Gullible’s Travels: Our Puritan Dilemma

Americans obsess about food, and marketers feed off that obsession. It’s an unhealthy cycle that needs to end, Michael Pollan says.

April 3, 2012

Laden with plastic grocery bags (yep, plastic), good-food guru Michael Pollan strides across a Southern Methodist University stage. It’s March 1, and some 2,000 people have turned out to hear him speak as part of the university’s Tate Lecture Series. His Cheshire Cat grin offers a hint of what’s to come. One by one, the latest and greatest “edible foodlike substances” from a Dallas supermarket begin to emerge from the sacks, and, all the while, Pollan handles them a bit like science specimens. Perhaps, in a way, they are.

Out comes the milk with fish fat. The ubiquitous canned chips that are “now with multigrain!” Boxed fruit snacks “that are sort of like fruit but not at all like fruit,” Pollan says, regaling the crowd. Then comes the pièce de résistance: a box of frozen, premade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches—“part of the genre of food that offers superior convenience, because, of course, we’re way too busy to make such a sandwich,” he says. “Just thaw and eat. Put this right in a kid’s lunch box and you don’t have to dirty a knife.”

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And to think, Pollan adds, tongue firmly in cheek: “People worry about innovation in America not being what it used to be. I see no reason to worry.”

Well, Pollan, the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California Berkeley, does worry. And he isn't afraid to tell it like it is—performing a balancing act between exposing the ugly side of the corporate food world and encouraging us to approach eating “with a little more happiness and sanity”—in such celebrated books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and the recent Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual illustrated edition; and in the documentary Food, Inc.

The truth can hurt. And how we interpret the truth can hurt profoundly. Pollan points to “nutritionism,” an ideology assuming that the scientifically identified nutrients in food determine its value. America is engaged in “re-engineering of our food supply in radical ways, leading us to feel extremely confused about what and how we should eat.” We as a culture obsess so much about food that we’re “on a proverbial runaway train, where many of us need an expert to tell us how to eat.”

We are becoming armchair experts on antioxidants, saturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, polyphenols, folic acid, gluten, you name it. It’s self-medication, often in irrational ways, Pollan says. “We don’t even see foods anymore. We only see nutrients.” Nowhere else in life do we need so much science to get through the day. Pollan blames it on our Puritan inheritance. “Puritans have trouble with all the activities in which animals also engage. Eating is one of them. So we prefer to treat it as a scientific matter.”

It’s time for that to change, he proposes. “Nutritionism, an ideology like communism, has failed the test of experience,” he says. “We should probably get rid of it. We’ve tried going that route and it hasn’t worked.”

He calls our obsession “the American paradox,” and traces it back to 1977’s government-issued “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The well-meaning group of guidelines originally included a clear-cut recommendation for us to eat less red meat and fewer dairy products. But after food-industry lobbyists saw the final product, Pollan says, the Senate committee responsible for the guidelines was actually forced to rewrite the guidelines in a way that pleased food purveyors—but wasn’t very understandable for the rest of us. The most audible message? Eat less fat. How should we do that? The food industry would lead the way.

But since 1980, the average American man, adjusted for age (a 30-year-old man then vs. now) has become 17 pounds heavier; the average woman, 19 pounds heavier. Pollan shakes his head. “That’s a very short amount of time to have such a dramatic increase in weight, especially when you’re cutting out fat.” What’s more, “we have some of the worst nutritional health in the world—the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and we’re right up there for heart disease.”

Also since 1980, Pollan says, each of us now consumes 300 more calories per day of refined carbohydrates. “So you can see how fixing on nutrients can lead you into psychological and marketing traps where you end up eating too much of whatever is good for you.”

Good and evil foods are constantly changing roles. One month, our nemesis is salt; the next, it’s sugar. Now it’s high-fructose corn syrup. We’re all over the map. “That should tell us something,” Pollan says. “We’re either eating the ruinous food and feeling guilty about it or we’re eating healthy food and feeling virtuous about it. But I submit to you that that’s a really bizarre way to think about food.”

And think about food we do. Each year, American supermarkets usher in 15,000 new products, most touting convenience and nutrition—but almost all with an emphasis on novelty, Pollan says.

Which brings us back to those supermarket bags of culinary curiosities.

Citing information in Food Technology magazine, Pollan notes that the current ideal for manufacturers is to “bring health-boosting ingredients into your food to capture the cognitive-decline market.” The SMU audience erupts in laughter. “They’ve got our number,” he says with a broad smile. “And guess what people who feel like they’re losing their memories or their marbles will do? Go to the supermarket and get a fix.”

So where does that leave us? On our own, really. “Nutrition science today—and this will sound uncharitable—is approximately where surgery was in the year 1650,” Pollan says. “It's really promising, really interesting to watch. But I think I’ll wait to get up on the table until they’ve made a few advances.”

In the meantime, he offers these survival tips, proven effective over the centuries, known the world over to be true, learned from families and communities: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” he says. “And have a relaxed attitude about food. Don’t be a fanatic.” Oscar Wilde had a wonderful amendment to the saying about all things in moderation, he says: “ ‘All things in moderation, including moderation.’ That’s the sum total of food wisdom.”

Pollan's Food Rules

• “Avoid products containing ingredients a third-grader can’t pronounce.”

• “Don’t buy any foods you’ve ever seen advertised on television.”

• “Just imagine your grandmother, or your great-grandmother depending on your age, as you’re rolling down the aisle in the supermarket. If she would not recognize something as a food, it’s not a food.”

• “Shop the perimeter of the store. That’s where the live food lives.”

• “Don’t eat until you’re full. Eat until you’re satisfied. The Japanese have a rule called hara hachi bu, which means, “eat until you’re 80 percent full.” That’s a radically un-American idea. But if we adopted this, and had our children do the same, the positive results would be profound.”

• “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry.”

• “Do all your eating at a table. And no, a desk is not a table.”