Big claims. Not too much support. Mostly unconvincing. That’s my nutshell response to Michael Pollan’s most recent answer to “the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”
Tough assessment, I know. Pollan is wildly popular. For millions of acolytes, he’s the Dr. Phil of food, counseling the foodie elite on such matters as the virtues of grass-fed beef and local produce. Pollan mesmerized his audience with first-rate nature writing in The Botany of Desire and proceeded to take the world by storm with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a smart book that’s become a Bible for environmentally conscious eaters. Through it all, he continues to publish lively, get-a-load-of-this-I’m-chasing-a-boar-through-the-woods! pieces for the New York Times Magazine, while maintaining a respectable foothold in academia as the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. All in all, a nice run.
This time, Pollan has stumbled. It’s not that he’s written a bad book. That’s probably not possible. Instead, the problem with In Defense of Food begins with the fact that Pollan’s central claim reveals little that his well-informed audience doesn’t already know. Indeed, take away the book’s handsome packaging and Pollan’s popcorn prose, and what’s left is hardly a news flash: Processed food is less healthy than whole food. Not much to build a book on, much less a manifesto. Pollan no longer has a genuine dilemma to solve, but a burden to overcome. He has to overwhelm us with an inherently underwhelming argument: You’d be better off eating more fresh, leafy vegetables, less meat, and less processed food overall. Somehow, he must make this ordinary observation seem extraordinary.
Two sleights of hand aid him in his attempt. Unfortunately, they seriously compromise the book’s integrity. First, Pollan grossly overstates his case. Extrapolating from the axiom that whole food is healthier than “fake” food, he reduces the developed world’s most common health problems to the singular cause of an industrialized diet. Rather than exploring the multifaceted relationship between contemporary food production and public health, or placing the issue in historical perspective, Pollan blames diabetes, heart disease, obesity, chronic hypertension, and cancer exclusively on the fact that Westerners gorge on factory-produced nutrients rather than real food. Pollan is right to highlight a surely important connection between industrialized food and disturbing health trends, but his unrestrained exaggeration serves only to compensate for the otherwise tired premise of his project.
Pollan, it should be said, seems to be aware of his skewed emphasis. At one point, he scolds medical researchers for practicing “parking-lot science,” which is the idea that when one loses his keys in a dark parking lot, he automatically searches under the nearest streetlight. The reference, however, fails to prevent Pollan from allowing processed food to become his own streetlight. Ignoring altogether the roles that exercise, heredity, race, social class, occupation, access to health care, and geography play in mediating the myriad connections between diet and health, Pollan limits his search to the well-lighted space under industrial food’s streetlight, where he finds-no surprise-the lost keys to “a maximally healthy diet.”
Pollan’s second sleight of hand has a conspiratorial twist. Without caveat or qualification, he boldly asserts that doctors, nutritionists, government officials, schools of public health, corporate America, factory farmers, and medical journalists have all contrived to kill us through bogus health claims about processed food. Once again, the problem is not that Pollan posits a connection where none exists, but rather that he overstates the matter to such an extreme that he undermines an otherwise valid point. I’m as appropriately paranoid as the next guy, but am I really supposed to believe that my doctor, not to mention the many nutritionists I know, are out to murder me in the spirit of corporate greed? Pollan’s trumped-up premise that entire cohorts of professionals are causing “a global pandemic in the making” while we foolishly trust their advice is more red herring than legitimate claim.
I’ll not dwell on the fact that this “manifesto” is, essentially, a theory of everything laid out in the form of a long magazine piece. Nor will I dwell on the fact that a book routinely making sweeping claims such as this one-“the National Academy of Sciences, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bear direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us”-lacks those pesky little bits of tracking data called footnotes. I’ll leave these matters for readers to ponder.
Instead, my aim, after summarizing the book’s modest accomplishment, is to show how Pollan’s overblown claims require him to construct a defense that falters on a series of logical contradictions. In short, I hope to show that while this is a passionate book with a lot of potential, an altogether different kind of defense is needed to help us think more clearly and realistically about contemporary food, personal health, and environmental sustainability.
The most unfortunate aspect of Pollan’s overstatement is that it obscures his more sober observations about diet, health, and nature. While I am not at all convinced that processed food is (in and of itself) the plague Pollan portrays it to be, I did appreciate being reminded that our bodies respond poorly to fat and sugar manufactured by modern agribusiness. Similarly, while I’m not buying the grand conspiracy that Pollan concocts, I think he’s right to doubt the objectivity of “experts” and, even more so, government officials. Pollan, moreover, can be a masterful stylist when it comes to teasing out nature’s more subtle interrelations. His all too infrequent meditations on the symbiotic relationships between humans and the soil that sustains us evoke the best that Wendell Berry or E.O. Wilson ever wrote. I wanted more of it. Finally, who knew that purslane was so good for you? For that matter, who knew what purslane was? (It’s a salad green in much of the world, but widely considered a weed in the U.S.)
