Michael Pollan: Q&A

The Walrus’s book blogger Jared Bland talks with the author of the bestselling In Defense of Food.

The Walrus’s book blogger Jared Bland talks with the author of the bestselling In Defense of Food.

Michael Pollan’s new book, In Defense of Food, has an air of summation about it, drawing on years of research to make an argument that is both profoundly radical and embarrassingly simple. In Pollan’s estimation, many of the epidemics facing our corner of Western society have little to do with, say, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat in our diet. Instead, the problem is the nature of our diet as a whole, and the fact that we eat way too much of it: too much red meat, too many refined carbohydrates and sugars (usually including an array of chemical enhancements) and too little of everything else.

Partly to blame for this is the rise of nutritionism, a particular branch of food science that has spent decades casting about in an attempt to blame some evil or other for the reality that many of us are overweight. Pollan’s book is as much a defense of food as it is an indictment of the mindset that has seen us reduce food from being nutritious to being comprised of particular nutrients. This tendency, Pollan argues, lies behind our societal fetishization of the latest black-balled ingredient, a focus that allows us to ignore actual nutrition, which would just tell us to eat more vegetables and fruit, and less food overall.

In Defense of Food is a small book in size, but its scope is massive: a comprehensive study of the ways in which, over the last fifty years or so, scientists and journalists have manipulated what and how we eat. Pollan also looks forward in its call to common sense. “Eat food,” Pollan advises. “Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple advice, and geared less to a diet fad than a new lifestyle. The book’s overwhelming success indicates its message is being well received. And let’s hope so, for as Pollan suggested in our interview, as more and more of us “vote with our forks,” casting the ballot will become easier, and more delicious.

I spoke with Michael Pollan last week, by phone from his office in Berkeley, California.

The Walrus: In Defense of Food promotes itself on its simplicity: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ But those terms are complicated, and spin their own webs of implication. They’re also shocking, in a way. You’ve now had some time to tour with this book, and I’m sure you’ve gotten lots of feedback. Of all the ideas you explore in the book, what has surprised people the most?

Michael Pollan: Well, I guess they’re shocked by the fact that a lot of what they’re eating isn’t food and that so much of the food industry now consists of these edible food-like substances. And that even the simple injunction ‘eat food’ actually ends up being a little difficult to implement because there are so many competitors that look like food, smell like food, taste like food, but really aren’t food. I think that that’s come as a surprise. You’re right to say that it’s a simple message in a lot of ways. It’s kind amazing that a book needs to be written to tell people to eat food.

TW: Well as you say in the book, the fact that you have to defend food is basically preposterous.

MP: If is, it absolutely is. It’s hard to imagine a market for these books a hundred years ago, because everybody knew where their food came from and everybody knew how to eat to be healthy. And it’s just a measure of how confused and lost we’ve become that such a straightforward message is rare and welcome.

TW: I was watching the video of you at the 92nd Street Y earlier today, and you noted that the challenge is how to stop eating the Western diet without leaving Western civilization. And you make an argument in the book that this is possible now more than ever, with Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) and farmer’s markets across the country. But in Canada it’s a little different. I grew up in the States, and was recently living there in a sort of hot-bed of independent and organic farm production. But Toronto lags far behind most American cities, I think, in the availability of transparent sustainable farming sources for the average person. And elsewhere in the country there are places where there’s little organic or responsible farming going on.

MP: What about the west coast? What about Vancouver?

TW: Vancouver’s a lot better. B.C. is basically a lot better at most things than the rest of the country. But there are parts of our country where there are no local fruits or vegetables. For a variety of reasons, I feel that we as a country are behind the curve. So what should we do?

MP: Well, like our country, you’re very big on commodity grain production and these grains end up being the raw materials for fast food. Oils to fry it in, grains to make sweeteners, starches of all different kinds. But my sense, being in Toronto recently, is that there is a market for it, and when there’s a market for it, the farmer’s will come forward.

TW: You think it will correct itself?

