“Whole Foods and the Sum of Their Parts”
A Review of Michael Pollan’s
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
By Brent Aldrich.
The repeated mantra for Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, is on the cover, the dust jacket, and opens the introduction: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” Given the complexity of factors surrounding our production, promotion and consumption of food in this country, and the dilemmas of ecology, agriculture, and health they have caused, these concise recommendations are the distilled wisdom of the book and suggestive of the clarity with which Pollan narrates a complicated history of eating. Beginning with the science by which food – that is, unprocessed food – has been replaced by nutrients, then moving through the industrialization of the agricultural process, Pollan eventually presents possibilities which might function as the practical policies for the manifesto, alternatives to ‘nutritionism’ and industrialism in our eating.
The first section of the book is “The Age of Nutritionism,” a chronicle of the ways in which our foods have steadily surrendered to nutrients: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins. This is described as a reductionary science, with aims to reduce foods to their component parts, and isolate what is good for your health in them. The thinking follows that if the good bits of food can be extracted, they can be reassembled in any healthy variety to better suit our health needs ad infinitum. This is not what has happened since the beginning; see one Justus von Liebig “the father of modern nutritional science” who reduced all plant life to nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – which are in fact the abundant nutrients in soil, but when isolated to those alone, it ignores a myriad of other chemicals and processes at work, and fails to engineer food that is healthy. This has been the history of nutritionism since. This section is a dizzying look at the claims and disproving of the same in popular isolated nutrient health claims: saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, trans fat, good and bad carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, and the like.
Applying this reductionary science to industrial production complicates the food confusion further. Section two, “The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization,” confronts related patterns: the way we eat in the West, and the chronic diseases associated with this way of eating. Looking at studies of non-Western eating cultures, and observing the connection of healthy soil to good health, Pollan turns to the industrialization of agriculture to examine the way it breaks “the links among local soils, local foods, and local peoples [to disrupt] the circular flow of nutrients through the food chain.” The marks of industrial agriculture are just as reductionary as those of nutritionism: eliminating nutrients in processing; reducing a diversity of foods to four primary crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice) from which to extract chemicals; considering improvements on food to be in quantity and efficiency rather than quality. Added to this are economic incentives of the food industry, the advertising industry, the health industry, and so the industrial model persists.
“Getting Over Nutritionism” is the final section of the book; this is Pollan’s articulate elaboration on his mantra, typified by his clarity of writing, and pragmatism of suggestions. There are overtones of Wendell Berry’s 1989 essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” which stands as precursor and wisdom for this section, with Berry’s reminder that “eating is an agricultural act.” For all the confusion surrounding nutritionism and industrialism, the guidelines presented by Pollan are remarkably direct, uncomplicated, and aim to reconnect our act of eating to the rest of the agricultural process. Pollan’s good humor about the situation makes these recommendations easy to swallow, covering Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize As Food (Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt is the notable example); Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims; Eat Mostly Plants, Especially Leaves; Eat Well-Grown Foods From Healthy Soils; and Try Not To Eat Alone.
The failure of nutritionism and industry is the reduction to parts; ignorant of complexity, diversity, and certainly to mystery. Eating food,* on the other hand, acknowledges that complexity, while at the same time eliminating the confusion of nutritionism and all its claims:
When the basket of produce lands on the kitchen counter, when we start in on cleaning and cutting and chopping, we’re thinking about a dozen different things – what to make, how to make it – but nutrition, or even health, is probably not high on the list. Look at this food. There are no ingredient labels, no health claims, nothing to read except maybe a recipe. It’s hard when contemplating such produce to think in terms of nutrients or chemical compounds; no, this is food, so fresh it’s still alive, communicating with us by scent and color and taste.
Returning to Berry’s essay to suggest the aims of abandoning an industrialized agriculture and nutritionism: “We have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.” In Defense of Food provides a history and context to the powers which control our food economy, as well as what might be its most valuable contribution, a way out of this system.
*Looking for a moment at language, when confronted with the rise of “organic” foods, writers have needed a complementary adjective for the prevalent production of food in this country; that word is “conventional” and is used on occasion in this book. It seems indicative of our situation that food that is “conventionally-grown” means that which is industrially-grown, subjected to chemical and genetic engineering, processed, and packaged. I first noticed this particularity of language in a Time magazine article from March 2007, “My Search for the Perfect Apple” by John Cloud: “Even if conventional foods don’t turn out to be as dangerous as organic advocates claim, several recent studies have suggested that organic foods contain higher levels of vitamins than their conventionally grown counterparts.” Perhaps a more apt adjective would be “industrial,” which Pollan seems to favor as well, although the confusion over language mirrors the confusion over agriculture itself.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com