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."

Amy Goodman:Energy, healthcare, agriculture, climate change, global outbreaks like swine flu—what do all these topics have in common? Food. That’s right, none of these issues can really be tackled without addressing some of the fundamental problems of the food system and the American diet.

Well, my next guest is one of the leading writers and thinkers in this country on food. Michael Pollan is a professor of science and environmental journalism at University of California, Berkeley, author of several books about food, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which just came out in paperback. ... Let’s start with the latest news over the last month, swine flu. How is that connected to industrialized agriculture?

Michael Pollan:Well, we don’t know for sure yet. We’re still kind of investigating. But the best knowledge we have is that this outbreak came from a very large industrial pork operation, pork confinement operation, where, you know, tens of thousands of pigs live in filth and close contact. And this was in Mexico.

And, you know, it’s very interesting. Last year, eighteen months ago, the Pew Commission on animal agriculture released a report calling attention to the public health risks of the way we’re raising pork and other meat in this country. And they actually predicted in that report—they said the way you’re raising pigs in America today creates a perfect environment for the generation of new flu pandemics, basically because once you get that mutation, which sooner or later is about to happen, it very quickly—you have ... so much genetic material coming together, so concentrated, and then so many pigs can catch it, and ... we’ve created these Petri dishes for new diseases. And here we go.

Goodman:And what has been the industry response?

Pollan:Oh, the industry response and the media response, by and large, is not to pay attention to that part of the story. We haven’t gotten a lot of investigation of, well, exactly how do these things evolve and how did these conditions contribute to it.

The other angle, too, is that, you know, as we bring any pressure to bear on American animal agriculture, the tendency is going to be for it to move to Mexico. And indeed, that appears to be the case here, that these are American corporations who have to escape any kind of environmental regulation, have moved their confinement, animal operations, south of the border.

 Goodman:Explain how these animal operations work.

 Pollan:Well, a pig confinement operation is a pretty hellish place. They are, you know, tens of thousands of animals, kept jammed together. The animals are so close together that they have to snip their tails off, because the animals are so neurotic—I mean, pigs are very intelligent; they’re smarter than dogs—that they will nip at each other’s tails. They’ve been weaned so early that they have this sucking desire, and so they take it out on the tails of the animal right in front of them. So they snip the tails off, not to stop the procedure, but to make it so painful that animals will avoid having their tails bitten, just to make them raw and painful.

 They administer antibiotics to these animals on a regular basis, because they could not survive without them. And the waste goes down directly below the animals into this giant cesspool that’s flushed, two or three times a day, out. I mean, ... they’re incubators for disease.

 The sows remain in crates their whole lives, so they can be conveniently inseminated, and they have their babies right there in their crates. You know, to go to one of these places is to stop eating industrial pork, basically. If we could see into this industrial meat production, it would change the way most of us eat.

Goodman:It’s amazing, because the whole coverage, it seems, of swine flu is to be afraid of human beings coming over the border, that they are the main problem.

 Pollan:Yeah, that they’re carrying it, yeah, yeah. No, it’s not—we don’t—it is not contracted by eating the pork. That doesn’t, you know, seem to be a problem. And some countries have taken that tact, used this to keep out American pork. But that link hasn’t been made.

 Goodman:Can you talk about corporations in other ways, like Monsanto, talking about the sustainability of genetically modified foods?

 Pollan:Yeah, Monsanto is very much on the attack right now, pushing its products, particularly in Africa, and making the case that the most sustainable agriculture will be intensive production on the land base we have. The argument is that there’s only so much arable land in the world, we have ten billion people on the way, and that the only way to feed them is to get more productivity over the land we have, to further intensify agriculture, using their genetically modified seeds.

 And the word “sustainable” is never far from their lips. And they have this amazing ad campaign. Two things are notable about it. One is that the language of sustainability and the critique of industrial food is being picked up by some of the major players within industrial food, either as an effort to co-opt the rhetoric or simply confuse the consumer and the citizen.

 The other thing is that it’s very interesting that Monsanto should be arguing that it has the key to improving productivity. If indeed what we need to do is improve productivity, don’t look at genetically modified crops. They have never succeeded in raising productivity. That’s not what they do. If you look at the—the Union of Concerned Scientists just issued a report looking at the twenty-year history of these crops, and what they have found is that basically the real gains in yield for American crops, for world crops, has been through conventional breeding. Genetic modification has—with one tiny exception, Bt corn used in years of very high infestation of European corn borers—has not increased productivity at all. That’s not what they’re good at. What they’re good at is creating products that allow farmers to expand their monocultures, because it takes less management. So, if indeed we need to go where Monsanto says, there are better technologies than theirs.

