A Review of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food stays true to its subtitle: It justifies a no-nonsense guide to eating. The book’s seven-word slogan encapsulates Pollan’s prescription: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, “food” strays from the standard definition of food. For Pollan, what was around and recognizable as food during the life of your great-grandmother (or your great-great grandmother, depending on your age) constitutes food. Processed foodstuffs simply are not food.84

Pollan doesn’t reach this conclusion until the third part of the book. He spends much of the first two parts critiquing the science of nutritionism that has lead us Westerners to consume these deleterious processed foods. Pollan rejects the idea that when it comes to food, the whole is the sum of its parts. Injecting nutrients into otherwise unhealthy foods does not necessarily make them healthy. Nutritionism is an imperfect science, and Pollan relays study after study that show that what nutritionists initially thought was healthy actually is not: The demise of the “lipid hypothesis” is one such example. Moreover, even though micronutrients (i.e. vitamins) are added to processed foods, they usually co-exist along with harmful additives and the much-maligned corn and soybean oils. Processed food and the Western diet more generally, claims Pollan, are what have led to the spike in Western ailments such as heart disease and diabetes starting in the mid-20th century. Pollan argues that there is something about eating proper whole foods that confers us immense health benefits even if isn’t clear what exactly is causing these benefits. His seven-word mantra is his response to these facts and the gist of his argument.

One problem with In Defense of Food is that its diatribe against nutritionism is too drawn out and excessive. After the fifteenth study or so, the tirade became tiresome, even if accurate. Nonetheless, within his Defense, Pollan makes three observations/arguments that stood out as particularly insightful and unique:

  1. Traditional cultural or ethnic food is generally very advisable to eat since it has survived the test of time. Novel foods are like mutations: They may be beneficial for our diet, but they probably are not. Traditional diets that have been around for hundreds of years have proven to be evolutionarily beneficial. Pollan lists Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, and Italian home cooking as examples. Admittedly, it is possible that a culture has adopted a suboptimal diet, which Pollan thinks may have been the case with the Eastern European Jews. Moreover, there are certainly elements of each diet that are unhealthy (if Pollan has ever been to a bakery in Greece, he would know what I mean) and it would have been helpful if Pollan had written about those elements in evolutionary terms.
  2. Pollan acknowledges the following argument: If we have adapted to foods that were once unhealthy in the past, we should be able to adapt to the Western diet now. Pollan insightfully responds to this argument by claiming that, yes, maybe we can do this, but by the nature of evolution people have to die first—a lot of people. Moreover, our bad diets take their toll on us later in life causing them not to affect our rates of childbirth. Consequently, they don’t require adaptation.
  3. This argument is not unique to Pollan but is nonetheless interesting. Pollan cites the experiments of behavioral psychologists who find that how much we eat in a given meal is affected by a variety of external factors, including plate size, television show length, and portion size. When a soup bowl was covertly refilled from the bottom, soup eaters ate 73 percent more soup than when it was not. Pollan’s point is that rather than eating according to when they are full or close to full, Western eaters are prone to eat more due to external cues.

While Pollan’s insights abound and he is convincing in his argument that eating more non-processed food is valuable, the scale of his suggestions is dubious. He essentially suggests that we eliminate all processed foods from our diet. There are issues with spoilage so he suggests that—if you can afford it—you should buy a giant freezer to store things such as a whole hog or fruits that you by en masse in season. But, the problem is that the empirical work that Pollan cites to support his position doesn’t necessitate such extremities. The work does tend to observe populations who are on almost wholly unprocessed diets, but he offers little empirical work observing populations on more of a hybrid diet, with some processed foods mixed in with the unprocessed ones. Surely, eating some non-whole grains and soybean oil each week can’t be that damaging. Furthermore, such a hybrid diet is likely more realistic for the individual who does have time and financial constraints and cannot afford the extra costs of the diet prescribed by Pollan.

On a similar note, in his chapter “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Pollan derides Americans for not taking pleasure in eating and instead viewing dining as a science in need of a nutritional philosophy. Yet, he rarely mentions eating food for taste throughout the book. Most of the traditional cuisines that Pollan deems as acceptable are pretty delicious (especially traditional Greek, Italian, and Indian), but taste is not mentioned when explaining that these cuisines are advisable to eat. Given that this book dons itself as an “Eater’s Manifesto,” something like taste, which is such an important component of our eating experience, should play a more central role, especially in Part III.

