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Food Politics

The Gourmet Q + A: Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and is the Director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. He has written extensively about agriculture and the environment, and his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin 2006) won the 2007 James Beard Award for best food writing. His latest book, In Defense of Food (Penguin 2008), expands upon an article Pollan wrote for The New York Times Magazine, in which he argued that the only nutritional advice anyone needs can be summed up in three sentences: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Gourmet Associate Web Editor Christy Harrison spoke to him about the differences between real and fake food, why culinary clichés are good for your health, and how to survive on a diet of mostly whale blubber.

Christy Harrison: When your piece first came out in the Times Magazine urging people to ignore all the nutritional claims and eat only things their great-grandmothers would have recognized as food, some readers accused you of being anti-science. But you do actually reference a lot of scientific studies in this book—particularly agricultural and environmental science, and quite a few nutritional studies as well. What role do you think science should play in our diets?

Michael Pollan: Well, science has a legitimate role to play, there’s no question, and biology is an important way to understand both ends of the food chain—what’s happening in the plant and the animal and the soil, and also what happens when we ingest foods in our bodies. But I think science is playing altogether too large a role right now, because it turns out on close inspection to be a really primitive science. We still don’t know that much about the soil, about digestion, or about the precise chemical compounds people need from food.

The way I see it, the science of nutrition is kind of where surgery was in 1650. It’s promising, it’s on its way to a deep understanding of what’s going on, but it’s not quite time to put yourself in their hands for elective surgery. We might do well to look for other sources of knowledge about food until they’ve got it all figured out. I’m not saying we should reject it, I just think we have to be very humble, and the scientists need to be more humble. Scientists are very bad at telling you what they don’t understand.

CH: So even though nutritional science is still in the dark we need to have it keep going forward?

MP: Take the studies with a grain of salt; don’t act on them. I’m fascinated with them—I read them every day, and over time you kind of build up a picture. But the point is, that we tend to think that this is the last word on anything having to do with biology, and the fact is there are other ways of understanding that aren’t scientific and are nevertheless extremely valuable. If the book has an overarching point, it’s that we should pay more attention to culture and a little less attention to science, when it comes to food.

CH: You reference some interesting studies of world populations in the book, showing that there are many different ways of approaching food—some groups of people that eat no meat, some that eat almost all meat or almost all seafood. The one unifying factor with all those groups is that they have very low rates of “Western diseases” like diabetes and heart disease. It’s interesting—is there some sense in which culture is to be thanked for this?

MP: These traditional diets have worked through a cultural and evolutionary process of trial and error over many generations. People experiment, and over time they figure out what keeps them healthy. And with our ingenuity as a species we learn how to cook things and combine them, and very often we learn NOT to eat them.

And so these traditional cuisines have had a kind of beta testing that the Western diet has not had. The Western diet kind of springs full-blown out of the head of industry and food science. Presumably at various points in time, groups of people ate really badly and didn’t leave very many offspring, and now they’re gone. But the ones that have survived a long time in a given place eating a certain way have a local knowledge that is full of wisdom about health.

It’s striking, as you say, how many different diets there are that have kept people healthy for a very long time. There’s great hope in that—it tells you that there’s not just one way to eat. I mean, people have done very well on a diet of whale blubber and little else. The interesting thing is that there is this one diet that does seem to get everybody into trouble—and it gets some groups into more trouble than others, we’re learning—and that’s the Western diet. That’s been the real surprise in my education on this subject: Look at all the different ways that people have eaten and been healthy, and then there’s this one way that happens to be the way we’re eating, and it doesn’t work.

CH: You say in the book that the “big slab of meat at the center of the plate” is one of the hallmarks of the Western diet, but then there are those [healthy] populations that eat almost nothing but meat. So why do you argue that we should eat mostly plants?

