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'In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto' by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Michael Pollan
Penguin Press: 244 pp., $21.95

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Michael Pollan quotes Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, on the farm bill now before Congress: "This is not just a farm bill. It's a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it." Pollan may be skeptical about whether American eaters can thwart passage of a bill that includes $42 billion in subsidies for the big cash crops -- corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton -- but he firmly believes that "the eaters have spoken [and] a new politics has sprouted up."

That optimism fueled two of his earlier books: "The Botany of Desire," about our relationship with food, and "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which urged variety in our diet. It's most evident in the last of the trilogy, "In Defense of Food," whose simple message is "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The good news is, he thinks we can do it. Twenty years ago, it might have been difficult, but today organic, regionally grown food is more available than it has been since the food industry began controlling our consumption.

Pollan subtitles his new book "An Eater's Manifesto," but he's way too polite to tell us what to eat. Instead, he uses his familiar brand of carefully researched, common-sense journalism to persuade, providing guidelines and convincing arguments. "[W]hat other animal needs professional help in deciding what it should eat?" he asks. Once, we had culture ("just a fancy word for your mother"), but culture has been replaced by "scientists and food marketers (often an unhealthy alliance of the two)." Americans are "increasingly sick and fat. Four of the top ten causes of death today are chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer."

We have been buffeted so often by conflicting studies that we've stopped thinking of food as food. We think of it as nutrition. (Recess at my children's schools in Santa Monica is no longer called recess, but "nutrition.") Pollan argues that food needs defending from "nutrition science on one side and from the food industry on the other -- and from the needless complications around eating that together they have fostered."

"In Defense of Food" is in three parts. The first explains the perils of "nutritionism," like most isms a reductionist, contextless ideology. Nutritionism divides our food into nutrients (Pollan shows the complexity involved by listing the astonishing number of antioxidants in thyme) and pits them against each other: fats versus carbs, carbs versus proteins. Moreover, it "has trouble discerning qualitative distinctions among foods," allowing marketers to avoid thorny issues of how food is grown and how humans process it. Nutritionism is a boon to food marketers, not only because it helps with splashy packaging but also because it lets them advise buyers to eat more of a particular food, exacerbating an already imbalanced, unvaried diet.

There's an all-too convenient relationship between the scientists and the marketers, he writes: "The food industry needs theories so it can better redesign specific processed foods; a new theory means a new line of products, allowing the industry to go on tweaking the Western diet instead of making any more radical change to its business model." The medical community also benefits; Pollan notes that as Americans spend less on food, they spend more on healthcare.

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