MP: I think it will. I think that it’s a great place to grow really good beef, already there’s organic pork, and there’s very good organic pork coming out of Canada that we’re getting. So I think that there are lags from place to place. I must have been in twenty cities in the last month, and people are at differing levels of development in terms of their farmers’ markets, their CSAs. There are factors specific to certain places—how far you have to travel to get to good farmland that’s free to grow this way—and people don’t realize that there are such impediments. There’s no question that there are challenges to doing it in certain places, and those challenges are different. Sometimes you need policy changes. Sometimes the weather’s not great, and that’s certainly an issue in Canada right now. Although that will probably change in twenty or thirty years. So my sense of Toronto and the level of interest in these issues—I was in a Whole Foods where there was a great amount of activity—is that the demand is there for the real thing. I don’t know that the Whole Foods exactly has the real thing.

TW: They try.

MP: Yeah, I don’t know. Although they had grass-fed beef that was the real thing. Though really expensive.

TW: One of the things that really surprised me in the book was the lifting of the imitation ban in the ’70s. [In the 1970s, the American food industry succeeded in forcing the government to lift the rules that required the word ‘imitation’ to appear on any food that “resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard.”] Here in Canada on our McDonald’s commercials we still hear about ‘processed’ cheese. Is this just a euphemism for imitation?

MP: Yeah, basically. When you say the word ‘processed’ I think that’s generally what it means. I don’t know if there’s a specific legislative meaning. But it does mean that you’re probably not allowed to say cheese. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you? But I’m being deductive there. I don’t actually know for a fact.

TW: What products in particular—and you get into this in the book a bit—might consumers not think to look for in this effort to avoid industrial or manufactured products.

MP: Well bread’s a good example. Baked goods seem very simple. Until you pickup the package and read the labels. That bread should have ballooned from three ingredients to forty-one. And yogurts are another one. I mean that’s a one-ingredient food, or one and a half—milk with a bit of bacteria. And suddenly that’s got fifteen different ingredients. And then you look at low-fat sour cream or cream cheese. Look at any product with the words ‘low-fat’ on them. You need a lot of pyrotechnics to replace the sensation of fat. It comes from guar gum and xanthum gum and all these thickeners. Very often, look at the products with health claims as they need to be processed a lot more.

TW: A lot of the book draws on information—studies, packaging—that’s been in front of us, but that we’ve been willfully ignoring. So even though it probably shouldn’t, a lot of this comes as a surprise to the average reader. But you’ve been working in this field for a long time—what was the most surprising thing you learned?

MP: Well, discussing the facts about the imitation rule and what happened in ‘77, I think. That whole ’70s history of nutritionism and that there were some very specific moves taken at that point that opened the floodgates to this new way of thinking about food. And that they were done with the best of intentions, there’s no question. A lot of the absurdity and folly we’ve gotten into has happened not because people had evil intentions, but because they had good intentions, and then business tried to make the best of the new rules that we’re established. I think that was a big surprise. You’re right to suggest that a lot of it was hidden in plain sight. It’s like, ‘alright, let’s look at this product. It’s called whole grain white bread. How do they make that? What’s in it?’ A lot of what I always write is about things that are hidden in plain sight, and trying to find a place to stand where they suddenly appear in fresh light. A lot of what I was trying to do is take a very ordinary experience like walking through the supermarket and picking up a loaf of bread and helping people to see how astounding it is.

TW: I read your letter to Whole Foods, when you took the point of their questioning the journalistic enterprise of your work, and you said ‘no, I’m coming at this from the point of view of the consumer.’ And for a book like this, that’s useful. But it does have a problem. You suggest we should be comfortable paying more for food, and a lot of consumers can and do and are happy to do it. But a lot of consumers can’t. What should we be doing about that?

