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America's Eating Disorder

The author of 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' discusses how we demonize food, eat too much corn, and read too much 'grocery lit.'
 
 
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"The omnivore's dilemma," a phrase coined 30 years ago by research psychologist Paul Rozin, is the basic quandary we all face: As omnivores, what should humans eat when we could, hypothetically, eat anything? In Michael Pollan's recently released book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, the author delves into America's twisted nutritional zeitgeist and discovers that we need to retrace our culinary steps. Then he does the legwork for us by investigating the origins of four separate meals, from a drive-thru McDonald's dinner to one for which he himself has -- not kidding -- hunted and foraged.

In the process, Pollan offers some insight into how it now seems reasonable to eat fast food several times a week, or cut out entire food groups while attempting to lose weight, or, for a frightening number of people, simply not eat. Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire" and Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, presents his findings with a crispness and clarity of thought. Transporting food worldwide, for instance, burns fossil fuels and is, in turn, bad for the environment. Consuming too much or too little of anything will not leave you nourished. And eating, by the way, is supposed to be fun.

Krista Walton: In "The Omnivore's Dilemma," you talk about how eating is, in many cultures, a positive act and part of building a community. In America, food is often considered the enemy.

Michael Pollan: Yes, I think we've demonized food. We think about food in terms of evil nutrients and good nutrients, and lose track of the fact that it's a lot more than nutrition. It's a way you build community, it is part of culture, and it helps define culture. To think what it means to be French in the absence of French food, or to be Italian in the absence of Italian food, you'd be missing a big part of [the culture].

The food culture in America was never very strong, but it's been eroded under the pressure of the processed-food industry. They're very interested in changing the food culture, because the food culture gets in the way of eating too much; the food culture tells you don't snack between meals; the food culture tells you eat at a table with other people, not in your car, where [the food industry] is very interested in getting us to eat as much as possible on as many occasions as possible during the day.

KW: You give special attention to the prevalence of corn in the American diet. Is there a critique involved in this?

MP: Yes, I think it's a dangerous way to eat. A civilization that feeds itself from one crop is going to be less healthy long-term than one that feeds itself from a dozen crops. Of course, we don't only eat corn, but corn and soybeans together are the raw material for most of the fast food and supermarket food that we eat. We're omnivores, and we need to eat about 50 different nutrients to be healthy -- you don't get those from eating mostly corn. We have people today who eat a heavy fast-food diet and who are overweight and undernourished. That's a new thing in the history of the world, to be overfed and undernourished at the same time, and a lot of that is because we're eating this mono-cultural diet.

KW: You also discuss how oil-dependent our diet is. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense, but ....

MP: But we don't think about it very often! And that was one of the big surprises to me, as well -- just how much of our fossil fuel consumption is devoted to feeding ourselves. Twenty percent! More than we use on personal transportation! The way we grow the food involves petroleum in the form of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, the way we process it, and then the way we ship it all around the world. It's a very strong argument for local food, and for eating real whole foods -- not the whole food in Whole Foods, which isn't so whole. [By eating local] we could make a serious dent in all that fossil fuel we're using.

KW: What do you mean when you say "Whole Foods isn't so whole"? How have the principles of organic food been altered?

MP: Whole Foods does a lot of important work, and they are part of the solution. However, the kind of pastoral imagery that's on display in that store, everything from the pictures of local farmers over the produce bins to the copious amounts of literature telling you exactly how the steer you're about to eat spent its final days in sagebrush-filled pastures -- I mean, the prose is wonderful. I call it "grocery lit."

When you actually go visit some of those animals, though, you realize that organic food has become industrialized. We now have organic factory farms, organic feed lots, and those are words that I never expected to put next to one another. This isn't the original idea that motivated organic; it was a much more holistic idea that took into account things like energy and the welfare of animals. I'm afraid that that's fallen by the wayside. The government has established a very narrow definition of what organic food is, a definition that doesn't embrace the welfare of animals in any significant way and doesn't think about energy.

KW: What about low-income households that can't necessarily afford to buy organic or local?

MP: There is certainly an issue of affordability. The way that the rules are set up in America, to eat healthfully costs more than to eat poorly. If you have a dollar to spend at the grocery store, you'll get a lot more energy on the processed-food aisle than in the whole-foods aisle. We've set up a system where it's rational to eat badly. Eating in this manner is not a function of nature, and it's not a function of the free market.

That is -- make no mistake -- a function of our agricultural policy, which subsidizes those unhealthy calories, subsidizes high-fructose corn syrup, and does not subsidize the growing of carrots or broccoli. I think if we want to make healthy food accessible, we have to change the rules of the game. And that means we have to look at the farm bill, because that's where those rules are enshrined.

KW: What would you like to see change in the country's food policies?

MP: Well, I'm not a policy-maker; I'm a journalist. I would say that we need a farm policy that aligns our public-health goals with our land-use goals. In other words, we should not have a situation where one hand of the government is saying, "We have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes," while another hand of the government is making high-fructose corn syrup so cheaply that it makes sense to put soda in 32-ounce cups. All these things are connected, and that's the lesson of ecology.