Nutrition "Science" Has Hijacked Our Meals -- and Our Health

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[Junk Food]
Why would anyone need to write a book called In Defense of Food? If we can afford it and can get our hands on it, we eat food several times a day. Or do we?

According to Michael Pollan, most of what Americans consume isn't food. He calls it "edible foodlike substances." He also says that the way we consume it is not really eating. It's something we do pretty unconsciously as we work or drive or watch TV.

We all know about the US epidemic of obesity and diabetes over the past 25 years, top of the steady rise of chronic diseases over the past 100. Paradoxically, this happens just as Americans and the food industry are ever more aware of nutrition. What's going on here?

Pollan claims that in the Western Diet, good old food has been replaced by nutrients, mom's good advice by nutritional experts, common sense by confusion, and for most, a relatively good diet by a bad and dangerous one. The book in which he makes all these claims and advises us simply to "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants," has topped the New York Times best-seller list.

Michael Pollan's previous books include >THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A Natural History of Four Meals, named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. Pollan is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

Terrence McNally: How did you grow to focus on plants and then food?

Michael Pollan: Well all my work really begins in the garden. I was a very passionate gardener beginning at age eight, although I fell away from it for a few years. In the 1980's I was living in New York and took up gardening at a weekend house in northwestern Connecticut. I got very absorbed in the garden as a place to look at our relationship to nature.

Like a lot of Americans, my understanding of nature and our relationship to it was shaped by Emerson and Thoreau and Melville and Whitman. When I actually started to garden, I realized all those ideas about the romance of nature were distinctly unhelpful. Thoreau's love of wilderness and worship of the wild really doesn't equip you when the pests come and destroy your crops, when the woodchuck attacks your broccoli.

I got into trouble following their philosophy. I didn't have a fence, for example. I thought a fence was too alienating from the natural world. I got into a war with a woodchuck -- just like Bill Murray in Caddyshack -- until I was defoliating my property and pouring gasoline down a woodchuck burrow. I was like William Westmoreland in Vietnam, willing to destroy the village to save it.

I realized then that the garden was a very interesting place to examine our relationship to the natural world. Traditionally when Americans want to think about nature, we picture the wilderness, we go camping, we go to Yosemite. But nature is happening in our homes, in our gardens, in our lawns, and on our plates.

TMN: At that point you were writing about other things?

MP: I was an editor at Harper's Magazine, and I began writing a series of essays about what was happening to me in my garden, my woodchuck war, my dad's battle with the neighbors over his front lawn. These kinds of issues became my first book, Second Nature.

I started looking at our relationship to plants and animals, and at drugs, since a lot of drugs are plants that change our consciousness.

TMN: And that shows up in The Botany of Desire?

MP: Yes. When I was working on Botany of Desire, I visited industrial farms in Idaho to see how industrial agriculture works, and I was shocked. I was absolutely floored by these vast monocultures, the amount of pesticides that are used, the fact that the farmers are afraid to go into their fields for five days after they spray for fungus because they know how neurotoxic this stuff is.

TMN: Stuff which will later end up on our plates?

MP: In fact, they would often have a little patch of organic potatoes by the house for themselves, because they could not eat the food coming out of their farms.

I suggest they are more irresponsible than they are. Over time the potatoes leech out the worst chemicals, so you can't just dig industrial potatoes and eat them right away, or you'll get too heavy a load of residues.

I also visited organic farms, and realized that there were alternatives. People were having great success growing organic on a fairly large scale in Idaho with a completely different mind set. Not monoculture being the key fact. Heavy rotations, poly-cropping.

When I realized that eating is our most profound engagement with the natural world, I got very excited to take a hard look at the food chain that we're a part of.

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Whatever Happened to Real Food?
Posted by carouselle on 2008-05-18 17:47:02
I can honestly vouch for the fact that what we consume today called "food," doesn't even come close to it! Being an early "boomer," I can remember real food that we ate when I was a kid. The stuff we consume today, even that which is called healthy, has no taste, smell or appearance of the real thing. I believe that is one reason why we, as a nation, overeat. Because we are never satiated or satisfied by what we consume, we tend to remain hungry. Our bodies and our psyches are still hungry for the real thing. I remember walking home from school smelling a myriad of different tantalizing aromas seeping from kitchens all along the way. You never smell those smells today. I remember milk that tasted like milkshakes. Everything had flavor, substance and color. Most of what we consume today comes from laboratories, it is man-made and it is killing us!
 

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