Michael Pollan – In Defense of Food

 Author: Michael Pollan

Title: In Defense of Food
Published: January 1 2008
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 201 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Interested in Pollan’s writing
Rating: 3.5 stars
Challenges: Foodie’s | 100+  
Buy: IndieBound | Chapters | Check your local bookstore!

This is the follow-up book to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While The Omnivore’s Dilemma examined where our food can and does come from, In Defense of Food presents Pollan’s opinion on what food we should consume. More precisely, he proposes various rules that might serve as guides when deciding what to eat.

I liked a lot of what this book had to say. It fits with my own developing philosophy towards eating, notably ‘eat food.’ I found his arguments about reductionist nutritionism (which focuses on isolating a nutrient and determining how much of a nutrient should be consumer rather than how much of a food should be consumed, but it is impossible to totally isolate a nutrient and its effects [says Pollan]) and I would love to whole-heartedly agree with everything he says, but I have to remember to have some caution, as this is a single person’s opinion I’m reading. As Pollan writes, ‘Are we better off now with these new authorities telling us how to eat than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted?’ I don’t think so, but then, I’m not a scientist. He suggests food is a good example of something that is greater than the sum of its part. Given the history of food, and how we’ve survived thousands and thousands of years without the science behind it, I’m inclined to think that’s true, but I need to remind myself that I don’t really know or understand any of the science behind food so I have to be careful not to get too caught in my what I wish to believe, I’m no scientist and can’t just take mine and Pollan’s beliefs as true because I want them to be true.

Even so, I can see no harm in the rules he proposes. I already unconsciously follow a lot of them and it was interesting to read some rationale for why I make the choices I do. He writes of eating food your great-grandmother would recognize as food. One example that I found striking was bread. He describes a brand of bread with 36 ingredients, many of them made necessary by the industrialization of food production. If I buy my favourite kind of bread from the local bakery, it has five ingredients (flour, water, rye sour, sea salt and ascorbic acid, I checked) – just what bread really needs. I like to eat food that’s actually food. Another important aspect of his argument is that good food is totally worth it; that is one point I can entirely agree with. Pay $4 more for organic locally grown produce? Hell yeah, I will. There are a lot of people who can afford to eat ethically produced food (if I may use a loaded term for a moment…) but don’t. I don’t want to be one of those people. I’m willing to invest in what I eat. Food is a major aspect of my life, whether I want it to be or not, and it has major implications for the environment. I’ll pay a little more to get the right thing.

In summary, Pollan presents some interesting ideas regarding the current Western way of choosing what to eat based on specific nutrients. It’s probably best to take his criticisms of nutritionism with a grain of salt, but I can’t see any reason why not to take up his suggestions of ‘food rules’. While I’m not particularly interested in my health (which seems to getting along fine without any special help from me…), I am interested in the philosophical and environmental aspects of food, so Pollan’s writings are still highly relevant for me. An interesting read with some good ideas to put into practice.