Michael Pollan’s short study end In Defence of Food (2008) makes some very useful points about the way the American food industry is geared up to suit the needs of manufacturers, processing companies, and supermarkets. I agreed with the main thrust of the book which is that the current emphasis on fast food and pre-processed tv dinners may suit busy lifestyles but it is not the best arrangement in terms of the human body’s need for nutritious and healthy food.
Before reading this book I had not heard of the term “nutritionism” (p. 17) but I find Pollan’s explanation of this term very interesting. He pinpoints the discovery of all the components that go to make up our food as being a fundamental change in the way that people view food. Instead of viewing food holistically, as a natural part of the world we live in, coming in and out of season, for us to hunt, gather or harvest when has reached its peak of readiness, people see food as a standardized, bought a commodity. They see it broken down and labeled in terms of its constituent parts, including fat protein and carbohydrate levels, and various minerals, vitamins, and traces that apparently are necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. This separation from the origins of the item is a significant factor that dilutes our understanding of what the nature and purpose of food actually are.
There is a clear message in the book pointing out that there are significant health benefits for people if they shift from consuming processed convenience foods to eating real, solid food items that their great grandmothers would recognize (p. 149). I think that this is self-evident and hardly worth writing a book about. The second main message of the book is more interesting. Pollan argues that there are significant economic factors in present-day America which makes it extremely unlikely that anything will change in the near future. So long as there is more profit from processed food than from natural foods, there will be an incentive for food manufacturers and sales outlets to maximize offerings in this category. A capitalist society built on an assumption of ever-increasing growth and profit maximization makes it impossible for these key players to switching to a product range that is less profitable.
The implication of this situation is to leave responsibility for change in the hands of the consumer. Pallon proposes a strategy that is intended to help people re-think their attitude to nutrition: he redefines the term “food” to exclude products which contain things with unpronounceable names and proposes limits to the quantity eaten and a focus on vegetables rather than meat and dairy products which are high in fat. I like this idea, and it has certainly changed my attitude to food already.
In summary, therefore, I think that the three simple rules that Pollan suggests, namely “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” (p. 146) are easy to say but much harder to do. In my opinion, most Americans are too lazy to take Pollan’s advice to eat basic level foods, and take up gardening, because this takes much more effort than going to the supermarket or local fast food outlet. The principles he describes are, however, nonetheless valid, and it is to be hoped that consumer pressure will eventually bring about at least some small improvements in the diet of the nation.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin, 2008.