Pity the Poor Omnivore
Michael Pollan on how America got fat.
It became obvious to journalist Michael Pollan in the summer of 2002 that America had a national eating disorder. That July, The New York Times Magazine published an article titled "What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" which reported that a growing number of respected nutritional researchers were beginning to conclude that perhaps Dr. Robert Atkins had been right all along: Carbohydrates, not fats, were the cause of America's obesity problem.
Almost overnight, in Pollan's estimation, bakeries went out of business, dinner rolls in New York restaurants went the way of the pterodactyl, and pasta became regarded as a toxin.
"These foods were wonderful staples of human life for thousands of years," Pollan told Truthdig, "and suddenly we've decided that they're evil. Any culture that could change its diet on a dime like that is suffering from an eating disorder, as far as I can see."
Pollan was well placed to make such an observation. The previous year, he had published a critically acclaimed, best-selling book called The Botany of Desire, an examination of humans' relationships to plants, and how plants shape human societies as much as we shape them. His writings on the natural world and food stretch back to the late 1980s. Early in his career, he was an editor at Harper's magazine, and since 1995 he has been a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine. Over the years he won a gaggle of writing awards and fellowships from environmental, food and journalistic organizations, in addition to publishing two other books, on gardening and architecture.
So when Atkins-mania achieved terminal velocity in the summer of 2002, Pollan started to wonder whether it wasn't time to ask some fundamental questions about a country so apparently susceptible to the whims of a fad diet. Pulling together the threads of stories he had written in the past decade on topics ranging from the ethics of vegetarianism to the dangers of over-reliance on corn, Pollan set off on a journey to answer a deceptively sophisticated question: "What should we have for dinner?"
The search for an answer found expression in Pollan's just-published book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The title refers to the quandary faced by animals like humans (and rats and cockroaches) that, in order to stay alive, must choose from the bewildering array of edible and non-edible substances. We can eat a lot, but what should we eat?
The subtitle of his book is "A Natural History of Four Meals," which is Pollan's way of describing his exploration of four types of food that eventually terminate in some kind of human meal: food that he himself grew and hunted; organic or "alternative" food (found at farmer's markets); industrial-organic foods (much of the stock at Whole Foods); and industrial, or processed, food (the snack or cereal aisles at Safeway). Through this series of "food detective stories," the author found things to cheer and things to fear about the ethical, biological and ecological ramifications of the American way of eating.
Truthdig managing editor Blair Golson recently spoke with Pollan from his home in Northern California, where he is the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He discussed how the omnivore's dilemma had returned in the unlikeliest of places; the truth about so-called "free range" chickens; and how in the world food manufacturers can get away with labels that read: "This product may contain one or more of the following..."
Blair Golson: The omnivore's dilemma is typically associated with animals in the wild that have to choose between food that will either nurture or kill them. What's the relevance of the term to modern human society?
Michael Pollan: Out in nature, if you're a creature looking for something to eat, you might see some attractive looking red berries and think to yourself, "I wonder if I can eat those without getting sick? And what about those mushrooms?" Well, the same thing is happening in the supermarket. There are many tasty things, some of which can kill you. Trans fats, for example, or all the sugar we're eating.
So we're back where we were once upon a time, trying to navigate a treacherous food landscape -- full of attractive things, but some of which are liable to shorten our lives.
BG: Is that what prompted you to write the book?
MP: It was a gathering sense that Americans -- myself included -- had gotten deeply confused and worried about what they were eating and unsure where to turn. To read the newspaper over the last couple of years is to read one story after another that makes you wonder if the way you've been eating all these years is such a good idea -- for yourself or the planet or the animals. Just reading the coverage of mad cow disease was an incredible educational experience. For example, we read that you've got to stop feeding cows to cows. It's like, "What? We've been feeding cows to cows?" And we've got to tighten up those rules about feeding chicken litter to cows. "We've been feeding chicken crap to cows?"
