I have finally read this book and in some ways, I’m glad I read it, but in others, I wasn’t blown away by it. I’m starting to read books about food culture and the ethics revolving around it because my ethics class wanted to discuss the ethics surrounding animals. I’ve never taught that before so I thought I’d quickly do some research and learn as much as I can. But I was also hoping to see if I could use some books for the class.
Although this is a good book, I’m not going to use it for my class. Perhaps if the class topic was concentrated solely around food I would.
So what’s this book about? I can summarize the book in seven words. It’s the same seven words that Pollan uses: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. What does he mean by these simple words?
Pollan starts off by describing the history of the food industry. Basically, starting in the 1950’s, scientists began to look at food at a microscopic level and understood what vitamins and certain minerals are. They understood what each vitamin does to each body and how it affects us. This view is what Pollen calls nutritionism. Basically, it’s a form of reductionism where the food can be broken down to its barest elements. So are you sick? No problem, you’re probably deficient in some sort of mineral. All ailments can be reduced down to some vitamin or mineral. Pollen critiques this view. He says that we cannot eat our food based on what it has. That’s because each of us are different, and the foods we eat react to each individual. The scientists study bagels, tomatoes, and cottage cheese. The problem with this is that we just don’t eat these by themselves. Sure we eat bagels, but spread some peanut butter and our body will react totally differently. Indeed, if you study bagel and how it reacts to the body, then study peanut butter and how it reacts to the body. You can’t combine these two studies because the combination of bagels + peanut butter has a totally different reaction to the body. It’s the same thing with tomatoes and cottage cheese. In other words, the sum of the parts is less than the whole thing. We must look at food holistically instead of reducing it down to its bare elements.
So what does this mean? Our food science has reduced our foods into the simplest quantities, but they leave out quality. Whenever we’re deficient in some vitamin, we can say, “No problem. I’ll just buy some bread that’s fortified with Vitamin C. That way, I’m getting m vitamin C. Problem solved.” The problem with this is that even though you’re getting your Vitamin C, you’re still missing the “stuff” that you would be getting if you ate the orange. Indeed, Pollan goes on to say that your Sara Lee loaf of bread isn’t actually bread; it’s “bread-like substance.” Indeed, I’ll agree with him and say that the Go-gurt isn’t really yogurt, but it’s “yogurt-like substance.” Real yogurt is milk, whey, and cultures. Thus, this is what Pollan means when he says Eat Food.
What does Pollan mean by Not Too Much? There’s an interesting paradox that’s happening in France. People have dubbed it the “French Paradox.” The paradox is how can Americans be so concerned with being healthy, yet they’re the fattest nation in the world? At the same time, how can the French eat all of this chocolate, eat foods filled with saturated fat, and drink gallons of wine, yet they are realy healthy? Pollan looks at various studies and the results are remarkable. If you went to France and asked them, “when do you stop eating?” The French answer is, “when I’m full.” It’s seems like common sense right? Well, Americans give a different answer. The answers range from “when my plate is empty,” “when there’s no more seconds,” “when the TV show is over,” “when everyone else has stopped eating.” Pollan points out that when it comes to food, the food scientists are missing something that can never be reduced to its bare minimum, and that’s food culture. Americans typically continue to eat in response to the environment; the French eat with internal feelings. I admit, I’m guilty of this. When I go to a restaurant with some friends, I order something even though I just recently ate. When I’m at some gathering, I still eat something from the snack table even though I’m full. We eat when there’s food around, which could explain our expanding waistlines. Pollan suggests we must look at our food culture, (perhaps this will eventually become a subject in college?), and this is the key to eating well.
Finally, his last bit of advice: Mostly plants. Meat, compared to vegetables, has little nutritional quality: protein, iron, and a few vitamins and minerals. Vegetables and fruits pack in more quality, mainly antioxidents. Also, it’s because studies show that if your diet consists of mostly red meat, your chances of getting heart disease and cancer are higher. Thomas Jefferson noted that meat shouldn’t be the main dish of our meals; rather, it should be more like a side dish or a complement to the vegetables. It’s the vegetables that makes us healthy, not our meats. This isn’t to say that Pollan is defending vegetarianism, he’s saying that we shouldn’t rely so much on meat. Finally, he says drink a glass of (red) wine with our meals.
Overall, it’s a good book. He gives some nice advice in the end about how to shop and what to look for in grocery stores. He also provides some links which I’ll provide on the blog roll.
CRITICISM: My only problem with this is that I can’t but help but think that Pollan has this idea of, “Wasn’t the good ol’ days the best? We had good food back then, but now, we’re bombarded with food that really isn’t food.” Now I’m young, so I can’t compare our foods with the food they had in the 50s, but this seems to be nostalgic. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Pollan’s arguments seem to be saying, “The days before nutritionism were good food. We must go back to that time period.” Now of course, he isn’t saying we should reverse technology, but I’m willing to bet that one can still find good food in our ubiquitous market that is still healthy but what Pollan would consider nonhealthy. Perhaps someone out there who’s reading this can shed some light onto this.
I really enjoyed his view that food just isn’t a biological thing, but it’s also a cultural thing too. Maybe one day, our universities will teach food culture as a class. Until then, I say that if you want to look at how our food culture and industry has changed within the last 50 years, read this book. 3.5 stars out of 5.
Update 2/22: I’ve mentioned this book from another blog about demi-vegetarianism that relates to other books and issues if you want to check it out.