MP: There are people who don’t follow the “eat mostly plants” advice, that’s absolutely true—the Masai in Africa, for example, eat almost all milk, meat, and blood. I’m not sure of the answer, but it may be that our meat is very different than wild meat, and that the Western diet is not just a collection of foods, but it’s also a way of creating those foods. Various industrial values have found their way into the slab of meat itself, because—let’s take a steak as an example—we’re feeding that steer in a very different way than a wild steer or even a Masai herded steer would be fed. They’re getting this diet of corn, antibiotics, and hormones, with the result that there’s much more saturated fat in the industrial animal, and many more hormones—not just because we’re administering hormones, but because we’re breeding the animals to be more productive and selecting for ones that have more hormones, and we’re also milking cattle way into pregnancy. And at the same time the diet of the animals has changed: Where the diet used to be about green plants, it’s now about grain. So yes, you should eat mostly plants, but if you’re going to eat meat, your meat should eat mostly plants. And I think that’s really a big part of where we’ve gone wrong with raising cattle in this country: feeding them grain.

CH: This morning I was looking at what I had in my house for a quick breakfast, and it wasn’t much—I haven’t gone shopping in way too long. My options were plain yogurt or an energy bar with soy protein isolate and all this other stuff in it. I went for the yogurt because it was actual food, but I was thinking, what if my choice were not between yogurt and the bar, but between a fast-food egg sandwich and the bar? Those are the options that a lot of people have when they’re in a hurry—and the sandwich is probably more of a real food than the bar is.

MP: Well, for Eggs Benedict in the abstract that’s true; but look at the ingredients in the bread they use [at the fast-food place]. It’s a 40-ingredient bread. So although it looks like a real food, the actual way they’re making it is more “foodish,” or “foodlike.” But one of my messages is that taking the 15 minutes to put a real breakfast on the table is not that long—so why has it come to seem so Herculean? I really think we’ve been sold a bill of goods: that we’re too busy and there’s absolutely no way that we can feed ourselves [without convenience food].

CH: For me personally and for lots of people I know who care about food, I make the time at dinner, but not always at breakfast.

MP: And breakfast has been the site of so much processing for the reasons you’re talking about, the convenience question. It’s really the pioneering meal for food science, with breakfast cereal being the big first step, and a continual ratcheting up of the innovations. I don’t know if you’ve looked at a cereal aisle lately, but the latest is the breakfast cereal “straw,” a strawlike thing made out of cereal material, with a layer of white “milk” on the inside. Kids are supposed to suck out the “milk” and then eat the “straw.” So you don’t even need a spoon.

CH: That’s disgusting.

MP: It really is. I haven’t tried one yet. But I think we’re real suckers for innovation at breakfast, because we’re kind of in a fog and don’t want to have to think. Also, a lot of kids eat in the car or on the bus on the way to school. I talk about the percentage of our eating that goes on in cars, and a lot of that is breakfast.

CH: Yeah, you can’t really take a nice bowl of oatmeal or a poached egg in the car with you.

MP: Nah, I can’t drive that way.

CH: But you must be spending a lot of time on the road when you go on book tours, and it’s got to be hard to find real food in some of the places you end up.

MP: It is very hard. When you’re traveling it’s really a challenge. In general, unless there’s some kind of information on the menu to reassure me about the meat, I tend to eat vegetarian when I’m on the road. And restaurant portions—especially when you’re in hotels—have gotten so huge. It’s really obscene, the size of the plates and the platters. Plates today are what platters were 20 years ago. And one of the keys there is that Okinawan lesson, hara hachi bu—eat until you’re 80 percent full. It’s really a radical idea.

CH: But how do you tell 80 percent full from, say, 65 percent full?

MP: I was just reading a study that says in practice, [when you aim for 80 percent], you eat 10 percent less than you would otherwise—so there’s a 10 percent margin of error there. But it’s basically just quizzing yourself and saying, my goal is not to be full; my goal is to be something short of full.

CH: I thought your discussion of cuisine in the book was really interesting—you talk about how combining certain foods in classic ways (like corn with beans) actually makes them more nutritious. But taking ingredients out of context is something that chefs love to do—whether they’re creating a “fusion” cuisine or just trying to keep things interesting.

MP: Right, it’s novelty. But before you upend tradition it’s worth asking, did that contain any dietary wisdom? Is there a reason that some cliché like olive oil with tomatoes has lasted so long? It’s like most clichés in the world: There’s some truth or value in them, even if they might seem a little tired to you. I think it’s a fascinating question, and more work needs to go into it. But there are a whole lot of examples of how a method of cooking or combining things makes a food dramatically more nutritious, by unlocking nutrients that might not otherwise be available, by completing the proper balance of protein. It’s a fascinating literature, and I just touched on it a little bit, but very often if a food combination has gone on a long time, there’s a good reason for it.

