Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Manifesto not so much

A bag of Cheetos, a can of Mountain Dew, out of the convenience store, into the car and off to work. The scene may sound outrageous enough for comedy but chips, pop and off to work is a common act in a national drama with food. Michael Pollan thinks the play is a tragedy and wastes no time making his points in his latest book, "In Defense of Food: an eater's manifesto."

Pollan is deeply cynical in the details defining his attacks on nutrition, food science, and the health industry. While well-researched and compelling, In Defense gets diluted by lazy claims deriding the industrial food complex. Yes, everything in the book has been said before and Pollan makes sure to reference his points.

References are only as good as the sources and conclusions only as good as the underlying arguments. Processed foods might not be good for us all the time. But it's hard to draw a distinction between a bag of chips and a can of pop for breakfast and a bag of flour from reading In Defense. If it's processed it's bad.

Pollan's lashing about tends to reduce the value of the central themes found in the book important to an enlightened and much-needed discussion about food and eating. We've arrived at a point where we're both "overfed and undernourished," food and eating are cleaved from culture, and that diet and nutrition fads substitute for actual healthy living are among the valuable broader points Pollan brings forward.

Let's take a quick look. Pollan talks about wheat and bread explaining that the milling process removes the nutritional value of the flour used to make bread. The effects of milling on flour are well known and Pollan is hardly providing a news flash. It was modern food science that learned how to return the nutritional value to the flour used in baking bread. The bread you buy in the grocery store today isn't like what grandma used to bake. Grandma wasn't providing for millions of people either.

In Defense struggles with economics by encouraging "those of us who can" to spend more time and money on food. That's nice. The burgeoning obesity problem and associated health issues Pollan attributes to food and eating are more pronounced among the poor and working class where cheap sugar and carbohydrates fill empty stomachs. The same groups also struggle with time. In the best of situations you have two people working, and if there are children involved, a meal of "mac & cheese" out of a box is the path of least resistance and lowest cost.

In Defense is a worthwhile read for the thinking it should stimulate. Leaning on it as an actual "manifesto" of managing the global challenges to food security is thin gruel.