Goodman:What about companies boasting that they use real sugar, like that’s a health claim.

 Pollan:Well, you know, it’s very interesting. Since this book came out, where I argue don’t buy high-fructose corn syrup and don’t buy products with more than five ingredients, suddenly the industry is—you know, they’re so clever. I have to hand it to them. But now they’re arguing that their products are simpler, and there’s new Haagen-Dazs 5, which is a five-ingredient Haagen-Dazs product. You know, it’s still ice cream. Ice cream is wonderful, but we shouldn’t treat it as health food because it now has only five ingredients. ... Frito-Lay potato chips now is arguing that they’re local. Now, you have to remember, any product is local somewhere. Right? This food doesn’t come from Mars. But to think that Frito-Lay as a local potato chip is really a stretch.

 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—

You know, another piece of advice from In Defense of Food is, don’t eat any food that comes with a health claim. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re worried about your health, that is not the healthy food. The healthy food is in the produce section. It’s sitting there very quietly, without budgets to do this research, without budgets for marketing, without packages to print health claims on. So just kind of tune that out.

Goodman:What do you make of the new Agricultural Secretary, Tom Vilsack?

Pollan:Well, it’s interesting. When Vilsack was appointed, I was disappointed initially. And I said something like, this was agribusiness as usual. He has surprised me in various ways, and I have some reason, cautious, for hope. I think he has a mandate from President Obama to begin reforming things.

He has appointed as his number two—the woman running the Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, is a proven reformer. She developed the organic program in the department and as a staffer to Senator Leahy back in the ’90s. And she is really committed to sustainable agriculture. This woman will be running the Department of Agriculture. I think that’s wonderful. We’ll see what she can do. She’s up against an incredible amount of opposition.

He made an initial move to go after subsidies that was not very well handled and was rebuffed very easily by the agriculture committees in the House and Senate. He, I think, will do a lot to support local agriculture. He’s very committed to farmers’ markets and developing these local food chains, and I think that’s very encouraging.

But he has a mission to make “nutrition” the watchword of the nutrition programs in the Department of Agriculture: School Lunch, Food Stamps, WIC. Now, that sounds kind of “duh,” but, in fact, those programs have nothing to do with nutrition right now. They’re essentially ways to dispose of agricultural surpluses. So if they actually raise the nutrition standards and make that the focus—

 Goodman:What do you mean, they’re the way to—

Pollan:Well, the reason we have a School Lunch Program, you know, it began as an effort really to get rid of this incredible overproduction of American agriculture. I mean, we’re using our children as a disposal for excess, you know, cheap ground beef and cheese and all these corn products, and that the—you know, under the School Lunch Program, we feed our kids chicken nuggets and tater tots in school. We’re using the School Lunch Program to teach them how to become fast-food consumers. So, it’s not about health, and it needs to be about health. So, if he can move that program in that direction, I think that will be wonderful.

Goodman:Michelle Obama’s organic garden, that the pesticide industry had in a memo that they shuddered when they heard her use the word?

Pollan:Yes. You know, I think her garden is actually a significant development. I mean, you can dismiss it as symbolic politics, but in fact symbols are important. And the word “organic” are fighting words in this—is a fighting word in this world. And she did not have to say it was an organic garden; she could have simply said it’s a garden. And that she did was noticed.

And the Crop Life Association, the trade group of the pesticide makers, wrote her a letter, being as cordial as you must be to a First Lady, saying, you know, “You’re really casting aspersions on industrial agriculture, and we really hope you will use our crop protection products.” In other words, “Buy our poisons, whether you need them or not.”

Goodman:We’re talking to Michael Pollan. His latest book, now out in paperback, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Your words of wisdom? Your food for thought? Eat food, not too much, mostly plants?

Pollan:Yeah, it’s very simple. It really is. I mean, you know, as a journalist, you know this, that usually when you drill down into a subject, you find things are more complicated than you thought, and the blacks and whites don’t quite work anymore. When it came to nutrition science, the deeper I went, the simpler it got. And by the time I had spent two years studying what we know about nutrition and health, I realized that, you know, all the—that you could dismiss so much of this sketchy science, and as long as you ate real food, and not too much of it, and emphasized plants more than meat in your diet, you would be fine, and that the over-complication of food by industry, by government, is something really to be avoided.

