for you. Processed food contains
GOODMAN: Isn’t it odd that the more you put into foods
the less expensive it is?
POLLAN: Most processed foods are made from these very cheap
raw ingredients. The industry’s preferred mode of doing
business is to take the cheapest raw materials and create complicated
foodstuffs from it.
reason those raw ingredients are so cheap is because these are
precisely the ones the government chooses to support; $26 billion
for corn and soy and wheat and rice.
GOODMAN: In In Defense of Food, you talk about the
McGovern report, 1977, 30 years ago.
POLLAN: It was a very interesting moment. McGovern convened
this set of hearings to look at the American diet, and there
was a great deal of concern about heart disease at the time.
We had -- we were having -- a fall off during the war in heart
disease, then there was a big spike in the ’50s and ’60s,
and scientists were busy trying to figure out what was going
on and very worried about it. McGovern convened these hearings,
took a lot of testimony, and then came out with a set of guidelines
which targeted red meat. The government advised to eat less
red meat, which was a very controversial message. The meat industry,
in fact the whole food industry, went crazy, and they came down
on him like a ton of bricks. You can’t tell people to
eat less of anything.
GOODMAN: As Oprah learned when she said she won’t eat
POLLAN: Exactly. So McGovern had to beat this hasty retreat,
and he rewrote the guidelines to say, choose meats that will
lessen your saturated fat intake, something nobody understood
at all. But you see the transition. We’ve been talking
about whole food -- eat less red meat, which probably was good
advice -- to this very complicated construct -- eat meats that
have less of this nutrient. It’s still an affirmative
message -- eat more, which is fine with industry, just eat a
little differently. And suddenly, the focus was on saturated
fat, as if we knew that was the problem nutrient in red meat.
In point of fact it may not be. There are other things on in
red meat that may cause problems.
GOODMAN: For example?
POLLAN: Some people think it’s the protein in red meat.
Others look to nitrosomines, the compounds that are produced
when you cook red meat. We observe a correlation between high
red meat consumption and higher rates of cancer and heart disease.
But, again, we don’t know exactly what the cause is, but
it may not be saturated fat.
GOODMAN: And what about the politics of meat?
POLLAN: That’s why McGovern lost in 1980. The beef lobby
went after him and tossed him out. From then on, anyone who
dared to pronounce on the American diet understood you had to
speak in this very obscure language of nutrients. You could
talk about saturated fat, you could talk about antioxidants,
but not about whole foods.
it’s very confusing to the average consumer. Conveniently
to the industry, they love talk about nutrients, because they
can always -- with processed foods, unlike whole foods -- redesign
them. You can just reduce the saturated fat, up the antioxidants,
jigger it in a way you can’t change broccoli. Broccoli
is going to be broccoli. But processed food can always have
more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. So the industry
loves nutritionism for that reason.
GOODMAN: So, for people who don’t have much money, how
do they eat, since processed foods are cheaper and they’re
POLLAN: If you have the time and the inclination to cook, you
can eat more cheaply. But you do need the time, and you do need
the skills to cook. There is no way around the fact that given
the way our food policies are set up, such that whole foods
are expensive and getting more expensive and processed foods
tend to be cheaper. In the supermarket, the cheapest calories
are added fat and added sugar from processed food, and the more
expensive calories are over in the produce section. And we have
to change policy in order to adjust that.
GOODMAN: How do you do that?
POLLAN: You need a farm bill that basically evens the playing
field by not driving down the price of high-fructose corn syrup,
so that real fruit juice can compete with it. You need a farm
bill that makes carrots competitive with Wonder Bread. And we
don’t have that, and we didn’t get it this time
GOODMAN: Do you feel like any candidates are addressing this
POLLAN: No, because they all pass through Iowa, and they all
bow down before conventional agricultural policy. In office,
Hillary Clinton has had some very positive food policies, in
part because she has this big farm constituency upstate, and
she’s very interested in school lunch and farm-to-school
programs. John Edwards has said some progressive things about
feedlot agriculture when he was in Iowa.
GOODMAN: Explain feedlots.
