In Defense of Food
reviewed by John Schwenkler
Do not eat the kind of food that “injures a man, deteriorates his spirit, and renders his body prone to disease,” but “eat that [you] may live.” So, sounding very modern, said Clement of Alexandria in the early third century.
Twenty-first-century Americans have, unfortunately, learned all too well the dangers of ignoring such insights. But what if the remedies promoted in our culture—the food pyramid, recommended daily allowances, low-fat diets, and all the rest—are misshapen? What if the modern science of food has made us worse eaters rather than better ones, and the industrialization of our food chain has driven the very sort of “emasculation of plain food”—“straining off the nourishing part” of it—of which Clement accuses the gluttons?
Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks the answer to these questions is yes, as he writes in his newest book, In Defense of Food. Pollan has written previously on a range of environmental and cultural topics, and here he takes up the question of how to eat. But the villains of his account are not the usual suspects that our health teachers and diet books taught us to fear, but the modernization of the Western diet and the ideology that he calls “nutritionism”: the belief that we can understand foods, and their effects on us, simply in terms of their component parts.
The book begins with the story of how an unwitting alliance between overeager scientists, excitable journalists, and wellness-minded government officials changed the way we think about food.
By breaking down foods into their constituents, scientists claimed to be able to understand what makes us healthy in the distinctively reductionistic terms that are now so natural to us: It is not, for example, the meat that makes you healthy, but the protein it contains, while the fat in it is actually unhealthy, and so on. Journalists reported on these studies with predictable gusto, and the government got into the act by telling us how to eat—that is to say, by telling us which nutrients to take in, and which other substances to avoid.
And so the cult of nutritionism was born. This new mindset created, as might have been expected, a huge range of opportunities for businessmen: Simply engineer things to a certain set of nutritional standards, receive a seal of approval (“Low fat!” “No cholesterol!” “Heart-healthy!”), and Voila!: health food. Hence the explosion of heavily processed, prepackaged goods in the center aisles of our supermarkets, and the quiet retreat of the boring, scientifically uninteresting, (relatively) fresh stuff to the bins around the edges.
But while the ecological and cultural effects of all of this were bad enough, the damage didn’t stop there—the science was bunk, too. Everything we now know about food clearly suggests that “nutrients” are rarely effective on their own; it is only within a huge range of delicately balanced, dynamic interactions that the food we eat, and the activity of eating it, manages to sustain us. Disrupt this equilibrium, and you end up where we are now: in possession of more facts than ever, but far less healthy than we ought to be.
Pollan encapsulates his moral in three simple directives: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” We must not react to the failings of nutritionism by appealing simply to more science. It is instead in the direction of tradition, of an understanding of food rooted in the common wisdom of thousands of years of human culture, that we ought to orient ourselves.
By speaking of “food,” for example, Pollan means to exclude the vast majority of the “edible goods” that crowd our supermarket shelves—we are to regard as food only the things that our grandmothers or great-grandmothers would have recognized as such. Similarly, “plants” means fresh ones, unprocessed and grown locally in nutrient-rich, pesticide-free soil.
These may seem to be radical suggestions, but they’re also increasingly workable ones, thanks to the greater availability of organic and locally produced foods in supermarkets, the growing number of farmers’ markets, and the fast spread of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, in which individuals buy a sort of “subscription” to a farm in exchange for regular boxes of seasonal produce. And Pollan argues convincingly that the likely costs of maintaining the status quo make wholesale changes the only viable option.
In Defense of Food is not, however, a book just about bodily health or the ecological consequences of the ways we eat. Pollan is also concerned with the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be a human person, to live in families and communities, to be a part of a culture and an economy.
And so while he gives no signs of any religious persuasion—he cannot, for example, recognize any other “point” in praying a blessing before meals beyond encouraging more deliberate eating—the message of the book is ultimately a Christian one. At the end, for example, he describes food’s capacity to reveal itself “for what it is”:
That this cycle of interdependence might have its ultimate source beyond mere soil and sunlight is an observation waiting to be added. But we cannot pay it anything more than lip service so long as our meals are nothing but mere feedings. Pollan, like Clement, reminds us that the health of body and earth are at once a condition of, and themselves conditioned by, that of the human soul.
The quote from Clement is taken from his Paedagogus. Michael Pollan’s website can be found at http:michaelpollan.com. For searchable directories of CSA programs, farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of organic and sustainably grown food across most of the United States, the reviewer recommends http://localharvest.org.
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