And so, the challenge is, though, how do you identify food? Because now the market is full of these edible food-like substances, the ones that carry the health claims, the—

Goodman:What do you mean, “edible food-like substances”?

Pollan:Well, these are products of food science. These are the stuff in the middle of the supermarket, the stuff that doesn’t go bad for a year, deathless food, immortal food. You have to think, well, what does it mean to say a food has got a shelf life of six months or a year? It means it has been engineered to resist bacteria, pests of all kinds, fungi, mold. And what does that mean? Well, it has no nutritional value for those things. The insects, the bacteria, they’re not interested in the Twinkie, because there’s nothing of nutritional value in it.

Goodman:Can you talk about how the food system affects healthcare and the whole issue of healthcare reform?

Pollan:Well, I think that we are soon to recognize that we are not going to be able to reform healthcare, which depends on getting the cost of healthcare down, without addressing the American diet, the catastrophe of the American diet.

The CDC, Centers for Disease Control, estimates that of the $2 trillion we’re spending on healthcare in this country, $1.5 trillion is for the treatment of preventable chronic disease. Now, that’s not all food, because you have smoking in there, too, and alcoholism. But the bulk of it is food. Food is implicated in heart disease, which we spend, you know, billions and billions on. It’s implicated in type 2 diabetes. It’s implicated in about 40 percent of cancers. It’s implicated in stroke, all sorts of cardiovascular problems.

And, you know, in a sense, the healthcare crisis is a euphemism for the food crisis, I mean, that they are identical. And I do think that President Obama recognizes this. And I think that you will see programs to address this, because that is how you could—you know, a better School Lunch Program would be a down payment on the healthcare reform, because you would reduce long-term the costs of the system. Treating a case of type 2 diabetes costs the City of New York, every new case, $500,000. It is bankrupting the system. And it’s preventable.

Goodman:How is it treated?

Pollan:Well, type 2 diabetes is, once you contract it, it’s $13,000 a year in additional medical costs. It takes something like ten years off of your life span. It means an 80 percent chance of heart disease in your life, a possibility of amputation and blindness, you know, being tethered to machines and drugs your whole life. It’s a very serious sentence, and it’s entirely preventable with a change in lifestyle.

The interesting thing is, why don’t we have really powerful public interest ad campaigns to inform people about this? I mean, the way the government could save the most money the most easily would be having a public advertising campaign about the dangers of soda. There are a great many children that, simply by getting off soda, avert this whole course.

Goodman:What do you think of taxing soft drinks, that they’re talking about now?

 Pollan:You know, I’m not sure, frankly. I haven’t really thought that through. It’s probably not a bad idea. I think that the cheapness of high-fructose corn syrup and sugars in our economy is part of the problem and that when we started subsidizing—I guess I would attack it on the other side. We should not be making these corn-based products so cheap with our tax dollars. I think we have to change the subsidies. The reason that soda is so cheap is that we subsidize corn in huge amounts, and I think we have to change the incentives down on the farm. I think that’s really where I would put my emphasis.

Goodman:What about large corporations buying up the farmland of poorer countries?

 Pollan:Well, this is going on. There is a growing recognition that the great unrenewable resource is arable soil in this world and that countries like China realize that they will not be able to feed their population on their soil base, because of their numbers, but also because they poison so much of their soil. Their soil is polluted, and they have a serious problem with that. So they are buying up huge swaths of land in Africa.

 This is a political disaster, you know, waiting to happen. I mean, Africans  are going to stand by while their best farmland is being used to feed Chinese? I mean, I don’t see this as a sustainable solution for anybody. But this is what’s happening.

And we should take note and realize that our farmland is so precious, and we should be very careful about developing it, and we should certainly be careful about letting it run off into the Mississippi River because we’re failing to put in cover crops and things like that.

Goodman:[Y]ou wrote a long letter to President Obama, to the “Farmer-in-Chief,” as you put it. What’s the most salient point in it?

Pollan:The most salient point is simply, you are not going to be able to tackle either the healthcare crisis or climate change unless you look at our food system. In the case of climate change, food is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases, the way we’re growing food, the way we’re processing it and the way we’re eating. And the healthcare crisis, as I’ve talked about. So we need to address it. It’s really the shadow issue over these other two issues.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!