February 13, 2008

Michael Pollan, Professor of science and environmental journalism at UC Berkeley. His previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post. His latest book, just published, is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

AMY GOODMAN: “You are what to eat.” Or so the saying goes. In American culture, healthy food is a national preoccupation. But then why are Americans becoming less healthy and more overweight?

Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan argues that what most Americans are consuming today is not food, but edible food-like substances. Michael Pollan is a professor of science and environmental journalism at University of California, Berkeley. His previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and Washington Post. His latest book is called In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

Michael Pollan recently joined me here in the firehouse studio for a wide-ranging conversation about nutrition, food science and the current American diet. I began by asking him why he feels he has to defend food.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Food’s under attack from two quarters. It’s under attack from the food industry, which is taking, you know, perfectly good whole foods and tricking them up into highly processed edible food-like substances, and from nutritional science, which has over the years convinced us that we shouldn’t be paying attention to food, it’s really the nutrients that matter. And they’re trying to replace foods with antioxidants, you know, cholesterol, saturated fat, omega-3s, and that whole way of looking at food as a collection of nutrients, I think, is very destructive.

AMY GOODMAN: Shouldn’t people be concerned, for example, about cholesterol?

MICHAEL POLLAN: No. Cholesterol in the diet is actually only very mildly related to cholesterol in the blood. It was a—that was a scientific error, basically. We were sold a bill of goods that we should really worry about the cholesterol in our food, basically because cholesterol is one of the few things we could measure that was linked to heart disease, so there was this kind of obsessive focus on cholesterol. But, you know, the egg has been rehabilitated. You know, the egg is very high in cholesterol, and now we’re told it’s actually a perfectly good, healthy food. So there’s only a very tangential relationship between the cholesterol you eat and the cholesterol levels in your blood.

AMY GOODMAN: How is it that the food we eat now, it takes time to read the ingredients?


AMY GOODMAN: You actually have to stop and spend time and perhaps put on glasses or figure out how to pronounce words you have never heard of.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, it’s a literary scientific experience now going shopping in the supermarket, because basically the food has gotten more complex. It’s—for the food industry—see, to understand the economics of the food industry, you can’t really make money selling things like, oh, oatmeal, you know, plain rolled oats. And if you go to the store, you can buy a pound of oats, organic oats, for seventy-nine cents. There’s no money in that, because it doesn’t have any brand identification. It’s a commodity, and the prices of commodity are constantly falling over time.

So you make money by processing it, adding value to it. So you take those oats, and you turn them into Cheerios, and then you can charge four bucks for that seventy-nine cents—and actually even less than that, a few pennies of oats. And then after a few years, Cheerios become a commodity. You know, everyone’s ripping off your little circles. And so, you have to move to the next thing, which are like cereal bars. And now there’s cereal straws, you know, that your kids are supposed to suck milk through, and then they eat the straw. It’s made out of the cereal material. It’s extruded.

So, you see, every level of further complication gives you some intellectual property, a product no one else has, and the ability to charge a whole lot more for these very cheap raw ingredients. And as you make the food more complicated, you need all these chemicals to make it last, to make it taste good, to make—and because, you know, food really isn’t designed to last a year on the shelf in a supermarket. And so, it takes a lot of chemistry to make that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: I was a whole grain baker in Maine, and I would consider the coup to be to get our whole grain organic breads in the schools of Maine for the kids, but we just couldn’t compete with Wonder Bread—


AMY GOODMAN: which could stay on the shelf—I don’t know if it was a year.

MICHAEL POLLAN: That’s amazing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ours, after a few days, of course, would get moldy, because it was alive.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Right. And, in fact, one of my tips is, don’t eat any food that’s incapable of rotting. If the food can’t rot eventually, there’s something wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: What is nutritionism?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Nutritionism is the prevailing ideology in the whole world of food. And it’s not a science. It is an ideology. And like most ideologies, it is a set of assumptions about how the world works that we’re totally unaware of. And nutritionism, there’s a few fundamental tenets to it. One is that food is a collection of nutrients, that basically the sum of—you know, food is the sum of the nutrients it contains. The other is that since the nutrient is the key unit and, as ordinary people, we can’t see or taste or feel nutrients, we need experts to help us design our foods and tell us how to eat.

