Pollan Demystifies Food in His Evaluation of the Omnivore's Dilemma

Author Michael Pollan in conversation with students during his visit to Saint Mary's.

During his Oct. 22 visit to Saint Mary's, UC Berkeley professor and Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan told students that "an ideology of nutritionism" based on tenuous science has supplanted a "culture of food" that reflects thousands of years of collective wisdom.

"In the past, people ate what their parents ate. Culture was the solution to the omnivore's dilemma," he said. "And culture is a fancy word for your mom - she taught you what to eat."

More than 300 students, faculty and guests attended Pollan's evening lecture in the Soda Center. Earlier in the day, he spoke with freshman composition classes and toured the student-run garden behind Claeys South. His visit to campus was part of the College's First-Year Experience centered on the theme of "Feast or Famine." Freshmen and transfer students read The Omnivore's Dilemma over the summer and are taking a critical look at the food they eat and where it comes from.

Pollan encouraged students to evaluate the food industry's nutritional claims skeptically and said Americans' "unhealthy obsession with healthy eating" promotes problematic food choices that contribute to public health problems including obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease.

"How can we as a people worry so much about what we eat and still be so unhealthy?" Pollan asked. "You would think people who read endless numbers of diet books and diet all the time would be healthier."

Nutritionism, according to Pollan, attempts to identify and isolate the supposedly "good nutrients" like beta carotene and omega-3 fatty acids rather than focusing more holistically on foods that contain them, like carrots and eggs. This strategy, however, runs the risk of inadvertently countering sophisticated and beneficial processes occurring both in the soil and in our stomachs.

"Food is a really complex living thing that's always in process of changing. It's a very complex network of chemicals," Pollan noted. "The digestive system is also very complex - it's doing much more than just breaking up food. There are all sorts of feedback loops."

Pollan receives a tour of the student garden behind Claeys South.Calling his work "a series of detective stories that trace food back to its original source of photosynthesis," Pollan said the process of demystifying food requires an understanding of the political context in which it is grown, sold and eaten. In the United States, that context includes large food corporations that seek to maximize profits through clever advertising and political lobbying.

Pollan described the food industry's success in convincing the government to repeal the imitation rule in 1973 (which had required producers to label modified food as "imitation") and to rewrite FDA language about red meat in 1977 as "red-letter dates in modern nutrition."

Both decisions cleared the way for creative uses of language in marketing food, which Pollan called a "powerful tool in shaping our food decisions." Companies can now market cream cheese that contains no cream and no fat without the stigma of the "imitation" label. Regarding red meat, the FDA tells consumers to "choose meats that reduce saturated fat intake" rather than to "eat less red meat."

"Instead of a simple declarative sentence about red meat, we're talking instead about a nutrient, saturated fat," Pollan pointed out. "We've clouded the message, which is always good for industry."

When navigating the labyrinth of the supermarket, Pollan warned against buying foods that have more than five ingredients or that your grandmother wouldn't recognize. He also advises shoppers to remain on the outer perimeter of stores, where the fresh fruits and vegetables are located, and to avoid center aisles where preservative-laden and euphemistically advertised breakfast cereals and snack treats lie in wait.

"Most healthy food sits there silently in the produce section," Pollan said. "Meanwhile, the Cocoa Puffs scream their nutritional goodness to rafters."

--John Grennan

Office of College Communications

Photos by Ben Ailes