If you read those stories, it made me realize that the system by which we're producing our food is not one I feel very good about participating in. So I began looking into the food chain and alternatives to the main industrial food chain -- doing what I think of as a series of food detective stories, and much of what I learned in these detective stories was astonishing to me, and forced me to re-approach the way I shop for food and go about eating it.
BG: Like facing up to the realities of shopping at Whole Foods?
MP: Yeah, I use the term "supermarket pastoral" for the experience of shopping in a place like that. Whole Foods, they're brilliant storytellers. You walk into that store, and it just looks like a beautiful garden, and there are pictures of organic farmers up on the walls, and little labels that describe how the cow lived that became your milk or your beef, and the cage-free vegetarian hens who got to free range.
They're creating in your minds an image of a farm very much like the ones in the books you read as children -- with a diversity of happy animals wandering around the farmyard. It's very cleverly designed, but unfortunately like a lot of pastoral forms of art, it's based on illusions. Not entirely, but if you go to the farm depicted on those labels, you find that in fact, things look a little bit different. Organic milk might be coming from a dry organic feedlot where 500 cows are milling around and never get to eat a blade of grass. I have a feeling that's not what the consumer thinks they're getting.
BG: Does the same thing go for free-range chickens and eggs?
MP: It's very interesting. Free-range chickens -- I did go visit a large organic chicken producer here in California, and if you look at their label, there's a farmstead with a little silo and a farm house and a farmyard and chickens running around, but if you go to the farm, the chickens are grown in these huge barracks as long as a football field. They're indoors, there are 20,000 of them in a house, and running along this barrack is what looks like a little front lawn -- mowed, maybe 15 or 20 feet deep.
There's a little door at either side of the barrack where, theoretically, chickens could step outside and take the air. But they don't. One reason is that the doors are closed until the chickens are about five weeks old. The farmers -- if you can use that word, the managers -- are concerned that the chickens might catch their death of cold or pick up a germ, so they don't open the doors until the chickens are five weeks old.
They smother them at seven weeks; so it's not exactly a lifestyle. It's more like a two-week vacation option. And the chickens don't avail themselves of this option because they've never been outside before. They're terrified of going outside. First of all, it's not big enough for the whole flock. Second of all, the food and water is inside; they're not used to it; they weren't brought up this way.
They're like the cat in the Manhattan apartment; when you open the door they just stand there in terror wondering about the other dimension of reality outside that door. Free range is a conceit. It's to make us feel better about these chickens. It's not doing anything for the chickens, as far as I can tell. Yes, that organic chicken is still a better product, I think. It's getting better feed, it's got a few more inches of legroom than a conventional chicken, but it's not all it's cracked up to be.
BG: And hence your efforts to find places that were all they were cracked up to be...
MP: I went looking for a better model of farming -- a truly biological or ecological farm. They are out there. There are people doing amazing, visionary work. And the one I chose to focus on is a farm called Polyface. And it's run by a man named Joel Salatin and his son, Daniel. They grow six different animals on 100 acres of open land and another 400 of forest. And they do it in this very intricate rotation, so that on one day, the cows are on a pasture. Then they wait a couple of days and the chickens come in. They eat all of the grubs out of the manure, which takes care of the farm's problem with flies and disease, and they spread that manure in the process of doing that, and they fertilize it with their own manure to keep the pastures very healthy. Then the chickens move out and another animal moves in. This rotation going through the farm several times every season, and the result is a great deal of high-quality food, but also, most astoundingly of all, an improvement in the environment of this farm. There is more top soil, more grass, more fertility than there would be if nothing were being done here.
That is a very significant achievement, because it belies this basic American idea that our relationship with nature is a zero sum game -- by which we all assume that for us to get what we want from nature, nature is diminished. This farm is saying, "No, that is not necessarily true. There is a way to get your food from the earth in such a way that it leaves the earth improved." To me, that's an incredibly heartening message; it says we're not this pest species in nature, that we really have a contribution to make.