CH: You also talk about certain culinary practices that are actually sort of arbitrary, like the polishing of rice. I think my great-grandmother probably would have recognized white rice, and maybe even white flour or white bread, as food. So how do you decide which culinary practices to follow and which ones to ditch?

MP: That’s a good question. You know, your great-grandmother might have recognized it as food, but there was a very common popular understanding that white bread was not the kind of bread to eat. Somebody at a talk told me a line that her grandmother used to say: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.” So there was a wisdom around carbohydrates, and if you go back even to Brillat-Savarin and The Physiology of Taste, he says that the cause of fatness is eating too much sugar and too much flour, and drinking too much beer. It was kind of understood. But the prestige of refined grain is kind of a mystery. It’s fairly recent; we’ve only known how to create it for 100 years, 150 years. And maybe soon there will be a feedback loop discouraging us from [refining grains]. But you’re right, that’s one area where your great-grandmother may or may not have it right.

With white rice, not a lot of people had it. These foods that have been around for a long time and that we know are maladaptive were not eaten in great quantities. We have always eaten things that were not necessarily good for us, and we call them special-occasion foods. And probably, given the trouble of polishing rice, you would not have that much. Even if you were wealthy it wouldn’t necessarily be your staple—it would be like a sugary dessert: You have a little bit of it, and you have it at the end of the meal, where its effect on the insulin level and your metabolism is blunted by all the other food in your stomach.

And frying chicken, French fries—all these foods that are very hard to do, very expensive in terms of time—people did eat these things, but probably not in the quantities that we do today. Because of technology and industrialization we can outsource all the work. Somebody I was reading was saying it would be fine to have French fries, as long as you’re willing to cook them yourself. So then how often would you have French fries? Maybe once a month, because it’s a real pain, and you’ve got to clean it up. I was talking to someone from the South, who was saying that everyone thinks she ate a lot of fried chicken growing up, but that fried chicken was so much work and such a mess, and the oil was so expensive, that you only made it when you were having a party. You couldn’t justify it for yourself or even just for your family. So it was special-occasion food. But now our special-occasion food has become everyday food—and that’s been one of the achievements of industrialization. So you could even include in your dietary guidelines, “have all the French fries you want, as long as you make them and clean them up yourself.”

CH: A lot of people are making reinterpreted versions of those kinds of comfort foods—you know, the housemade mac and cheese with chanterelles on it or something—and it does satisfy a certain nostalgia for those foods.

MP: That’s true. I think somebody is going to do a really interesting, high-end chicken nugget at some point, because this is the comfort food of a whole generation. But you know, Proust’s Madeleine—you have it now and then, you don’t have to have it every day.

CH: But there’s also this real nostalgia for the actual junk food that people used to eat growing up. One of our food editors has this undying love for Swiss Miss and turns to it whenever he wants hot chocolate. So you get the nostalgia factor going, and people who otherwise know better and eat better are going back to the unhealthy things.

MP: I think that’s true, and I get it. I was in an airport and I saw a Mounds bar, and I hadn’t seen one of those for a while, and I thought wow, I have to have it. And it was fantastic. But when I really thought about it, you know, there are two in a pack, and the first one was transcendent, and the second one was like, eww, this is so sweet, I can taste the corn syrup. And the whole psychological benefit of the thing wore off very quickly when I tried to think, what does this really taste like, besides the memory? So you know, I think if you eat with a little more consciousness, those things will just be tastes and not ways of life.

CH: In the book you describe the “nutritionist” or scientific approach to food as being a really venerable, long tradition in America, starting back with the Kelloggs. Why do you think that is?

MP: Yeah, we’ve been suckers for scientific eating in this country longer than anybody else. I think it’s because we have not had a strong culinary tradition. Since we were a nation of immigrants, there were so many different ways of eating that there was no unifying tradition, so science had a vacuum into which it could step that I don’t think would have happened if we’d had a stronger [tradition]. The main culinary tradition, the British one, wasn’t compelling enough to win everybody over. And also we’ve always liked technology, and we like starting from scratch, and we don’t like looking back to history, we like looking forward. And we give an incredible amount of prestige to our scientists and technologists, so when they came along and told us ‘this is the way to eat,’ we all lined up. It was a mistake then, and it’s a mistake now.