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Science Diet

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto BY Michael Pollan. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 256 pages. $21.

We prepare our meals from plants and animals—a fact we can choose either to note with some humility or to hide from our awareness by forgetting. This has been a recurring theme in Michael Pollan’s books of late. Like all good writers, Pollan aims to describe what he sees as precisely as he can. But this does not lead him to a showily fine prose style. That would be an aesthetic approach, and though Pollan often worries that we’ve lost the sense of pleasure, he is very much the ethicist—and, if we’re honest, he is once in a while even a scold. This is happily offset by a sly modesty (“By now,” he self-accuses in 1997’s A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, “you have probably noticed a tendency of mine to lean rather heavily on words and theories in my dealings with the world”), a deftness at animating philosophical problems, and a knack—unusual in books that seek to change minds and habits—for sustaining an atmosphere of suspense.

Trusting in his curiosity, Pollan makes it his mission to see and judge things for himself and then offer as a possibly useful gift to us what he has begun to find out. Roving and idiosyncratic, he moves from first-person scenes (in a grocery store, a meadow, a coop with thousands of chickens and their poop) to background sketches of the science that’s in play, with maybe a quick stride through history. He’s not embarrassed to ask those who know more for guidance. He tells us when he’s describing ideas that have been put forward by others. And every so often, he steps back, sums up, and notes his own blind spots, as well as the mixed feelings he still can’t sort out.

The result is an impressive feat in this age of too much information. First, Pollan has become a rare persuader of integrity and visible public influence. Through his books and his pieces in the New York Times Magazine, he reaches a wide audience with his enlightening arguments about the ignored costs of our sped-up food chain. Second, simply from the point of view of writing, it’s interesting to watch how, in nimble twenty-first-century-magazine style, he can remind us of two familiar American personae that in theory should not blend well or feel as current as they do in combination. Pollan can sound like someone out of the nineteenth century, preaching the merits of hard work, moderation, and self-reliant optimism, with lingering traces of old Puritan angst. At the same time, though he is too pragmatic and ironically up-to-date to embrace it fully, he is sympathetic to some of the early-’70s counterculture worldview. Up with individual, sensual pleasures. Up with interconnected communities—as long as they don’t grow too institutional in feeling or cynically sucked into “the system.”

Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, picks up the conversation begun two years ago in his acclaimed The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Back then, he set out to show what foods—and what dauntingly elaborate industrial processes—went into various meals, from McDonald’s nuggets to Whole Foods organic. Of course, the answers were distressing. For one thing, we were eating ruinous quantities of corn, often dozens of times in one serving in the form of sweeteners, oils, and additives. Even at our most conscientious, we could be lured off the path by cleverly pious labeling. Free-range chickens might turn out to have spent no meaningful time outdoors. Organic asparagus might have been flown in from another hemisphere for our callow convenience.

So what, affirmatively speaking, should we be eating? “The supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy” is what Pollan aims to answer here. The irritation in that “supposedly incredibly complicated” is deliberate. Pollan himself objects to the guru status accorded expert advice and admits from the start that everything he has to say will be a background elaboration of, and fugal return to, the absurdly simple sentences that lead off the book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

According to Pollan, this is what most time-tested, painstakingly evolved cuisines around the world, as well as your average child-rearing American mom, knew about food until around a century ago. That’s when, aided by the manic new faith in industrial efficiency, the villain “nutritionism” arose to cast its spell on the public. Nutritionism, according to Pollan, is the notion that food is an amalgam of nutrients, whose effects can be mixed and matched, the good magnified or the evil mitigated, food by food, meal by meal, diet plan by diet plan, for the desired impact on the body; or even if we don’t alter our foods, we can eat them confident of eliciting particular nutritional effects. Think of a carrot eaten for beta-carotene, chips labeled “0 transfats!,” eggs with an added dose of omega-3, or breakfast cereal in which much of the fiber and vitamins gets processed out of the grain and then added back in an eleventh-hour fortification (along with a dump of sugar).