BG: Is there any evidence to suggest that that model is spreading?
MP: It's not about to take over American agriculture, but there's a very strong movement to put animals back on grass, get them off of feed lots, and sell grass-finished meat. Grass-fed beef is growing very quickly, and I find it a very hopeful development.
BG: But didn't you write that places like Polyface can't ever hope to make money supplying the biggies like Wal-Mart or Whole Foods because those places only buy from mega farms?
MP: You have to get out of the supermarket, basically. The supermarket is not going to support this world in the long run, I don't think. But the supermarket is not the only place to buy your food. There are very many good alternatives -- the farmers' market being the most obvious. But also CSAs -- which stands for community-supported agriculture -- where you essentially join a farm and every week you get a box of produce. People are buying really good grass-fed meat over the Internet.
BG: If you're someone living in a major metropolitan city, and you wanted to eat in the healthiest way, patronizing the most ecologically friendly food purveyors -- setting aside cost for the moment -- how would you shop?
MP: I am that person. I've joined a CSA, so I get a box of produce every week. I also go to the farmers' market. I have found some producers of things like beef that I buy in quantity and keep in my freezer. But I also find grass-finished beef -- I'm kind of lucky here in Northern California -- I can find it in local markets. So I do a little bit of many different things. And it's a little easier to do here in California than in others places. Our farmers' markets are open 12 months a year, and that isn't true everywhere.
But I also get on the Internet and find interesting food. There are terrific websites. There's the Eat Well Guide, where you put in your ZIP code and it tells you about local farms doing interesting things. The other thing to do is to visit local farms and establish a personal connection, if you have the time and the inclination. I find that incredibly interesting. I like knowing farmers who are growing my food.
But all of us are going to take this to different degrees. I don't think it's all or nothing. I still go to the Safeway. I still stop at Whole Foods every now and then. And many people don't have the time or inclination to put any more work into it, and so maybe Whole Foods is fine, and maybe they've got a lot of money, because Whole Foods is really expensive. And that helps. The kind of farming that Whole Foods supports is better than conventional farming.
All I'm suggesting is that you can take it to the next step if you want. And the next step is incredibly rewarding, because the quality of the food is so high, and the kind of stewardship going on is very impressive.
But like I said, it's not all or nothing. We have three food votes every day -- that's more votes than we have in most other aspects of our lives. And if you used one of them in a way that supported a change -- an alternative food chain, that's a big accomplishment. That's enough to create these alternatives and make them more accessible and probably cheaper as well, as more people use them. You can go whole hog or just dip your toes in, but either way, I think it's a very important food vote you have.
BG: Sure, we have votes; but as a society, we seem to vote most often for fad diets. Why are Americans in particular so susceptible to those kinds of appeals? MP: I think it is because we're not anchored by a single, stable food culture, that we're really vulnerable to messages from marketers, messages from scientists, and we're willing to throw it all out every few years.
BG: What do you mean a "stable food culture"? Do you mean the immigrant, melting-pot aspect of America?
MP: Yeah. Since we didn't have one national kind of cuisine, and one sort of eating rules, the result has been a diluted food culture that is much more vulnerable to marketing. If we had a stable food culture that had a consistent set of answers about, "This is what you eat, and this is how you eat it," I think we'd be much less vulnerable to a news article saying, "Fat is good, carb is bad."
BG: But surely there's more to the erosion of a healthy food culture than our immigrant roots?
MP: The food marketers deserve a lot of the blame for this. When you sell a product like Go-Gurt, or a nonfood like this new stuff called "Gu" -- which is a pure nutrients in a gel that athletes are supposed to use, but that kids are taking in their lunch boxes -- you're destroying something.
