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Michael Pollan: "Don't Buy Any Food You've Ever Seen Advertised"

"The real food is not being advertised. And that's really all you need to know."

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 So—and on the high-fructose corn syrup thing, now that you’ve got Snapple and soon-to-be Coca-Cola making a virtue of the fact that they contain real sugar, no high-fructose corn syrup, what that is is an implicit health claim for sugar. And that is an incredible achievement on the part of industry, to convince us that getting off of high-fructose corn syrup has made their products healthier. It has done no such thing. Biologically, there’s no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar.

Goodman: Well, explain why you were going after high-fructose corn syrup.

Pollan: Well, my argument about high-fructose corn syrup and why you should avoid it is it is a marker of a highly processed food. I’m just trying to help people, when they’re going through the supermarket—the main thing you want to avoid is processing, you know, extreme processing. And high-fructose corn syrup—I mean, think about it. Do you know anyone who cooks with high-fructose corn syrup? It’s not a home—it’s not an ingredient you’ll find in a home pantry. It’s a tool of food science.

 My problem with it is its ubiquity through the food system. You have high-fructose corn syrup showing up where sugar has never been—in bread, in pickles, in mayonnaise, in relish, in all these products—that they basically have found that if you sweeten anything, we will buy more of it. High-fructose corn syrup is a very convenient, cheap ingredient, because we subsidize the corn from which it’s made.

But to boast about your product not having high-fructose corn syrup as being some kind of virtue is really stretching it. And I think what we see here is another example of the food industry’s ingenuity in taking any critique of industrial food and turning it into the next marketing strategy. It’s a lot like the low-fat campaign, you know, which began as a government critique of food, you know, beginning with George McGovern in the ’70s saying we should eat less red meat because of heart disease. Whatever you think of the science of that, which turns out not to have been that good, it was a well-meaning campaign to improve the American diet. Industry came back and re-engineered the whole food system to have less fat in it and no fat in it. And that campaign sold a lot more food. And, in fact, since that campaign, we’ve been eating about 300 more calories a day, and we’re a lot fatter. So, you can’t—you just can’t underestimate their ability turn any critique into a way to sell food.

So, I’ve had to update my rules. And with all this new marketing based on these ideas, my new suggestion is, if you want to avoid all this, simply don’t buy any food you’ve ever seen advertised. Ninety-four percent of ad budgets for food go to processed food. I mean, the broccoli growers don’t have money for ad budgets. So the real food is not being advertised. And that’s really all you need to know.

Goodman: Michael Pollan, the Food and Drug Administration is slapping General Mills with a warning over its claim that Cheerios is clinically proven to help lower cholesterol. They say it makes it a drug under federal law.

Pollan: Yeah. Well, good for them. I mean, you know, the FDA has been so lax, and the reason you see this proliferation of bogus health claims all through the supermarket has basically been the FDA has been hands-off for a decade. And to see them tighten a little bit and make these companies prove these health claims—

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