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Author Michael Pollan: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants”
Michael Pollan, whose best-selling book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, recently reached the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list, drew an overflow crowd of nearly 400 people in Iowa City on Sunday afternoon. He was in town to read from his latest food-related book.
Pollan was also feted at a so-called “Slow Food” brunch earlier in the day.
During his reading at the Iowa City Public Library, Pollan decried the lack of a “strong food culture” in the U.S. and said that the “Western diet” has created an abundance of “Western diseases,” like cancer of the digestive tract, heart disease, diabetes, and more.
Much of Pollan’s talk questioned the efficacy of modern nutrition science which he compared to the early days of surgery and invasive medicine from the 15th century.
The central thesis of his work is that foods are too often thought of as a sum of their nutrients, and that the problem with this bottom-line mentality is that food science has been a constant search for the next magic bullet nutrient, like antioxidants, beta-carotene, or omega-3 fatty acids. He didn’t dispute the power of such nutrients’ benefits, but said this emphasis on biochemistry has too often turned nutritional claims on food packaging into so much medicinal snake-oil.Pollan listed several “red-letter” days in the demise of nutritious thought. One was in 1973 when the Food and Drug Administration repealed a rule which had previously disallowed industrial substitutes in common products like bread or sour cream.
“There are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, like bread and pasta and milk and sour cream. The consumer should expect that those foods are made the way those foods have traditionally been made and don’t have any kind of adulterants in them and if you substantially change the way you’re making your bread or pasta or sour cream or yogurt … you had to call it ‘imitation’ bread or ‘imitation’ sour cream or ‘imitation’ yogurt.
“This has been part of U.S. law since 1938 when the FDA was formed — the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act.
“This rule really bothered the food scientists who had some interesting ideas on how to reformulate sour cream or yogurt. But it also appealed to the public health community at the time which was very eager to get fat out of our diet and create all these low-fat products. They couldn’t do that because you’d have to call it imitation sour cream and ‘imitation’ was the kiss of death in the marketplace.
“So they petitioned the government and the food industry, with the help of the of the American Heart Association and some other well-meaning groups, to get the imitation rule … thrown out as a regulatory matter.
“In 1973 suddenly you have an explosion of products and you can add all sorts of things to bread or sour cream or yogurt and you didn’t have to say it was ‘imitation.’”
He explained that processing corn (into sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup) and soybeans (into oils and fats) has created many health problems for humans.
He has recently written four articles about the current Farm Bill and credited farm subsidies with encouraging “overproduction” of certain crops.
“Since the ’70s when the epidemic of obesity begins, we have seen the price of sweetened foods and processed foods decline in real dollars. We have seen the price of real whole foods like fruits and vegetables rise …
“If you’re on a fixed income, say you’re that food-stamp recipient with $65 a week to feed a family of four and you’re buying calories with that dollar. Make no mistake that’s all you can afford to buy: calories to keep your family going.
“If you’ve got a dollar you will end up in the processed food aisles because you can get 1,250 calories with the chips or the cookies or the processed foods …”
He also explained his problem with an Iowa farm staple: “Corn as food I have no quarrel with– it’s corn as industrial raw material that I think gets us into trouble.” The author joked that he felt “relatively safe” in Iowa after blasting industrial farming in his books.
Pollan, whose previous books also examine the state of food and nutrition, said that while doing research in Jefferson County, Iowa, he felt stranded in a “food desert.”
At the end of his talk, Pollan shared some eating and food rules before taking questions from the audience.
“Shop the periphery of the store, the edge, the perimeter of the store,” where the produce, dairy and meat sections are usually found. The center aisles often contain the processed products, which he called “edible, non-foods.”
“Pay attention to how your food was grown,” he pointed to grass-fed cattle as an example of heathy food and good agricultural practice, explaining that cows are often heavily medicated when they are fed corn-heavy diets.
“Don’t eat anything that is incapable of rotting.” He said he kept a wrapped Twinkie in his office that was once used as a prop and after several years, it has retained its pliant softness, looking as fresh as the day he bought it. Pollan also explained that white flour, hailed as an advance when it was introduced to the consumer, has a long shelf life because there are so few nutrients in it that it doesn’t attract pests.
He said, “Eat at a table … a desk is not a table.” He cautioned against frequent “between-meal” snacking because “it’s very much in the industry’s interest to overthrow the meal and get us to eat all day long.”
He also warned the audience not to eat anything that their ancestors living before World War II wouldn’t recognize as food. Pollan summarizes his philosophy in seven words, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The event was recorded and will be broadcast on WSUI radio 910 AM, this Saturday, Jan. 19 at 8 p.m.