Pollan points to a gaping problem: The scientific method from which nutritionism springs needs to study the element it is tracking in isolation. But the biology of eating is an impossibly intricate drama with a large, notoriously interactive but not always visible cast of character-chemicals, in a setting that changes from person to person, with a plot that might take decades to reveal itself. Adding to the problem are the commercial benefits of exaggerating a nutritional benefit, the mafioso pressure from food lobbies to win some claim for their product, and the eagerness of fad-seeking journalists to spread a trend before it’s been vetted. The most catastrophic example Pollan gives is that of margarine, which by replacing animal with lab-altered vegetable fat was supposed be one of the great health breakthroughs of its time. Worse than a flop, it turned out to do great harm. He pores over contradictory studies of dietary fat, which perhaps isn’t the bad guy science once chased after, and vitamin taking, which may turn out to be less than the hoped-for hero. And he identifies an especially rotten development in the ’70s, when the meat and dairy industries pushed a Senate committee to sanction suspect dietary guidelines that danced around the basic dangers of too much of certain foods and changed the subject from foods to obscure chemicals.

All this is interesting, though it sometimes feels thinner than the experientially grounded inquiries of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Also, Pollan’s anger at the pathetic short-term thinking and corruption of our agricultural policy strikes me as more convincing, and more sweepingly justified, than a few of his generalizations about our attitudes toward science. The gaps in science’s understanding of food and health represent a deep problem, but it is a problem whose shape and consequences do evolve over the years, not always but at least sometimes in a positive way. The current nutritionist poster child of blueberries, for example, seems a step up from the past. While reading, I kept thinking of analogies. Would the knowledge that medical experts had once badly misidentified a key disease mechanism make me castigate myself for the impulse to consult a doctor if I had worrisome symptoms today? Rigorous skepticism, self-reliance, awareness of the potential distortions of profit motive and media hype, open-minded inquiry into the holistic alternatives, and confronting the painful fact that great unknowables are involved are very much to the good. But to a larger extent than Pollan seems temperamentally permitted to allow, I might also add the advice of “experts” into my decision-making without being in the thrall of an ideology.

That I strayed off the topic of food for a far-flung comparison is a reminder, on the other hand, of what is so rich about this endlessly resonating topic and of what Pollan does in the later parts so well. Pollan’s career as a naturalist/ethical investigator may have begun as a retreat from all things literary. He had been a magazine editor and felt despair over the pointless ephemerality of words detached from the world. Still, at his most memorable, he weaves scientific factoids into fearsome—at times almost quasi-religious—images of nature. Why should we eat more simply? His answer is a bit of jujitsu: “We know how to break down a kernel of corn or grain of wheat into its chemical parts, but we have no idea how to put it back together again. Destroying complexity is a lot easier than creating it.” Meanwhile, nature is not just sitting there, passively waiting for our ethical or nonethical use. It is a network of living things, all with the logic of their life cycles, all indifferent to us unless we happen to serve their strategic goals. And complexity—simple complexity—probably gives us more weapons and opportunities in this environment than vitamin X plus fruit extract Y (with 0 transfats!).

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan gave us the image of a vast field of overmanaged cornstalks, each genetically identical to its neighbors, savoring the biological triumph of having persuaded humans to keep spreading their seed. It was a glancing scene but a horror-tinged one—to eat this corn would be to invite a zombie to live in your body. Pollan succeeds here, too, in making us feel not just the fragility of the manipulated food chain but the eerie exposure of our permeable bodies. Despite the title’s slightly precious tone of ethical pleading, his best arguments for whole foods use a simple literary device. Leaving behind persuasion by guilt or virtue, they dramatize nature’s volition. Food coloring and artificial sweeteners are tricks we play on our body’s normal functioning. Preservatives make us forget that it’s time for food to rot. Seeds are like pellets of harnessed energy, caplets of speed; to feed them as we have for decades to livestock built to eat fibrous, watery leaves and grass, and through the livestock thus to feed ourselves, has been a reckless experiment. And natural selection? Even after we crack every genetic code, are we sure we can make it our ally? “Natural selection takes little interest in our health or survival after the childbearing years,” Pollan writes. And “in order for natural selection to help us adapt to the Western diet, we’d have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die.” This kind of thing gets your attention. There’s a lot of what-to-do advice in this book. But there’s an undercurrent of reckoning with an implacable force, before which we’re crazy not to be more humble.

Sarah Kerr is a writer based in Maryland.