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It's the Food, Stupid 

Michael Pollan's new book exposes how "nutritionism" has ruined our diets.

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008

At a reading in Berkeley last spring, feisty nutritionist and author Marion Nestle fielded questions from an audience of mostly earnest-looking women perched on folding chairs. Several lobbed queries about flaxseed oil and vitamin supplements, wheatgrass and superfoods, but the famously blunt NYU prof squelched them all with a blanket prescription. "Eat food," Nestle said, a quiver of exasperation in her voice. "You don't need anything special. Just — eat food!"

Such a radically simple imperative is hard to swallow in a culture conditioned to think of healthy eating as a system of Jamba boosts: Ingest the antioxidant and you're good to go. Even for an enlightened audience like Nestle's — no strangers, apparently, to the Pilates machine and the hemp smoothie — nutritional science has a power that trumps even common sense. Shell out for the latest miracle of nutritional engineering, and you can hoist yourself off the compost heap of mortality for a few years or decades, at least. That's the promise, anyway.

Nestle's prescription attains persuasive eloquence in Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food. The Berkeley author — Knight Professor of Journalism at Cal's J-school — throws down on page one, in a formula with the studied elision of a koan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Those seven words aim a meat cleaver of momlike wisdom at the confusing, contradictory, and sometimes fatally wrong claims of scientists working in the interests of a rapacious food industry.

In Defense of Food mounts an attack on what Pollan calls "nutritionism," a pejorative swiped from Australian science sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis. In Pollan's view, food has been drained of meaning, pleasure, and human connection and instead has become some industrial schematic of nutritional parts — a joyless, ultimately poisonous machine for sustenance. This isn't a brand-new development, Pollan tells us. We're merely the latest generation in a 150-year experiment that has altered the diet our species evolved on, morphing us into carbo junkies tweaking on sugars and refined starches our industrial food system has made cheap.

Flaxseed's hype, for instance, is only the latest symptom of America's food faddism that began with the antiprotein crusade of the Gilded Age. In his sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan, John Harvey Kellogg — daddy of the cornflake — directed a regimen of yogurt enemas meant to cleanse the body of the evils of excessive protein: seething temper, and a compulsion to masturbate. Even Teddy Roosevelt bent over for the purge.

The trail from the Victorian colon tube to the omega-3-injected frozen blueberry bagel of today is what you might call nutritionism's slippery slope. Both are about harnessing the science of the day (no matter how bogus in retrospect) to move product. Pollan makes convincing tragedy out of the food scientists' stiffest failure: the great fat scare that swept post–World War II America like a wave of cholera, turning us away from butter and smack into the trans fat–greased arms of margarine. We all know how that turned out.

The last third of the book contains rules for avoiding the seductions of nutritionism — tips like staying away from the supermarket if you can, and avoiding food products that contain unpronounceable ingredients. The recommendation to avoid things your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food is a defense of common sense, Pollan's notion of chicken soup for the collective soul. They're arguments with the force of the obvious. But the exposé of science that preceded them gives the author's tips an extra wallop of authority.

In Defense of Food does have a whiff of the academic screed (including running footnotes), and is not as accessible as Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which forged a hybrid of journalism, philosophical argument, and character study. In other words, this is not the book to cut your Pollan teeth on, but a kind of appendix to his earlier critique.

Pollan critics such as Julie Guthman, UC Santa Cruz community studies professor and author of Agrarian Dreams, blasted The Omnivore's Dilemma for being more concerned with figuring out some personal escape from the industrial food system rather than arguing for sweeping public-policy solutions. In Defense of Food is likely to spark fresh attacks: In Pollan's reckoning, each household will have to MacGyver its own strategies for eating off the grid. Even the great-grandmother rule assumes some Golden Age of food purity, ignoring the racism and xenophobia that still curb life expectancy for African Americans and Latinos. Nothing like equal access to pastured chickens and unadulterated milk existed then — or now.

Still, the book's fusion of Levi-Strauss, slow food, and a Ted Kaczynski–like critique of capitalism exudes an authentic air of revolution, even if Pollan is among the most affable and self-effacing of social critics, the consummate dinner party guest. Then again, only in a world of Go-GURT Portable Yogurt tubes could an act as elemental as eating food — real food — have the ring of the subversive.

About The Author

John Birdsall


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