In Defense of Food is the sequel to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s best-selling look at the food industry. Deluged by requests to explain the more personal consequences of food choices, Pollan set out to write a manifesto that would inspire individuals to take back control of their health.
Food vs. “Food-like products”
The first section of the book looks at how the food industry has converted what people eat from “foods” to “nutrients.” In every supermarket aisle, boxes and packages bear labels proudly proclaiming the presence of the latest fad nutrient (Omega-3, these days) or the absence of the most recently identified dangerous substance (Trans-Fats, which used to be a staple ingredient in margarine). Gradually, processed foods have come to dominate stores, while produce has been left wilting in the periphery.
However, as Pollan shows, this apparently scientific approach to food has not made consumers healthier, but more sick than ever, at risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Why? After reading medical journals and speaking to nutrition scientists, the author concludes that science simply does not know enough about how these nutrients work before they’re extracted from their natural sources. For example, there are several varieties of carotene in carrots, but the one most commonly extracted (beta-carotene) might not be the truly effective one. So why, Pollan asks, not just eat the carrot?
Pitfalls of the Processed Diet
To understand how eating has become the opposite of nutritious in Western societies, Pollan examines the ways in which food production and consumption have changed in the past decades. He calls this change the “industrialization of eating,” and breaks it down into five elements.
First, there is a shift from whole foods to refined. Refining foods like flour, rice, and sugar results in the loss of most of their nutrients. Thus, consumers are left with empty calories. Second, mass farming practices, where the same crop is planted over and over, prevent the soil from retaining complex nutrients that would be absorbed by the fruits and vegetables. Once again, consumers are left with deficient foods. Third, quantity has replaced quality as the main focus of farming and food production. Most farmland is devoted to two crops: corn and soy, used in the myriad additives that go into processed foods.
As a result, there is much less variety than there was a century ago. The move to corn and soy as staple crops introduces the next problem, which is a shift from eating plants to eating seeds. Finally, Pollan points out what he sees as the most detrimental change: turning food culture into “food science.” By letting companies dictate how they should eat, consumers have lost touch with the cultural aspects of eating, and lost control of their own choices in what and how they cook.
What To Do?
So how can does one reverse the damage? In the last section, Pollan returns to his initial advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He advises buying real food, not boxes with long lists of unrecognizable ingredients. Specifically, he recommends getting away from the supermarket, and frequenting farmers’ markets to receive food directly from the people who grow it. Pollan also shares the results of research indicating the benefits of eating less, and using meat more as a garnish than a main dish.
Overall, In Defense of Food is an uplifting book, since it reminds people that they do have control over their health and nutrition. It’s a well-researched work, which will inspire many to change their habits for the better.