Over the Christmas holiday, I studiously devoted myself to completing Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Granted, I chose a rather odd time to attempt to educate myself on the array of problems with our “way of eating” – “Pass the gravy please!”, but I was up for the challenge nonetheless. I had heard many good things about this book from friends, and wanted to complete it prior to the New Year, and with that the always busy work schedule, and same mindless eating habits that would surely follow. I’m glad I pushed myself to finish it, because what I read really opened my eyes to the realities of industrial food production, and set me on the right course for making better food choices.
Mr. Pollan begins the book with a history lesson on how the U.S. government’s policy towards nutrition took shape by guiding the reader through an explanation of how the modern idea of “nutrition”, or at least how the policy makers and food companies define it, misses the point entirely when it comes to defining food. Not only by missing the big picture of what food is beyond mere nutrients, but environmentally and culturally as well. He concludes the book, thankfully, with a “DO” and “DON’T” chapter of ways to eat more healthy, with actual food, providing valuable resources to help one escape the confines of the grocery store, and thus the over-processed food-like poison that incorporates a large majority of what constitutes a Western Diet.
What I found most intriguing was learning how we came, as a country, to have the food policies we have; policies that, as one might infer from my introduction, have been lobbied to death by food companies and related industries in order to protect the profits of food corporations over the general health of Americans. How else do Fritolay and Lucky Charms cereal receive a seal of approval from the FDA and American Heart Association???
Most amazingly, and quite frightening, Pollan details how a regulation that would have required food companies to label food an “imitation” if it was altered so much as one molecule from the original, natural food, was completely killed by food industry lobbyists. That is why, as Pollan points out, we can now have “multi-grain white bread”, a paradoxical (mutli-grain white bread??), frankenstein concoction that contains so many ingredients, one begins to seriously forget how true food is actually made. One of the ingredients in this multi-grain white bread is “dough conditioners”. Seriously. I went to the grocery store and looked at the label. Go check. It’s there. Was this bread having a “salon day” before it hit the grocery shelves? It’s high time for better regulation of food labeling in this country!!
A basic rule of thumb that Pollan gives is this: If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, it’s probably not food. Now of course bread is a food that has been around since the beginning of time, but bread with 35 ingredients, one of which is “dough conditioners”, certainly doesn’t pass the “great-grandmother” test.
Pollan provides some other useful rules when deciding what to eat:
- Avoid foods that have ingredients you don’t recognize as food, or foods that have more than five ingredients all together.
- If you must eat animals, eat less of them than plants
- Drink 1-2 glasses of red wine per day, but always with a meal. (I’m particularly pleases with this one!)
- Fat is not necessarily a bad thing
- Hydrogenated vegetable oils are not good.
- High-fructose corn syrup is always a bad idea.
- Plant a garden if possible, even if it’s just an individual herb and vegetable plant on your apartment’s balcony. By doing this one becomes more connected with the source of food, which in turn gives one a new appreciation for what it means to grow food and eat it.
- Avoid foods that make health claims. Anything that says, “Now with more Vitamin XYZ” usually means that it a) doesn’t have sufficient nutrients on its own, and b) is overly processed.
What I like most about this book, is that it leaves the reader with the resources necessary to begin the process of divorcing oneself from the unhealthy industrial food marriage that so many Americans live with daily. My two favorite resources being Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) which details how one can go about finding a local farm and purchasing a “share” to obtain weekly deliveries of organically grown vegetables, and Eatwild – a website dedicated to understanding the facts and myths surrounding the proper “pasturing” of animals, as well as links to local farms where you can buy truly grassfed, or “pastured” animal products. I have already taken the first step in purchasing a half share of my own from a local farm in Phoenix called Farmyard. For a nominal fee, I will now receive a weekly basket of seasonally fresh, organic vegetables and a dozen free-range, fully pastured chicken eggs.
I know some of you may be thinking, “Get off your high-horse you crunchy, pinko-commie hippie! Things aren’t THAT bad with our food.” Okay, there are probably not many of you saying that. It’s likely that if you’ve read this far, you probably already agree with the general premise of this post. In fact, I would guess that many Americans would agree with me. Even my conservative father is starting to come around to the idea that food corporations are not altruistic in their capitalist nature! Who doesn’t want to eat good, wholesome healthy food?!
The problem is that most Americans exist in a sea of misinformation. Misinformation about the reality of the food, or food-like products they’re eating, and their effects on the human body. Misinformation perpetrated by corporate food conglomerates (see: Monsanto). Misinformation from government and the media who, being so reliant on corporate dollars for their existence, avoid or ignore reporting the TRUTH about the danger of so many corporate food products. The main reason for all of this is that always persnickety, yet “necessary ?” evil, of the advertising and/or campaign contribution dollar.
Our food problems, and stark reliance on a “Western Diet”, obviously run deep. Sadly, the overarching, large-scale solutions needed to wholly reform our food culture are nowhere to be seen on the horizon of regulatory reform. So long as the government heavily subsidizes industries like corn and soybeans, politicians depend on corporate food lobbyists for campaign donations, and the media rely heavily on corporate advertising dollars, a serious discussion about change will never occur, and therefore nothing will change. In short, don’t wait around for the government to fix these problems any time soon.
The solution lies within each individual; you and me, and the purchasing power we have. That’s right, the only way to change this system is from the ground up, turning the food industry on it’s head by not taking part in it at all! With every dollar you spend on “multi-grain white bread”, just because it’s cheap and easy, you support the profit-driven and unhealthy food industry. The answer is simple: return to the basics of food, real food, locally grown and/or raised, and committing oneself to a diet based on what one can acquire via these sources. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always the cheapest route. But if you have the knowledge, and the means, then there is no excuse. I’ve already personally taken the first step by purchasing a farm share. You can too!
Happy New Year!