“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Most of us are familiar with the wise and simple advice journalist Michael Pollan imparted in his last book, In Defense of Food. It’s also the governing premise of his latest work, Food Rules, in which he organizes 64 tenets about food into a handy volume. Appearing at a PBS press event for the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., in which he is interviewed, Pollan noted that doctors requesting a resource for their patients inspired his fourth book.
“They wanted simple rules of thumb. They don’t want to know the whole backstory, the science of nutrition. They’re very commonsense rules to get you onto real food.” They include such sensible advice as:
• “Eat food that your grandmother or great-grandmother would recognize.”
• “Don’t eat foods that have ingredients you can’t picture in their natural state”
• “Avoid foods with more than five ingredients or ingredients a third grader can’t pronounce.”
In other words, eschew “edible food-like substances” and beware of bogus health claims on packaging, marketing ploys to get us to buy.
“Don't buy cereals that change the color of the milk,” Pollan enumerated in a post-panel conversation. “Shop the periphery of the supermarket,” where the produce, fish and meats are located. “Don’t eat foods that are pretending to be something else. I tend to avoid mock meats,” he said. “And eat foods that will eventually rot because it means they’re not treated with chemicals.”
Pollan’s rules extend to where and how we eat. “When we eat alone, we tend to eat more,” he pointed out, suggesting avoidance of mindless eating in front of the TV or chowing down on the run in the car. “Don’t buy any food at the gas station,” he advises. "Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself. I love French fries, but if I go to the trouble and mess of cooking them, I’m only going to do it once a month.”
Pollan is aware that he’s fortunate to live in California where he has year-round access to a farmers market two blocks away, but he stresses the importance of eating in season for environmental and health reasons. “We’ve forgotten that there are winter salads made of root vegetables like carrots and beets,” he noted. He buys mostly organic, but he does so judiciously, based on which crops have the most pesticide residue — information that is searchable online. “You have to be strategic about your organic dollars. Blueberries and strawberries are worth it. Broccoli and bananas, not so worth it.”
He also thinks we need to stop judging produce by appearance, something it’s bred for “at the expense of taste, and that makes growing organic more difficult because to make produce look that good can take a lot of pesticides.” He’s encouraged, however, that consumer demand has given rise to alternatives to the mainstream food system, evidenced by the fact that the number of farmers markets nationwide has doubled twice in the past 10 years and that food chains are stocking more local and organic food.
“The key ingredient of industrial food — inexpensive meat and processed food — is fossil fuel,” noted Pollan. “It takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of processed or fast food.” Then add the billions we’re now spending to treat obesity, diabetes and other results of eating unhealthful food. “Healthcare spending has gone from 5 percent of national income to 18 percent.”
Blame part of that on the fact that more products than ever contain high-fructose corn syrup, added to sugar we already eat, “for a total of about 140, 150 pounds of sugar per person, per year. There is your Type 2 diabetes epidemic,” explained Pollan. “We consume 500 more calories per person per day since 1980, and most of those are corn- and soy-derived calories. When we let corporations cook for us, they don't do a very good job. They tend to use far too much salt, sugar and fat, the cheapest possible ingredients, and ingredients we love. If you salt and sweeten your food yourself, you would never put that much in.”
Pollan, who teaches courses on food writing and science writing at the University of California at Berkeley, began writing about food as a natural outgrowth of his interest in gardening, the environment, “and how humans engage with the natural world. If you care about that, you’re going to end up looking at food. It's through food, through agriculture, that we change the landscape more than anything else we do.”
Not only are we changing the composition of species via our behavior, “We're learning through our food choices we're affecting the atmosphere as much as anything else we're doing with the greenhouse gases that come out of it. To solve the environmental crisis, the healthcare crisis, the fuel crisis, will require us to confront the food system,” he stated, hopeful that with Food, Inc’s DVD release and PBS debut in April, “We’re going to see some real change.”
Although the American way of producing and consuming food is spreading worldwide, resulting in an increase in chronic disease in previously unaffected populations, Pollan is optimistic about the future. As a lecturer on college campuses, he meets students who are passionate about the issue. “There’s a social movement that’s rising. Whether it will completely revolutionize things, I don’t know. We will have industrialized food, but I think there will come a time where that will get smaller and the alternatives will get bigger.”
Reaching young people is vital, he believes, which is why he wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids, a shorter, graphic-intensive, paperback version of his bestseller for children ages 10-15. “We have to start with this generation before they turn into the fast-food generation,” he said. “The school lunch reauthorization comes up this spring; they’re going to introduce a bill to improve nutritional standards and the funding for school lunch. Michelle Obama has a big initiative about that,” he added, noting that the Obamas — Michelle in particular — “get it” when it comes to food issues. He thinks the current administration is “a big improvement over the one before, but they’ve got a long way to go.”
Pollan has begun work on a book about cooking, “but it’s not a cookbook. The collapse of cooking is behind this whole industrialization of food,” he believes. “I want to write a book that gets people excited about cooking again.” The key is to share the load in the kitchen: “My wife and I cook together and we try to get our son to help. We can get dinner on the table in 25 minutes. We’ll do stir-fries a lot, with or without meat. We grill a lot. We have pasta a lot. Nothing fancy, just ordinary food.”
The meats Pollan eats are from free-range, grass-fed, not hormone-filled, corn-fed animals. “We spend a lot more money — good alternatives cost more,” he acknowledged. “I put more time into preparing food than I did before. But I think it’s time and money very well-spent.”
We all have the power to make small changes that can alter the bigger picture, starting with what we choose to eat, Pollan said. “Taking back control of our diet in every possible way is a vitally important project for our health, for the health of the environment and for the health of American agriculture.”