Another assumption of nutritionism is that you can measure these nutrients and you know what they’re doing, that we know what cholesterol is and what it does in our body or what an antioxidant is. And that’s a dubious proposition.

And the last premise of nutritionism is that the whole point of eating is to advance your physical health and that that’s what we go to the store for, that’s what we’re buying. And that’s also a very dubious idea. If you go around the world, people eat for a great many reasons besides, you know, the medicinal reason. I mean, they eat for pleasure, they eat for community and family and identity and all these things. But we’ve put that aside with this obsession with nutrition.

And I basically think it’s a pernicious ideology. I mean, I don’t think it’s really helping us. If there was a trade-off, if looking at food this way made us so much healthier, great. But in fact, since we’ve been looking at food this way, our health has gotten worse and worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the diseases of Western civilization.

MICHAEL POLLAN: The Western diseases, which—they were named that about a hundred years ago by a medical doctor named Denis Burkitt, an Englishman, who noted that there—after the Western diet comes to these countries where he had spent a lot of time in Africa and Asia, a series of Western diseases followed, very predictably: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a specific set of cancers. And he said, well, they must have this common origin, because we keep seeing this pattern.

And we’ve known this for a hundred years, that if you eat this Western diet, which is defined basically as—I mean, we all know what the Western diet is, but to reiterate it, it’s lots of processed food, lots of refined grain and pure sugar, lots of red meat and processed meats, very little whole grains, very little fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s the Western diet—it’s the fast-food diet—that we know it leads to those diseases. About 80 percent of heart disease, at least as much Type II diabetes, 33 to 40 percent cancers all come out of eating that way, and we know this. And the odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to discomfort us that much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about coming from another culture and coming here.


AMY GOODMAN: When you specifically talk about sugar, refined wheat, what actually happens in the body?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that’s where you see it most directly. When populations that have not been exposed to this kind of food for a long time—we’ve seen it with Pacific Islanders, if you go to Hawaii, we’ve seen it with Mexican immigrants coming to America—these are the people who have the most trouble with this diet, and they get fat very quickly and get diabetes very quickly. You know, we hear about this epidemic of diabetes, but it’s very much of a class and ethnically based phenomenon, and Hispanics have much more trouble with it. And the reason or the hypothesis is that, culturally and physically, they haven’t been dealing with a lot of refined grain, whereas in Europe, we’ve been dealing with refined grain for a couple hundred years.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does refined wheat do?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, what happens is, when you—there was a key invention around the 1860s, which is we developed these steel rollers and porcelain rollers that could grind wheat and corn and other grains really fine and eliminate the germ and the bran. And the reason we wanted to do that was we loved it as white as possible. It would last longer. The rats had less interest in it, because it had less nutrients in it. And also you get a kind of a real strong hit of glucose. I mean, basically it digests much quicker, as soon as it hits the tongue. I mean, everyone has—you know, if you’ve ever tasted Wonder Bread, you know how sweet it is. The reason it’s sweet is it’s so highly refined that as soon as your saliva hits it, it turns to sugar.

Whole grains have a whole lot of other nutrients. You know, it once was possible to live by bread alone, because a whole grain loaf of bread has all sorts of other nutrients. It has omega-3s, it has, you know, lots of B vitamins. And we remove those when we refine grain. And it’s kind of odd and maladaptive that refined grain should be so prestigious, since it’s so unhealthy. But we’ve always liked it, and one of the reasons is it stores longer.

