Author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan was in Seattle last night at Benaroya Hall with his philosophical insight about the American food system. Pollan helped us to “connect the dots” between food and health in the American agricultural system.
Edible food-like substances
Pollan began the evening by pulling “edible food-like substances” out of a QFC grocery bag and reading from the labels. Label claims included a yogurt described as “low fat” that had a higher calorie count and twice as much sugar as a full fat competitor, a soup claiming “25% less salt” without further explanation (25% less than what?), and the product name “Muscle Milk” in big bold letters on the front panel that in fact did not contain any milk as stated in small print elsewhere on the label. The paradox is that true food—good stuff like an apple, the one edible and recognizable food on Pollan’s display of boxes and bottles—doesn’t need to make any claims in writing.
The 21st century American food system is anchored by a mono-cultural agricultural system based on corn and soy, and steered by the ideology of nutrition masquerading as science. The science is fueled by marketing practices that deduce food to individual nutrients and categorize them as “bad” or “good” in order to create confusion with the goal of increasing sales. In this system, food is no longer recognizable. Instead, the grocery stores are full of edible food-like substances that claim to be “real”. These foods come in a box or bottle, consist largely of refined carbohydrates or sugar, and hype health claims on their label about saturated fat, cholesterol, fiber, antioxidants, omegea-3’s, and more. The revolving door of good and bad nutrients is embellished by marketing pundits who steer American health over this agricultural landscape.
Americans have the worst health in the world
Americans today are a nation of health-obsessed individuals with the worst health in the world. The Western diet is marked by larger amounts of refined grain and sugar, fewer fruits and vegetables, and 300 more daily calories than a generation ago. Cultures who adopt the Western diet soon acquire American health, including a rise in the incidence of obesity, along with heart disease and diabetes.
The negative health effects of the Western diet can be traced to 1977 and the adoption of national low fat dietary goals. Fat was demonized as a “bad” nutrient and seen as the cause of rising heart disease and obesity. Since there are essentially three components to food (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), if you limit one, you have to increase one or both of the other two. Meat and other proteins tend to exist with fat, so carbohydrates became the new darling and the revolving door began.
The American food system has continued to chase one nutrient demon after the other (such as saturated fat, cholesterol, monosodium glutamate [MSG], and high fructose corn syrup [HFCS]), while advocating improved health through the use of “good” nutrients (like vitamins, low fat diets, fiber, and omega-3’s). Since the 1980s, our health problems have only increased and the Western diet has continued to make us sick.
Perhaps the most startling comment made by Pollan during the evening is that our agricultural system is subsidized by our tax dollars. So, not only do we have failed food system that threatens our health, we keep paying to maintain it.
While we could remain on the Western diet and allow evolution to eventually correct the problems (albeit in a few millennia), Pollan suggests instead that Americans get off the Western diet by adopting “new” cultural wisdom around food.
Michael Pollan’s food rules for getting off the Western diet (a work in progress)
- Do shop the periphery of the grocery (where the perishables—real food—exists)
- Do eat what your grandparents ate
- Do eat only foods that rot (“most edible food-like substances never spoil”)
- Do eat meals at the table
- Do eat leisurely meals
- Do eat only until you have no more hunger
- Do not eat in your car
- Do not snack between meals
- Do not eat until you are full
Pollan invites you to email him at michaelpollan.com with other cultural food rules (an apple a day comes to mind).
At the close of his talk Pollan reminded us “where you shop and how you eat is as important as what you eat”. Good health is the result of symbiotic relationships between our bodies and the soil, plants, and animals from which we get real food.