One last criticism has less to deal with the substance of Pollan’s argument than with its tone. Pollan treats nutritional scientists, industrial farmers, processed food manufacturers, and politicians as part of one giant conspiracy to screw over the health of Westerners. At times, he properly acknowledges that there are incentives for manufacturers to add nutrients to foods because it’s less costly than not processing the food altogether. Yet, too many times Pollan ascribes ill intentions where they are not likely at work. The fact is there is a combination of factors—many of them systemic—that lead to the adoption of the Western Diet, some of which Pollan describes in the first chapter of Part I. Those he is critiquing would likely take In Defense of Food more seriously if it did not take on such an antagonistic tone.

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that, despite its misgivings, In Defense of Food is important. Nutritionism really does pervade our culture, and we too easily take the assumptions of nutritionism for granted. We get excited when we see a breakfast cereal that has 100 percent of nearly all of the vitamins AND tastes good (well, at least I tend to get excited). Pollan’s straightforward critique of nutritionism and prescription of a diet of “food,” then, even if a bit extreme, forces us to seriously consider a shift in paradigm… and not many books do this.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wey on July 5, 2009 at 7:11 PM

    “While Pollan’s insights abound and he is convincing in his argument that eating more non-processed food is valuable, the scale of his suggestions is dubious.”

    While this may be true in the context of the book, it is worth noting that “In Defense of Food” is largely a sequel to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (which I think is probably overall a more interesting book). In that work, Pollan provides a pretty comprehensive examination of the industrial food chain. Thus, the recommendations that he provides here make perfect sense following the examination of a corporate food system that is insidious at best.

    Having read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the ‘antagonistic tone’ that he takes in this book is quite understandable. In fact, in my reading of “In Defense of Food,” I didn’t even feel that he was being that antagonistic. Perhaps he does ascribe ill intentions, but considering the industry and what it has become, it is not necessarily unjustified, in my opinion.

    Reply

    • Posted by Josh on July 5, 2009 at 7:22 PM

      While he’s talking about the industrial food chain and the ethics of eating in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “In Defense of Food” is more of a guide to eating, much less concerned with moral matters and more concerned with eating well.

      I admit that some of the people/groups mentioned by Pollan do merit condemnation (and, accordingly, an antagonistic tone), but a lot of them don’t. Most of his antagonism in “In Defense of Food” is directed at nutrition scientists whose insights he is using as a basis for some of his own suggestions (e.g. eating foods with Omega 3). And, the fact is that many nutrition scientists really are doing good things even if the framework they are working under is ill-advised. They debunked the “lipid hypothesis” that Pollan so reviles, for one thing. And, if we are stuck within a framework where processed foods dominate, I’d rather there be nutritionists that are at least making those foods marginally more healthy until we move to a better equilibrium. Moreover, I maintain that the tone does, at times, become annoying reading more like a personal diatribe than an objective guide even if it does a good job guiding us.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on July 5, 2009 at 8:06 PM

    Right, but I think Pollan’s point is that nutritional science, in its current form, is almost inseparable from the larger food industry. It is a mindset that values efficiency above all, whether its in nutrients or cost or whatever. As the corporate food industry might ignore the many external costs associated with the system, the nutritional science field has overlooked the synergistic relationship between vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

    Striking is the fact that we are a country that is overfed but undernourished- this is really exceptional in the course of human history and has had profoundly negative implications. This is despite nutrition science. Pollan seems to imply that nutritionism would be largely unnecessary if not for the current system. As such, his diatribe against nutrition science, I feel, cannot be separated by the broader system. This is perhaps a contentious point, but I do think it is quite clear that nutrition science, as a field, has benefitted dramatically from the shift to an industrial system of food production. Furthermore, it isn’t entirely obvious that there has been a net benefit from the field as a whole.

    Reply

  3. […] a Comment Michael Pollan, acclaimed author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food (which I reviewed), offers a thought-provoking critique of TV food culture in this weekend’s New York Times […]

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  4. […] has written about Michael Pollan in the past. In the NY Times Magazine’s food issue, Pollan offers some “rules to eat by”, a […]

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  5. […] indulges in deeper philosophical questions too, such as whether vegetarianism is a moral necessity. Despite its shortcomings, In Defense of Food offers an invaluable critique of nutritionism and defense of unprocessed […]

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