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In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating Kindle Edition
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The final part says what we can do about all this when we eat. Simple messages: avoid the processed stuff; spend more on food and more time preparing (and you will eat less); eat less meat; go for farm shops not supermarkets; and grow your own….Perhaps a little disappointing, but no doubt true. I will also personally be tucking into cheese and olive oil as recommend in Tim Spector's book The Diet Myth. But that book is rather less of a strong reading experience than this!...
I wasn't disappointed. I originally assumed that Pollan was a wacky independent thinker, but actually he's a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and a regular contributor to the New York Times. He's not a Green radical or militant vegan either. In fact, Pollan's book is eminently reasonable, almost conventional, but precisely for that reason, revolutionary!
As you no doubt have guessed, "In Defense of Food" is a critical book about the American food processing industry. But not just the industry! What makes the book so interesting, is that Pollan *also* criticizes the nutritionists and their health fads. At first glance, this may seem strange. Aren't nutritionists and the food industry adversaries? Don't the nutritionists often criticize the food processing industry for producing unhealthy food? Isn't it a good thing that government regulations force the food companies to make healthier food?
Pollan's answer is: well, no, not really. In his opinion, the nutritionists are part of the problem. Indeed, the industry and the nutritionists are two sides of the same coin! Artificial, processed food (such as margarine) has *always* been marketed with the argument that it's more "healthy", "scientific" and "nutritious" than the real thing (in this case, butter). Conversely, the nutritionists have never criticized the production of processed food as such. They only criticize it for lacking this or that nutrient, this or that vitamin or fatty acid. The food companies can easily "solve" the problem by simply manufacturing a new artificial product, and pretend that's "health food". Besides, the federal regulations aren't exactly water-tight, and allows companies to market even snacks and candy as health food!
About a century ago, people had no problem with what to eat. They simply ate what they had always eaten, for generations, and this seems to have worked very well! As Pollan puts it: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants". Or "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food". While more people died of infectious diseases a century ago, fewer people died of heart attacks, diabetes and other food-related conditions. A person who made it into ripe old age was less likely to die of food-related conditions in 1900 than today. In plain English: food was healthier and more nutritious in the good old days (and no, Pollan doesn't sound like a paleo-conservative). What went wrong?
The industrialization of food production, that's what went wrong. Together with mass marketing and mass lobbying of Congress, the food industry created a situation where what we eat was no longer decided upon by culture and tradition. Rather, eating became a matter decided upon by corporate executives, lobbyists, politicians and nutritionists, many of whom were employed by the food processing industry itself. Naturally, they recommended that we eat more processed food. And when this food turned out to be dangerous, the industry responded to pressure by simply producing even more processed food, now with some extra "nutrient" added to make it look healthier. Once again, there is a connection between the phoney food produced by modern industry, and the periodic health fads and health crazes. (Pollan's argument is more subtle and complex than I can summarize in a short review, but this is the bare gist of it.)
So what's the solution? Pollan describes an interesting experiment in Australia, where a group of Aborigines who lived a modern and unhealthy lifestyle (they had developed both diabetes and insuline resistance!) were persuaded to return to their original hunter-and-gatherer way of life. After a very short period, they became *much* healthier. Of course, modern Americans can hardly "go native" in the same way, but Pollan believes there are things one can do, such as buying food from farmers' markets, or straight from farms, rather than from supermarkets, or at least avoiding the most obviously artificial foodstuffs in supermarkets. He also makes a compelling case for common meals (real common meals, as in the good old days), and calls on people to stop snacking all day long.
On the face of it, this sounds like pretty obvious advice, almost boring. No sensational new diets, no extraordinary health cereals or chocolate bars, no genetically engineered or irradiated superfood. And no New Age meditation! Just plain, old-fashioned cooking: "Eat (real) food. No too much. Mostly plants". Come again?
Actually, Professor Pollan's advice is revolutionary. Although Pollan himself is presumably pretty main-stream, this must be the most revolutionary book published this year! It's obvious from his analysis that the food processing industry is a powerful special interest group that simply cannot stomach this kind of reasonable advice. Why not? Pollard points out that the food processing industry would loose a large part of its profits if people would go back to traditional cooking. Since food cultures that existed for centuries tend to be naturally conservative, there would be less room for innovation, and hence for windfall profits. Naturally, profits would fall if people ate less, and skipped the snacking altogether, or bought more food from local organic farms rather than from multinational supermarket chains. The author also points out that the food processing companies have a vested interest in marketing bad eating habits, such as snacking in the car, children eating alone after preparing food in the microwave oven, etc. In other words, the proposals of "In Defense of Food" would threaten the commodification and marketization of food! They point in the direction of a Green community.
If that's not revolutionary, what is?
Following the Great Grandmother rule blanks out a lot of options (and removes most of the profitability of the agro-food processing industry) but he shows that it is still just viable if a shopper frequents farmers markets or avoids the packaged goods in the central aisles of supermarkets.
He also interestingly shows how the food industry plays food science marketing with features such as "added fibre", "added omega3" etc. while ignoring the more beneficial natural sources.
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When most of what we are told is funded from paid lobbyists of said companies, its nice to