This space is usually devoted to appraising the kinds of food that we eat pretty much every day, prepared by people who devote their lives and livelihoods to its preparation. Rarely do I delve into the nitty-gritty of America's relationship with food. It's a complex subject, easy to ignore in the face of so many damn fine things to eat.
In some ways, 2006's The Omnivore's Dilemma — arguably the best food book of the decade — changed all of that, at least for me. In Omnivore, author Michael Pollan broadly set the scene for dietary self-examination, detailing the history of our unhealthy relationship with corn and soy and lamenting the distance (both physical and psychological) between our plates and the sources of our food. In the process, he raises a couple of troublesome questions: Why do we eat what we eat? And, perhaps more important: What should we eat?
In Defense of Food, Pollan's latest book, is his answer.
The response to Omnivore was mixed. There were accolades galore, to be sure, but also a shit-storm of criticism. His uncompromising critique of industrial meat production, factory farming and processed foods came across as elitist to many; others thought it didn't go far enough: Reviewer and Atlantic editor B.R. Myers called it "a record of the gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms."
Pollan's aim in that book was to follow the "natural history of four meals" — not to examine the overall American diet. He focused on the ingredients of those meals, although his digressions into the production and culture of food proved to be the more intriguing parts of the narrative. What Myers, and many other critics, disliked was that he failed to take a stand about our diet.
That is not a failing of In Defense of Food. From the beginning pages, Pollan's goal is to convince the reader, and society by transmission, to change the way they eat. And from the get-go, it's persuasive.
First come the body blows aimed more at the why than the what of eating, beginning with a trend started around the turn of the 20th century (and adopted wholeheartedly by the government in the 1970s) that reduced the study of food and diets to component nutrients. So the discussion changed from meat and bread to protein and carbohydrates.
According to Pollan, this "nutritionism" gave free rein to the food industry, diet gurus and, ahem, food journalists to replace Western society's traditional eating habits with dietary crusades and nutrients of the week. Food, it turns out, is more complicated than we thought. And Pollan has a convincing argument that science isn't up to the task of figuring it out.
His most striking example is the war against fat that has had America by the gullet for decades. Rising rates of heart disease prompted the government to step in and tell people to eat more low-fat foods 40 years ago. Simple, decent advice. We followed it a bit too well.
Now, we're still eating about the same amount of fat as we did in the '70s (albeit less of it saturated) and, following the letter of that government dictum, we eat a lot more low-fat foods, resulting in an average consumption of 300 more daily calories than four decades ago. Most of that comes from simple, processed carbohydrates and sugar. On average, Americans now get more than 20 percent of their calories from soy oil and 10 percent from corn-based sweeteners.
Know when obesity levels started their inexorable rise to the present-day crisis? Yep, the '70s. And recent research indicates that low-fat diets don't necessarily combat heart disease. Food, as Pollan continually stresses, is complicated.
His antidote is straightforward enough to placate some of his critics and confound others. In fact, the first few sentences lay out the manifesto's mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
The crux of the Defense "diet" lies in the author's definition of food. Products that contain ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number or which include high-fructose corn syrup don't make the grade. That leaves the products populating the interior aisles of Publix pretty much off limits.
"Mostly plants" is largely self-explanatory, although Pollan stresses that a widely varied diet of plants is vitally important to maximize the healthful aspects of, for instance, anti-oxidants, which spur the body to clean out toxins.
Along with this comes a lot of homey, practical advice that has a point while bordering on motherly henpecking. Drink wine with dinner; don't eat at the gas station; try to meet the folks who raise your food. It's all so obvious that it's easy to ignore, no matter how valuable. Then again, maybe that's just my modern, dysfunctional attitude, looking for a panacea to fix my diet when common sense should suffice.
Criticism — especially of those folksy aphorisms — will still roll in from both sides of the debate. By Pollan's own admission, this style of eating is tough for everyone and even tougher for people who have less time or money to devote to the procurement and cooking of food, let alone visiting a farmers' market or planting a home garden.
And those who wanted Pollan to rally the troops for a fight against big agro-business will find that In Defense of Food is more a plea for self-improvement than a cry for political action. He also still shies away from drawing moral judgments about food, disregarding the nigh-religious beliefs of food cults from vegetarianism to locavores, preferring to deal solely with the practical effect of those diets.
Although no dietary magic bullet, In Defense of Food is like the first blast of a defibrillator, shocking our diseased food culture — which has drowned for a century in corn syrup and white flour — back to life. It's not going to cure any longstanding ills, but for some people the shock will be enough to spur a little personal change.