Many of my readers will have heard of Michael Pollan and read his books. Michael Pollan is an American journalist, author and activist whose writings on the industrial food chain and agribusiness have sparked an enormous amount of conversation and debate over the last few years – in particular, since the publication of his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”. This week he has been touring Australia and, as Adelaide was not on his itinerary, I took myself off for a weekend in Melbourne to catch up on friends, shopping, food and food politics.
Pollan’s writing focuses on what has gone wrong with our food and food production, how we select and buy it and eat it. Most of his discussion at the Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday evening was centred around the current marketers dream of “nutritionism”. This phenomenon and loose ideology basically reduces food to it’s nutrient components. The wonders of modern science means we are continually discovering more about the properties of different nutrients in our food and this is marketed to us loudly and boldly on the packaging of processed foods. As a result, we don’t really see the food in the packets any more.
Embracing this convenient philosophy means doing away with the need to actually promote food, so processed food companies are focussing on selling us the nutrients and leading us to assume that we need experts to tell us how to eat. This ideology also assumes that the point of eating is all about our health – redeeming it or ruining it – and consequently nutrients can be demonised or deified, depending upon the current pervasive scientific wisdom. Thus fibre, anti-oxidants and omega 3’s are good nutrients and gluten, sugar, fats etc are wicked, dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. This thinking totally disregards other aspects of eating – the sense of community we enjoy from shared food, the socially identifying component of cultural dishes and the sheer pleasure of eating. Food is about so much more than health.
Big food companies have hit upon a gold mine by embracing this ideology. Their packaging is covered with the health claims of whatever the favoured nutrient is, making us doubt our own ability to adequately nourish ourselves or our families without their expert input. This trend stems from the 1970’s when the first nutritional campaigns against saturated fats were introduced in the US. However, by demonising the, admittedly unhealthy, saturated fats other equally (unacknowledged) unhealthy nutrients were given what amounted to a “free pass” resulting in a significant average weight gain in the US population and a rise in chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes.
One thing we know for sure about food and diets is that populations who live on a diverse range of traditional diets – even narrow diets such as the high-fat eating habits of the Inuit or the high-protein diets of some African tribes who subsist largely on beef and blood from their cattle – do not suffer from the endemic chronic diseases which those of us on a Western diet are so prone to. Another thing that we do know for sure is that the health ramifications of the Western diet are simply not sustainable. We are heading for a very near future in which one in three children will develop Type 2 diabetes – a disease which will shave at least 10 years off their lives and bring about many health complications while they are alive. It seems we have a simple choice. Submit to the marketing spin of the major food producing companies and surrender, or change our eating habits.
To this end, Michael Pollan has spent some time putting together a list of simple, easily remembered food rules to help us to take back control of what we feed our families and feel comfortable in relying on our own food choices, rather than those of a faceless multinational food company who, surprisingly, may not have the consumers best interests at heart. These “rules” are simple, non-threatening and are often derived from grandmotherly wisdom – but their collective effect can’t be underestimated. Pollan’s most famous maxim is probably “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” but for those who are seeking a little more guidance suggestions like “eat food, not edible food-like substances”, “don’t eat anything your grandmother would not recognise as food” (which includes about 70% of what is to be found in the supermarket), “don’t buy cereals which change the colour of the milk”, and “avoid anything with more than 5 ingredients” are a pretty good place to start.
Pollans writing is accessible,witty and engaging and will provoke much thought and the occasional giggle. I can’t think of a better author to recommend for those of you who are starting to wonder about the wisdom of supporting current prevalent food production models and what you might be able to do to regain some control over the food you feed your families and yourselves.