You're destroying the idea of people eating together. If you're selling products designed to go in the cup holder, you are, not intentionally, but effectively destroying the idea of people sitting at a table across from one another and eating. We don't eat together as families nearly as much as we once did. Twenty percent of meals are now eaten in the car. Food marketers are barraging us with messages about what we should eat.
New food products are redefining the eating experience. Your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize a Pop Tart or a tube of Go-Gurt, or know what to do with it. So we've changed the way we eat more in the last 50 years than probably in the thousand years before that -- at every level: in the farm, but also in the market. So all this has contributed to this confusion about what we should eat. Of course, because before you figure out what you should eat, you need to figure out what you are eating.
BG: Which, it turns out, is a ton of corn. Literally. You write that each of us is responsible for eating approximately a ton of corn per year. How could that be?
MP: Most of it is hidden from view, because most of that corn is passed through animals first. We eat corn in the form of chickens and pork and beef and eggs and milk. Almost all the rest of it is highly processed. It's in chicken McNuggets. Not just in the chicken, but in 13 out of the 38 ingredients there -- the additives, the various corn starches, the various oils, the oil it's fried in. It's kind of a hidden food chain. And it's not just corn. There's a lot of soybean in our food, too.
But the way our food system works, is we take these very simple commodity crops -- that the government heavily subsidizes, by the way -- and we break them down into their constituent molecules, and then we reassemble them in the form of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in highly processed foods: snack foods, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola. We eat something like 56 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup sweetener every year.
When you're drinking that soda, you're really drinking quite a bit of corn. So we should worship the corn plant, because that's what's supporting us right now. We don't, because we don't realize we're eating it. The Mayans, who called themselves the corn people, had a healthier sense of their indebtedness to this one plant.
BG: What are the ramifications of relying so heavily upon one crop?
MP: The last people to rely so heavily upon one crop were the Irish in the 19th century who ate potatoes and nothing else. This wasn't very good for their health, and when the potato crop failed in 1845, a million of them died. In general, it's a really bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket.
Nature doesn't work that way, and we are leaving ourselves open to risk from the devastation of the corn crop from some new microbe or terrorism. As a health matter, we're omnivores. We do need those 50 or so different chemical nutrients, and you're not going to get them from processed corn. Processed corn is the building block of the fast food diet.
And that diet, we're learning, is leaving us mal-nourished, even as it makes us fat. There are kids showing up in clinics in Oakland with rickets -- very well-fed, over-fed kids who are suffering from nutrient deficiencies. That's from eating too much processed corn.
BG: Do you think we need new rules applied to food labeling? Either from the government, or maybe from the industry itself? Are labels the answer?
MP: I think labels are important. They are a substitute for people actually being able to meet farmers and go to farms. But I think there are a lot of other changes at the federal level that would help. Our food system is not a creation of the free market. It's a combination of a set of rules combined with the market. And those rules are dictating the fact that, for example, cheap corn and soybeans are the predominant ingredients in our food supply.
Because we subsidize those calories, we end up with a supermarket in which the least healthy calories are the cheapest. And the most healthy calories are the most expensive. That, in the simplest terms, is the root of the obesity epidemic for the poor -- because the obesity epidemic is really a class-based problem. It's not an epidemic, really. The biggest prediction of obesity is income.
BG: You write about resistant starch, a new starch from corn that is virtually indigestible, which means it goes through the digestive track without breaking down and turning into glucose. Does this mean it doesn't add any calories to our waistline?
MP: That's right. This has been the holy grail of food science for a while: to allow people to eat endlessly without getting full or fat.
BG: So how do you feel about this new substance at first blush?
MP: I think it's a crazy idea. In the same way Olestra was a crazy idea. Olestra was an oil that passes through your system, but people rejected it because of other things it did to your system. Did you ever read the warning label on Olestra? It warns of anal leakage. I find this very unappetizing. This is going to be a very novel food; and we don't know what it's doing to us.