POLLAN: Feedlots are where we grow our meat; in huge factory
farms that have become the scourge of landscapes in places like
Iowa and Missouri. Think of a giant pig confinement operation
that collects manure in huge lagoons that leak when it rains
and smell for miles around. They are miserable places and they
are now becoming a political issue in the Midwest, and soon
nationally because people are very concerned about the status
of the animals in these places. My worry is, though, that when
we start regulating feedlots, they’ll move to Mexico.
GOODMAN: How does your earlier book, The Omnivore’s
Dilemma, factor into this?.
POLLAN: The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that creatures
like us that can eat almost anything, unlike cows that only
eat grass or koala bears eat eucalyptus leaves. We don’t
have instincts to tell us exactly what to eat, so we need a
lot of cognitive equipment to help us navigate what is a very
treacherous food landscape, because there are poisons out there
that could kill us. We had to learn what was safe and what wasn’t,
and we had this thing called culture that told us not to eat
that mushroom because it killed someone last week.
are once again in a treacherous food landscape, where there
are many things in the supermarket that are not good for you.
I wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma to better navigate
that landscape by providing some basic rules.
GOODMAN: You talk about shopping the periphery of the supermarket?
POLLAN: That was one rule that I found really helpful. And if
you look at the layout of the average supermarket, the fresh
whole foods are always on the edge where you get produce and
meat and fish and dairy products. And those are the foods that
your grandmother would recognize as foods. They haven’t
changed that much. All the processed foods, the really bad stuff
that is going to get you in trouble with all the refined grain
and the additives and the high-fructose corn syrup are all in
the middle. And so, if you stay out of the middle and get most
of your food on the edges, you’re going to do a lot better.
GOODMAN: What is the localvore movement?
POLLAN: The localvore movement is a new emphasis on eating locally,
eating food from what’s called your food shed. It’s
a metaphor based on a watershed. Draw a circle of a 100 miles
around your community and try to eat everything from there.
It’s an interesting movement, and I’m very supportive
of local food. I think that it’s verging on the ridiculous
right now because there’s no wheat produced in a hundred
miles of New York. But I’m not willing to give up bread.
the idea of eating them and eating food in season is a very
powerful and important idea. It supports a great many values:
the food is going to be fresher and more nutritious. You will
be supporting the farmers in your community. You’re going
to check sprawl. It will help ensure a degree of autonomy in
our food system. Let’s be clear here; our food industry
is falling prey to globalization; and there will come a day
when America doesn’t produce its own food. The Central
Valley in California is losing hundreds of acres of farmland
every day, and if you believe the projections, California will
be no longer producing produce by the end of the century. I
don’t want to live in that world. We have already lost
control of our energy destiny; we don’t want to lose control
over our food destiny.
GOODMAN: What are the environmental effects of transporting
food across the globe?
POLLAN: Food system contributes about a fifth of greenhouse
gases. In terms of contributing to greenhouse gas, they are
as important as the transportation sector. It’s a very
energy-intensive situation. With the industrialization of food,
we essentially took food off of the solar system; prior to that,
it was based on photosynthesis and the sun. And then we learned
how to grow food with lots of synthetic fertilizers made from
natural gas, pesticides made from petroleum, and then started
moving it around the world. So now it takes about ten calories
of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy –
a very unsustainable system.
GOODMAN: And what about the efficiency argument if you want
to feed the planet? You have sugar growing in Cuba, grapes and
meat in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.
POLLAN: That’s the argument and there are a lot of problems
with it. It’s very important that you have local self-sufficiency
in food -- not complete -- before you start exporting. If you
put all your eggs in the basket of, say, coffee, when the international
market shifts, it will always go to whatever country is willing
to produce it a little more cheaply.
GOODMAN: What if you only consume coffee and nothing else?
POLLAN: You cannot live on coffee alone. It’s not like
globalizing food has certain advantages of efficiency, but it
also has very high risks. Efficiency is an important value,
but resilience is even more important, and we know this from
biology, that the resilience of natural systems and economic
systems is something we have to focus more on. This globalized
food system is very brittle. When you have a breakdown, for
example when the prices of fuel escalates, people lose the ability
to feed themselves.