These strengths remain unsustained because Pollan, having made a series of hyperbolic assertions, must spend the bulk of his book building necessarily contorted defenses. As is often the case, the quality of the argumentation reflects the quality of the argument. Most notably (so notable that he admits his contradiction toward the end of the book), Pollan excoriates nutritionists for “thinking about food strictly in terms of its chemical constituents” (rather than thinking about food as real food), and then, in a classic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do move, proceeds to write about food in terms of its chemical constituents. Such lack of consistency is chronic and drags down much of the book.
Consider omega-3s, the nutritionally significant fatty acids found in many fruits, nuts, and fish. When he’s taking nutritionists to the woodshed, Pollan explains that nutritionism-the “ideology” that distills food to its essential nutrients-relies on false dualisms whereby one nutrient is lambasted and another glorified. He writes, “At the moment trans fats are performing admirably in the former role, omega-3 fatty acids in the latter.” He then condemns this dualism in the following terms: “It goes without saying that such a Manichaean view of nutrition is bound to promote food fads and phobias.”
Point taken. But when it comes time for Pollan to tell us what to eat (something I’m coming to realize no serious writer should ever do), he changes his tune. Drawing on the literature of clinical nutrition, he argues that we should eat more leaves and fewer seeds because “[t]here are the antioxidants and phyto-chemicals; there is the fiber; and then there are the essential omega-3 fatty acids found in leaves; which some researchers [um, nutritionists?] believe will turn out to be the most crucial missing nutrient of all.” In essence, Pollan argues, nutritionism is bunk … until it’s not.
Every book is allowed an inconsistency or two. But In Defense of Food contains so many logical contradictions that it eventually leaves the impression of having been cobbled together in a mad rush to meet a publication deadline. Pollan laments on page 9 that “we are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” But by page 186, as if lacking a culinary care in the world, “we” are consuming calories “found in convenience food-snacks, microwavable entrees, soft drinks, and packaged food of all kinds-which happens to be the source of most of the 300 or so calories Americans have added to their daily diet since 1980.” Suddenly, and without explanation, a nation of obsessive nutrient-counting orthorexics has become a nation of careless, Twinkie-gorging anti-orthorexics.
If this flip-flip doesn’t sufficiently confuse, there’s Pollan’s dance around the issue of food anxiety. On page 53, Pollan, who is still in “kill your nutritionist” mode, notes that “nutritionism tends to foster a great deal of anxiety around the experience of shopping for food and eating it.” We should revel in the sensuality of food, not stress out over it, he rightly insists. But by the end, when Pollan is dishing out his own dietary advice, he tells us to eat less food, spend more money on it, eat it at a table (“No, a desk is not a table”), plant a garden, eat wild foods, avoid the grocery store, buy a deep freeze to store cow carcasses, and, if possible, assume the identity of a native French, Italian, or Greek person. OK, I exaggerate the last point (barely), but you get the gist. Talk about anxiety! The only consolation in this stressful fumarole of dietary guidance is that it’s still permissible to drink a decent amount of red wine every day.
Other contradictions: On page 147 we’re told that “ordinary food is what we should eat,” but 13 pages later Pollan urges us to buddy up with our local farmer because he “can impress on eaters the distinctions between ordinary and exceptional food, and the many reasons why exceptional food is worth what it costs.” On page 56, Pollan, to show how neurotic Americans have always been about food, mocks 19th-century dieters for chewing their food excessively, but then, on page 194, he tells us to “EAT SLOWLY.” Pollan condemns an FDA report as “pseudo-scientific” and then, eight pages later, declares, somewhat less than scientifically, “don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Pollan tells us “it’s a good idea to try to add some new species, and not just new foods, to your diet,” and then, seven pages down the road, equivocates: “Innovation is interesting, but when it comes to something like food, it pays to approach novelties with caution.” And so on.
I dwell on these contradictions because they collectively support my argument that Pollan, with his overblown claims, has finally bitten off more than he can chew. Food, contrary to Pollan’s belief, is complex. Endlessly so. It is therefore misguided at best to think that a single person, no matter how smart, could distill the infinitely varied matter of eating well into an inherently consistent manifesto applicable to all Western eaters-which is exactly what Pollan’s poorly framed argument forces him to do. In making this point, however, I’m struck by an alternative proposition. In the face of food’s complexity, and recognizing the agricultural systems that nurture that complexity, might it be that those who choose to write about their personal experiences interacting with the world of food and farming will make a more lasting mark on our newfound cultural awareness of food than Pollan, whose universally encompassing attempt has more in common with all-you-can eat buffets?
In other words, like Thoreau and his woods, Melville and his whales, Burroughs and his drugs, or Kerouac and his road trips, In Defense of Food could have given us what surely would have been a fascinating record of Michael Pollan’s personal relationship to food, leaving socially concerned eaters to listen to our own bodies, inform our own minds, construct our own defenses, and-should we be so bold-arrive at our own manifestos.
Contributing writer James E. McWilliams is currently a fellow in the Agrarian Studies program at Yale. His book, American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, comes out this summer.