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Vol. 8, No. 3, 2009
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michael pollan's



Michael 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.

He is interviewed by Amy Goodman from Democracy Now.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you feel you have to defend food?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Shouldn’t people be concerned, for example, about cholesterol?

MICHAEL 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 your blood.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it that when we purchase our food, we have to read labels and learn words we have never heard of?

MICHAEL 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 over time.

You 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.

Every 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.

AMY 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.

MICHAEL POLLAN: One of my rules is don’t eat any food that’s incapable of rotting.

AMY GOODMAN: What is nutritionism?

MICHAEL 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.

Another assumption of nutritionism is that you can measure nutrients, cholesterol and antioxidants and their effects on our body, which is a dubious proposition.

Nutritionism 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 nutrition.

Nutritionism is a pernicious ideology because there’s no trade-off; our health has gotten collectively worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the diseases of Western civilization.

MICHAEL 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 of cancers.

What 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.

AMY GOODMAN: When you specifically talk about sugar, refined wheat, what actually happens in the body?

MICHAEL 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.

Whole 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 so unhealthy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the funding of nutrition science.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what an antioxidant is?

MICHAEL 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.

We’ve 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 fewer antioxidants.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it odd that the more you put into foods the less expensive it is?

MICHAEL 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.

The 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.

AMY GOODMAN: In In Defense of Food, you talk about the McGovern report, 1977, 30 years ago.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: As Oprah learned when she said she won’t eat hamburgers.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: For example?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the politics of meat?

MICHAEL 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.

Conveniently, 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for people who don’t have much money, how do they eat, since processed foods are cheaper and they’re faster.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you do that?

MICHAEL 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 around.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like any candidates are addressing this issue?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain feedlots.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: How does your earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, factor into this?.

MICHAEL 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.

We 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.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about shopping the periphery of the supermarket?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the localvore movement?

MICHAEL 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.

But 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.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the environmental effects of transporting food across the globe?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY 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.

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: What if you only consume coffee and nothing else?

MICHAEL POLLAN: You cannot live on coffee alone. It’s not like bread.

So 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.

When 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know anything about cloned livestock? The Wall Street Journal says cloned livestock are poised to receive FDA clearance.

MICHAEL 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 so valuable.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MICHAEL 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.

AMY GOODMAN: French farmer, Jose Bove, has gone on a hunger strike to promote a ban on genetically modified crops in France.

MICHAEL POLLAN: The Europeans have reacted much more strongly to genetically modified crops than we have.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is that?

MICHAEL 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.

Labeling 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.

AMY GOODMAN: And Monsanto fought this?

MICHAEL 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.

These 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 prove it.

When 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.

AMY GOODMAN: What surprised you most in writing In Defense of Food?

MICHAEL 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.

But 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 scientists.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the healthiest cuisines?

MICHAEL 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 diet

We 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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