Mexico and NAFTA opened their borders to our corn, and it put
one-and-a-half million farmers out of business. They all came
to the cities, where you would think the price of tortillas
should go down, but it didn’t because there was an oligopoly
controlling tortillas. Many of these former Mexican farmers
became serfs on California farms, which was the effect of dumping
lots of cheap corn.
GOODMAN: Do you know anything about cloned livestock? The
Wall Street Journal says cloned livestock are poised to
receive FDA clearance.
POLLAN: The FDA has been looking at this. There are techniques
now to clone livestock, usually for breeding purposes. If you
have a really champion bull, the semen of that bull is very
valuable. So if you could turn that bull into five bulls, wouldn’t
that be great? But it’s the rareness that makes the semen
GOODMAN: What do you mean?
POLLAN: The supply will go up and the demand will go down. As
to specific risk of cloning livestock, I don’t know. I
only know I don’t want to be eating it.
GOODMAN: French farmer, Jose Bove, has gone on a hunger strike
to promote a ban on genetically modified crops in France.
POLLAN: The Europeans have reacted much more strongly to genetically
modified crops than we have.
GOODMAN: And why is that?
POLLAN: We have a misplaced faith in our FDA, that they’ve
vetted everything and know what’s in the food, that the
genetically modified crops have been fully tested, which, in
fact, they have not, whereas the Europeans, after mad cow disease,
are very skeptical of their regulators. They also perceive GMO
an American imposition, as part of a cultural imperialism led
by Monsanto. Of course Europe also produces GMO, but they have
managed to get under the radar on this issue.
is a related issue. Dennis Kucinich has been fighting for labeling;
he’s not saying ban the stuff, but just tell us if we’re
eating it, which seems like a very reasonable position.
GOODMAN: And Monsanto fought this?
POLLAN: Viciously. Which begs the question: why is the industry
so intent on not having this product regulated and labeled?
They rightly think that people won’t buy. And the reason
they won’t buy it that it offers the consumer nothing,
no benefit. Americans will eat all sorts of strange things,
if there were a benefit. But so far, the traits they’ve
managed to get into these crops benefit farmers, and not consumers.
companies also resist labeling because there will be ways to
trace outbreaks of allergy. Any kind of health problems associated
with GMOs could be lined to a particular food. Right now, if
there are any allergies that are tied to a GMO food, you can’t
the GMO industry was starting transgenic crops, they made a
decision not to seek any limits on liability from the Congress,
as the nuclear industry did; they decided that would not look
good to ask for that, so they just took a chance. And this is,
in the view of many activists, their great vulnerability --
product liability. Labeling is a way to help prevent that eventuality.
So they fought it ferociously and successfully.
GOODMAN: What surprised you most in writing In Defense of
POLLAN: Two things: (1) that the science on nutrition that we
all traffic in is still very sketchy, that nutritional science
is still a very young science. (2) and that food, like the human
digestive system, is very complicated and that there is a great
mystery on both ends of the food chain and science has not yet
sorted it out. Nutrition science is where surgery was in about
1650 -- very interesting and promising, but would you want to
be operated on back then? . I don’t think we want to change
our eating decisions based on nutritional science.
I’m also surprised by the many opportunities we now have
-- time and money willing -- to get off the Western diet and
find another way of eating without having to go to extremes.
It’s a hopeful time because there are simple things we
can do, and that includes not being ‘cowed’ by the
GOODMAN: What are the healthiest cuisines?
POLLAN: The human body has done very well on the Mediterranean
diet, on the Japanese diet, on the peasant South American diet.
It’s interesting how many different foods we can do well
on. The one diet we seem poorly adapted to is our own, the Western
erroneously privilege scientific information and authority at
the expense of cultural authority and information. Long time
ago, someone realized that olive oil and tomatoes are a tasty
and healthy combination, and now we're learning about it scientifically:
the lycopene in the tomato, which we think is the good thing,
is basically made available to the body through olive oil. So
there is wisdom in those combinations.
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