The food we have, the food we have had, is perfectly fine. I get an enormous amount of pleasure in eating the carbs that are already out there. I don't think we need this. I think this serves the food marketers more than us. I suppose for obese people looking to lose weight, it'll be useful to them. But sell it with a prescription.
BG: We gotta ask: Why do ingredients labels say, "This product may contain one or more of the following..." How can the manufacturers be unclear about something like that?
MP: They're not unclear. What they're doing is keeping their options open. So that on a given day, they can use any fat -- they could switch from soy to cottonseed to corn oil, depending on today's market conditions. That symbolizes a food that is highly processed. The reason you process food is so that you're not highly dependent on any one raw ingredient, and you want to be as far removed from dependence on the corn market or soy market as possible. You engineer your foods so you could substitute any one ingredient for another. BG: After all you've seen about the way that animals are grown and slaughtered, what moral calculus do you use to continue eating meat?
MP: I'm a limited carnivore. I only eat meat that is grown in a way that I feel morally comfortable with. And that's not a lot of meat. But I've found a few producers whose practices strike me as defensible. I also think that there are always trade-offs when we eat. Even vegans inflict collateral damage on the environment. Many animals die in row crop agriculture -- not just in animal agriculture, and we have to remember that.
Animals are going to die so that we many live. And then you have to think about which animals, and how. And I think animals coming off of a humane farm where they get to live as their evolution dictates -- cows on grass, for example -- is better for them and for us than if they never lived at all. Domestic animals only exist to the extent that we eat them. There would be no pigs, no chickens, no cows as we know them, if people weren't eating them. I don't see domestication as something we've imposed on other species. I see it as a co-evolutionary arrangement, where the animal gets something out of it as well. You can't domesticate a species just because you want to. There are many species who have refused to be domesticated. The ones who have are the ones who gain something from the relationship. And I think that's true even of the animals we are eating. Many animals depend on their predators for the health of their species.
I also think you can make a very strong ecological argument for eating meat. As I described earlier, the sustainably-raised meat is ecologically a very positive thing for the environment, for the grasslands. There are many grasslands that are diminished for not having ruminants on them. And ruminants need predators to be healthy, and we are those predators in cases of certain ruminants.
And without animals on farms, you'd need artificial fertilizer, because you wouldn't have manure to compost. So I think truly sustainable agriculture depends on animals in relation to plants. And if we took the animals out, I'm not sure we'd like the result. I don't think the vegan utopia, from an ecological standpoint, is very sustainable.
I also think that if you didn't have meat agriculture, there are many places in this country and this world that would not be able to feed themselves. I'm talking about hilly places, places where grass grows, but where you can't grow crops. You condemn people in those places to eat off of a very long food chain. I'm thinking of New England: without meat protein, you'd have to eat off the Midwest.
BG: Finally, what did you mean in writing that we're not only what we eat, but how we eat, too?
MP: At the end of the industrial food chain, you need an industrial eater. What you eat, and how you eat are equally important issues. There is a lot of talk and interesting comparisons drawn between us and the French on the subject of food. We're kind of mystified that they can eat such seemingly toxic substances -- triple crème cheeses and foie gras, and they're actually healthier than we are.
They live a little bit longer, they have less obesity, less heart disease. What gives? Well, according to the people who study this: It's not what they eat, it's how they eat it. They eat smaller portions; they do not snack as a rule; they do not eat alone. When you eat alone, you tend to eat more. When you're eating with someone there's a conversation going on, there's a sense of propriety; you don't pig out when you're eating at a table with other people. So the French show you can eat just about whatever you want, as long as you do it in moderation. That strikes me as a liberating message. But it's not the way we do things here. We have a food system here that is all about quantity, rather than quality. So how you eat is very, very important, and to solve the obesity and the diabetes issue in this country, we're going to have change the way we eat, as well as what we eat.
Blair Golson is the managing editor of Truthdig. Distributed by Alternet.org. © 2006 Independent Media Institute.