Something to Read When You're Bored

Michael Pollan
February 19, 2008, 3:26 pm
Filed under: Food, Interesting

I meant to write about this last week but ended up getting sick instead. Last Thursday I got to see Michael Pollan talk at Starbucks headquarters (thanks to a sweet inside connection with Erica), and I thought that what he had to say was pretty compelling (and also, of course, convinced me that I need to own his latest book).

The only book of his that I’ve read is The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was completely fascinating but had the troublesome side effect of making it almost impossible for me to eat. The decision of what to eat became linked to inhumane conditions for animals, destructive synthetic flavors and preservatives, and global repercussions; grocery stores were suddenly the new forum for defining my ethical beliefs and values, while trying not to kill myself with evil evil high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. Anyway, the point is that I was easily pulled in when Mr. Pollan began his talk by describing how many of his readers had told him that they were unable to finish The Omnivore’s Dilemma because they were afraid that if they finished it there wouldn’t be anything left that they could eat. I was intrigued.

He went on to describe how his new book is intended to help make eating easier again for all of his distraught readers. I liked the sound of this new direction. Next he treated us to his interpretation of our (American) collective cultural belief system about eating, which he called Nutritionalism. There were four basic components of this belief system. First, that foods are essentially the sum of their nutrients-that every food can be broken down into carbs, fats, and so on, and that this breakdown more or less defines the character of the food. Second is that these nutrients aren’t something you can see – only scientists with microscopes are able to figure out what nutrients are in food. This naturally flows into the third premise, which is that we need professionals to tell us how to eat properly, hence the never-ending stream of articles and publications letting us know what new wonder-nutrient is going to solve everything and make us live forever and what foods you need to start eating three times a day in order to get enough of said nutrient. That brings us to the fourth part of the Nutritionalism theory, my favorite part, which is the idea that nutrients are like superheroes; there are super evil nemesis nutrients that are going to kill you- or worse, make you fat. Those would include things like the above-mentioned high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. But you can fight off those demonic little buggers with the angelic wonder-nutrients like fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants (kill those free radicals!).

All in all I thought Mr. Pollan’s theory was pretty astute. I also smugly enjoyed the feeling that my personal attitude about food has expanded beyond the typical American perspective, although when I think about it, maybe not enough. Anyhow, he went on to point out that there are a lot of other really good reasons for eating food, besides the one we all obsess about, which is essentially fuelling our bodies. Eating is also a social activity, a way of expressing your identity, a cultural experience, and a pleasurable one. And people have been managing to eat without professional help for years and years, maybe we could too. So his new book talks about how to eat without professional help and without freaking out about every single food purchase you make. In fact, the cover of the book gives away the trick to this unnaturally difficult objective, neatly wrapped around a head of lettuce:


The trick is defining what ‘food’ actually is, and a whole lot of the things you’ll find in a grocery store don’t qualify. Evidently 14 pages of the book are devoted to this definition. The book also offers simple tips for choosing what to eat, some of which he shared with us, like ‘don’t buy anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food’ and ‘don’t buy anything that claims to be healthy’ (also known as ‘don’t be fooled by the silence of the yams.’) I think the book also discusses some of the other challenges involved in eating, like the fact that real food generally requires cooking, and that doesn’t go over so well with some people. I thought the book sounded pretty interesting, so I went home and ordered it – I should’ve just bought it there, but I have a sexy vampire series to finish first anyway – but I’ll be sure to share my thoughts when I finally read it. Until then, I’ll be bracing myself for the possibility of giving up some of my favorite processed food addictions.


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Another thing I took away from his talk was the idea of PAYING for quality. He talked about how in our quest to get a “good deal” on something (i.e. the $0.99 dozen eggs vs the $3.49 eggs), we often sacrifice quality. So, his answer was simple: Pay more, Buy/eat less. I thought that was a really great lesson to learn … or re-learn, since I think we all “know” this stuff deep down. It made me think differently when I was in the dairy/egg aisle, anyway.

Comment by Erica

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