MP: There are a lot of us who can vote with our forks for a different kind of food, and that involves spending more money to express our values in the food economy. And that will work for 70-80% of the public. But no question there are people who can’t afford to spend more, who are beneficiaries of a cheap food system, even if it has very high costs for the rest of society and for the people eating the cheap food and for the environment and for the animals and the farm workers and everybody. And for that part of society, we really have to address policy, that we have policies that have given us artificially cheap food, and we have to make access to healthy food as effective as we’ve made access to junk food. And sometimes that means ending the redlining of the inner city for supermarkets—there are no supermarkets in the inner city, no sources for fresh produce. So even if you want fresh produce, if you can afford it, you’ve got to take a bus ride. But there are policy solutions to that problem. For people who are getting government help in buying foods, the incentives should be rejiggered so they can buy fresh produce. We have a program called WIC in this country—women, infant, and children—where you get money every month to buy groceries. But it’s very specific—there’s a basket of groceries that they stipulate. And it’s very heavy on dairy products, which we have in surplus. Only in the last year was there any fresh produce included. So for people who can’t afford to spend more for food, we need to make healthy food affordable. We need to encourage the growing of things like broccoli and carrots and make that make sense for farmers in the way we make corn and soybeans make sense. In other words we can change the incentives in the commodity subsidy system. So there’s a whole lot of levers we can pull. I’m not a policy maker, so I don’t know exactly what they are. We have a situation now where the cheapest calories in the grocery store—the ones that we make the cheapest calories in the grocery store—happen to be the processed food calories, specifically high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil. It doesn’t have to be that way. The calories of fresh produce could be the cheapest, or comparable. But there’s no question that the market can’t solve all these problems. You will need some policy interventions so that the rational decision is no longer to eat badly.

TW: You note in the book that there are 17,000 new food products every year, which is astounding. Recently, I’ve been made aware of the Grapple, or Graple, as they ask you to pronounce it.

MP: Yeah, yeah.

TW: So you’re aware of this.

MP: Yeah, but I don’t really know what it is.

TW: Well, it’s weird. It’s not processing in the refining sense. I actually did some research on this because it was so unholy, really. They take a gala apple and they submerge it in a part-artificial, part-natural grape juice concentrate, so it comes out smelling basically like a purple marker would when you’re a kid.

MP: So that’s what it is. Hah!

TW: So what does this tell us about how terribly misguided we’ve become that we’ve gone past processing and we’re manipulating a whole food to make it like another whole food.

MP: Well, novelty. It’s the importance of novelty. There’s so many parties that depend on novelty in food. You’ve got the manufacturers, you have the scientists who get attention when they come up with something new, and you have the journalists—we need new stories about all the time about food. But the important facts about food are incredibly old. And food doesn’t change that much. The great foods, the species we’ve been depending on for 10,000 years, they change at a glacial pace. Every now and then we have a new apple variety discovered, and that’s a big deal. It’s wonderful when it happens, but that’s not enough novelty for the modern marketplace, which needs those 17,000 products, needs all that churn. It’s a very low-margin business, very hard to make any money, and you need new products every year. So people will try everything—they will try food science, they will try breeding, they will try packaging, they will try figuring out new modes of convenience—and this is just the latest. It’s a new idea, though.

TP My last, very quick question. What, if any, bit of processed stuff do you miss the most?

MP: How do you know I miss it?

TW: Well that’s why I say ‘if any.’ Or do you indulge still?

MP: Yeah, I’m a great believer in the idea that there are specialized foods, and they’re for special occasions. For some people it might be ice cream, for some people it might be chips. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when we make special-occasion foods routine that we get into the problem

TW: Sometimes foods, as the Cookie Monster would say.

MP: What did he call them?

TW: I think the Cookie Monster now says that cookies are sometimes foods.

MP: Oh I love that. I should have used that. I recently had a girl ask me a question at a big public event. She stood up in front of a thousand people at the microphone, after I’d spoken for an hour. “Can I still have candy?” And I told her, “Yes. Sometimes.”

Jared Bland
Jared Bland, a former Walrus editor, is books editor of the Globe and Mail.