On Thursday night, Michael Pollan, the (practically) caped crusader of the ethical eating and sustainable agriculture world, regaled a near-packed house at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco. Pollan, who for the last 25 years has been writing books and articles about the place nature and culture intersects -- and where government often interferes -- has become more than a journalist. He's also an entertainer, albeit one with a serious set of messages.
Pollan's appearance, as part of the City & Arts Lecture series, was being recorded for a documentary. After some "warm up" exercises for the audience, Pollan strode boldly on stage weighed down with three brown paper grocery bags.
As he unpacked his groceries, he reminded us that processed foods and the claims they make are just plain wrong, not to mention bad for us.
"Healthy Choice Grilled Chicken: 'Healthy Choice' of course is a brand name, not a statement of fact."
"Neuro Drinks: so-named to imply something brainy. Well, they do go in through your head!"
"Easy Cheese: The label says it's made with real cheese. If anything has to tell you it's real, it's probably an admission that it's not."
Pollan empathized with the audience about how hard it's gotten to make the right choices in the supermarket. He pointed out that a small container of Yoplait yogurt has the same amount of sugar as a bottle of Coca Cola, and yet parents are feeding their children yogurt believing it to be healthy. "Yogurt has become the latest sugar delivery system. It's gotten treacherous out there. No wonder people are confused," he says.
Making good choices about what to eat also means employing a deep knowledge of biochemistry. Pollan touched on the growing phenomenon of Orthorexia (Nervosa). Defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, his point maybe hit a nerve with the food-savvy San Francisco crowd.
The real villain of Pollan's talk however, was nutritionism -- the idea that the sum of food is all about the nutrients it contains. This ideology divides nutrients into two buckets: the evil (i.e. transfats) and the blessed (i.e. vitamins). The problem is that the food industry has hijacked these nutrients and used them as marketing ploys. And when trends and beliefs change, so do the foods the companies make. "Nutritionism gives an edge to processed foods. They can be manipulated to follow trends as a way to sell more food," Pollan says.
Fats were (wrongly) identified and vilified as the cause of heart disease starting in the late 1970s. Today, the arguments against fat are crumbling, yet in the intervening decades a whole "Snackwell" industry sprang up touting zero or low fat and implying some kind of health benefit. During that exact period the incidence of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes sky-rocketed as people shunned fats and unwittingly consumed more carbohydrates and sugar.
"We deserve an apology [from the government] for the low fat campaign," says Pollan, pointing out that the growing healthcare crisis and its associated costs are directly correlated to what we are eating. Global studies have proven time and again that the "Western Diet," which consists heavily of crops such as soy, corn, and wheat, has had serious negative impacts on our health.
"Before we had food science, we had food culture," says Pollan. "The traditions of food ... the distilled wisdom of the group." He believes, as do many, that if we go back to the eating habits of our ancestors, on an individual level we can quickly roll back the negative health effects of the Western Diet.
He wraps up his speech by referring to his book Food Rules -- a quick read, with old ideas that help us navigate the new circumstances in which we find our food:
And he reminded us that food is alive and should eventually die or rot, unlike the loaf of Wonderbread he's had in his office for over six months. "Food culture should be our go to," Pollan says. "We know enough to eat well."