AMY GOODMAN:  Talk about the funding of nutrition science.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, nutrition science is very compromised by industry. Organizations like the American Dietetic Association take sponsorship from companies who are eager to find—you know, be able to make health claims. Not all nutrition science. And there are very large, important studies that are, you know, published—that are supported by the government and are as good as any other medical studies in terms of their cleanness. But there is a lot of corporate nutrition science that’s done for the express purpose of developing health claims. This science reliably finds health benefits for whatever is being studied. You take a pomegranate to one of these scientists, and they will tell you that it will cure cancer and erectile dysfunction. You take, you know, any kind of food that you want. And now, it’s not surprising, because food is good for you, and that all plants have antioxidants. And so, you know, you’re bound to find—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what an antioxidant is.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, an antioxidant is a chemical compound that plants produce, really to protect themselves from free radicals of oxygen that are generated during photosynthesis. They absorb these kind of mischievous oxygen radicals, molecules, atoms, and disarm them. And as we age, we produce a lot of these oxygen radicals, and they’re implicated in aging and cancer. So antioxidants are a way to kind of quiet that response, and they have health benefits. They also help you detoxify your body.

So—but my point is kind of, you don’t need to know what an antioxidant is to have the benefit of an antioxidant. You know, we’ve been benefiting from them for thousands of years without really having to worry what they are. They’re in whole foods, and it’s one of the reasons whole foods are good for you. And there are not that much in processed foods.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it odd that the more you put into foods—so that’s processing fruits—the less expensive is? The simpler you keep it, getting whole foods in this day and age in this country, it’s extremely expensive.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, there are reasons of policy that that is the case. You’re absolutely right. Most processed foods are made from these very cheap raw ingredients. I mean, they’re basically corn, soy and wheat. And if you look at all those very-hard-to-pronounce ingredients on the back of that processed food, those are fractions of corn, and some petroleum, but a lot of corn, soy and wheat. And the industry’s preferred mode of doing business is to take the cheapest raw materials and create complicated foodstuffs from it.

The reason those raw ingredients are so cheap, though, is because these are precisely the ones that the government chooses to support, the subsidies—you know, the big $26 billion for corn and soy and wheat and rice. So it’s no accident that these should be the ones, you know, grown abundantly and cheap, and that’s one of the reasons the industry moved down this path. There was such a surfeit of cheap corn and soy that the food scientists got to work turning it into—

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, getting away totally from sugar to corn syrup.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, that’s right. And we don’t—yeah, there’s very little sugar in our processed food. It’s all high-fructose corn syrup, which, in effect, the government is subsidizing.

AMY GOODMAN: Cottonseed oil, is it regulated by the FDA? Is it considered a food, even though it’s in so many of the processed foods we eat?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Is it considered a food? Yeah, I think it’s probably—

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, because of the pesticide that is in it—


AMY GOODMAN: —that if it’s considered—if it’s done for cotton, it doesn’t matter how much pesticide there is.


AMY GOODMAN: But if it’s for food, it does matter. And it’s in so much to keep it right, stable for so long on the shelf.

MICHAEL POLLAN: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s a food I would avoid. I mean, you know, humans have not been eating cotton for most of their history. They’ve been wearing it. And now we’re eating it. And you’re right, it receives an enormous amount of pesticide as a crop. How many residues are in the oil? I don’t really know the answer, but it has been approved by the FDA as a foodstuff. And—but it’s one of these novel oils that I’m inclined to stay away with. I mean, my basic philosophy of eating is, you know, if your great-grandmother wasn’t familiar with it, you probably want to stay away from it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about—well, you started with a New York Times piece called “Unhappy Meals,” and in it—and you expand on this in In Defense of Food—you talk about the McGovern report, 1977, what, thirty years ago.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that’s really, I think, one of the red letter days in the rise of nutritionism as a way of thinking about food. It was a very interesting moment. McGovern convened this set of hearings to look at the American diet, and there was a great deal of concern about heart disease at the time. We had—we were having—you know, after a falloff during the war in heart disease, there was a big spike in the ’50s and ’60s, and scientists were busy trying to figure out what was going on and very worried about it. McGovern convened these hearings, took a lot of testimony, and then came out with a set of guidelines. And he said—he implicated red meat, basically, in this problem. And he said we’re getting—we’re eating too much red meat, and the advice of the government became—the official advice—eat less red meat. And he said as much. Now, that was a very controversial message. The meat industry, in fact the whole food industry, went crazy, and they came down on him like a ton of bricks. You can’t tell people to eat less of anything.

