Review

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

by Michael Pollan

After reading Michael Pollan’s IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, I was
reminded of an old illustration by macabre cartoonist Gahan
Wilson.

An elderly couple was shopping at the supermarket, surrounded by
boxes and cans bearing the label “crap” and less polite
euphemisms. In the tagline, the husband tells his wife, “And
it keeps getting more expensive.” If Pollan is right, the
majority of what we eat these days is not actually
“food” in the traditional sense of the word;
they’re more a collection of chemicals and preservatives
injected into established products (enriched bread, etc.) or
creating an entirely new one (squeezable yogurt).

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD considers the relatively new (and questionable)
science of “nutritonism,” whose purpose is to make the
consumer believe that he or she is getting the most nutritional
bang for the buck (Vitamins in your water! Essential fish oil in
your eggs!). But these promises only cover up the fact that the
quality has been diluted and, consequently, in need of
fixing.

Pollan concentrates on the food chain: “You are what you eat
eats.” If cows and chickens dine on a diet rich in corn
products, that eventually ends up in the end-user. If, on the other
hand, they are fed a variety of grasses, the consumer benefits as
well.

The “Western Diet” consists of “lots of processed
foods, lots of added fats and sugar, lots of everything --- except
vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.” Pollan attributes this
way of life to the increased incidence of obesity, especially in
young people.

With food manufacturers adding vitamins, minerals and whole grains,
one would think we had our bases covered. Not so, says Pollan,
whose previous book THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA might be
considered a prequel to IN DEFENSE OF FOOD. What could be bad about
adding those “nutrients,” improving products like
breads, cereals and dairy products? Nothing, on the face of it, but
those cheap calories are the source of all kinds of health issues,
says the author, suggesting that the best way to counter the
effects of modern culinary life is to shun anything that your
great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

The problem is, what is the reader to do with this
information?

Pollan spends the major portion of his book elaborating on the
problems caused by both the Western Diet and the attempts to battle
it through nutritionsim. He concludes this slim volume with
observations that seem like common sense once you see them in
print: Rather than concentrating on breakfast, lunch and dinner,
the tendency is to “graze” throughout the day. When did
it become acceptable to nibble at your desk rather than confine
eating to the lunch period? How have eating habits at home ---
especially the decline of dining as a family unit --- impacted on
poor nutritional habits (not to mention the subsequent toll on
relationships)?

Pollan suggests patronizing farmers’ markets to obtain the
freshest foods available as a reasonable alternative to buying
off-season produce that has to be shipped from thousands of miles,
at a cost not just in dollars, but in impact to the environment.
However, as he has written, there is still the
“hand-me-down” concern of how the produce is grown or
the baked goods prepared.

In short, Pollan brings all these topics to light, but he can offer
no real resolution. One detail just opens the door to larger issues
lurking under the surface.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on January 24, 2011

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

  • Publication Date: January 25, 2008
  • Genres: Health, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • ISBN-10: 1594201455
  • ISBN-13: 9781594201455