AMY GOODMAN: As Oprah learned when she said she won’t eat hamburgers.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Exactly. This is just a taboo topic in America. So McGovern had to beat this hasty retreat, and he rewrote the guidelines to say, choose meats that will lessen your saturated fat intake, something nobody understood at all and was much to the—and that was acceptable. But you see the transition. It’s very interesting. We’ve been talking about whole food—eat less red meat, which probably was good advice—to this very complicated construct—eat meats that have less of this nutrient. It’s still an affirmative message—eat more, which is fine with industry, just eat a little differently. And suddenly, the focus was on saturated fat, as if we knew that that was the nutrient in the red meat that was the problem. And in fact, it may not be. I mean, there are other things going on in red meat, we’re learning, that may be the problem.


MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, some people think it’s the protein in red meat. Some people think it’s the nitrosomines, these various compounds that are produced when you cook red meat. We see a correlation between high red meat consumption and higher rates of cancer and heart disease. But, again, we don’t know exactly what the cause is, but it may not be saturated fat.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the political economy of, for example, eating meat?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that—because of that—I mean, that’s why McGovern lost in 1980. I mean, the beef lobby went after him, and they tossed him out. And so—but from then on, anyone who would pronounce on the American diet understood you had to speak in this very obscure language of nutrients. You could talk about saturated fat, you could talk about antioxidants, but you cannot talk about whole foods. So that is the kind of official language in which we discuss nutrition.

Conveniently, it’s very confusing to the average consumer. Conveniently to the industry, they love talk about nutrients, because they can always—with processed foods, unlike whole foods, you can redesign it. You can just reduce the saturated fat, you know, up the antioxidants. You can jigger it in a way you can’t change broccoli. You know, broccoli is going to be broccoli. But a processed food can always have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. So the industry loves nutritionism for that reason.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for people who don’t have much money, how do they eat? I mean, when you’re talking about whole foods, they have to be prepared, and if you don’t have much time, as well, processed foods are cheaper and they’re faster.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, processed foods—you know, fast food seems cheap. I mean, if you have the time and the inclination to cook, you can eat more cheaply. But you do—as you say, you do need the time, and you do need the skills to cook. There is no way around the fact that given the way our food policies are set up, such that whole foods are expensive and getting more expensive and processed foods tend to be cheaper—I mean, if you go into the supermarket, the cheapest calories are added fat and added sugar from processed food, and the more expensive calories are over in the produce section. And we have to change policy in order to adjust that.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you do that?

MICHAEL POLLAN: You need a farm bill that basically evens the playing field and is not driving down the price of high-fructose corn syrup, so that, you know, real fruit juice can compete with it. You need a farm bill that makes carrots competitive with Wonder Bread. And we don’t have that, and we didn’t get it this time around.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like any candidates are addressing this issue?

MICHAEL POLLAN: No, because they all pass through Iowa, and they all bow down before conventional agricultural policy. In office, I think that, you know, there have been—Hillary Clinton has had some very positive food policies, basically because she has this big farm constituency upstate, and she’s very interested in school lunch and farm-to-school programs and things like that. John Edwards has said some progressive things about feedlot agriculture and what’s wrong with that, while he was in Iowa.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain feedlots.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Feedlots are where we grow our meat, in these huge factory farms that have become really the scourge of landscapes in places like Iowa and Missouri, I mean these giant pig confinement operations that basically collect manure in huge lagoons that leak when it rains and smell for miles around. I mean, they’re just, you know, miserable places. And they’re becoming a political issue in the Midwest. And I think they will become a political issue nationally, because people are very concerned about the status of the animals in these places. My worry is, though, that when we start regulating these feedlots, they’ll move to Mexico.

Michael Pollan’s latest book is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.