Michael Pollan visits Australia

by Amanda McInerney on 11/07/2012

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.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma _ A Natural History of Four Meals

In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto

Food Rules – An Eater’s Manual

 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Mel @ The cook's notebook July 11, 2012 at 9:49 am

I really wish I had known he was touring BEFORE the night! I would have gone down to Melbourne too. Still, I followed the twitter feed :)

Another book with a similar food philosophy is Food Matters by Mark Bittman, which I actually enjoyed more that most of Michael Pollan’s books. Mainly because there was no graphic description of how veal gets to the plate!

The Food Sage July 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I saw him at the Sydney Opera House last night – a very engaging speaker. He is also adept at explaining quite difficult concepts in very easy to understand words. A true teacher.
I am tempted to go back and re-read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, now. I’ve also downloaded Food Rules to my iPad, so maybe i will start there.

Anna @ The Littlest Anchovy July 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Thank tyou for this wonderful review! I am kicking myself for not getting tickets to the Sydney leg of his tour. I am so interested in reading this now – I am going to head out at lunch to try to buy it!

Mel (Sharky Oven Gloves) July 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm

The increasing lack of connection between the food on the supermarket shelves and where it comes from or what it’s made of (at least in the West) is something that shocks, and it looks like it’s only going to get worse, which is worrying, to say the least!
I’m not familiar with Michael Pollan (although I’ve definitely heard his “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” quote bandied about), but his books sound interesting – I’ll have to look them up! Whilst I already try to buy local and seasonal foods, as well as avoiding over-processed ingredients like corn syrup when I bake, it’s always good to find out more, so thanks for the suggestion!

Lizzy (Good Things) July 11, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Wow… I have to tell you, this is the first I have heard of this author. Where the heck have I been!?

Kris July 12, 2012 at 9:13 am

Great review Amanda, well worth buying and reading on!

Hotly Spiced July 12, 2012 at 11:59 am

I’m glad you had the opportunity to hear him speak. It sounds like it would have been an incredibly good night. These are issues we all need to be aware of xx

Maureen @ Orgasmic Chef July 12, 2012 at 1:44 pm

When I was a kid (a long long time ago in another century) tomatoes tasted like, well, tomatoes and not cardboard. I grew up in the far northeast of the US and it was thinly populated. Most of our summer food came from local gardeners and we “put up” for the winter.

It wasn’t until I went away to university that I noticed that food didn’t taste the same as it did in Maine. Year after year, I noticed more and more changes and they weren’t changes of a good kind.

Then people started getting sicker.

Nobody seemed to be making the connection between the food and the condition of our health. Many people still don’t.

Michael Pollan is my hero. :) Wonderful post.

Jennifer (Delicieux) July 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm

What a wonderful post Amanda. I’ve read about Michael Pollan but haven’t actually gotten around to reading his books yet. I wholeheartedly agree with his adage “don’t eat anything your Grandparents wouldn’t recognise”, it’s one I live by and we are trying to teach my fiance’s sons as we both believe it’s important that they know where food comes from, and learn that it doesn’t come from a packet.

Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul July 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I had no idea he was touring…what a great post Amanda! He speaks wise words regarding the “food rules”.

Jamie July 16, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Excellent write up and synopsis. I think that if people have access to good quality basic ingredients and cook like their grandparents which was by a mixture of instinct and traditions, then we would all eat much better food and balanced meals. I think that the body craves naturally what is good for it and what is necessary for good health. It is the industrialized crap, the breaking down of family traditions and the marketing and advertising companies that have thrown off our natural eating habits. Did our grandmas know from nutrition? I think they must have had an inkling simply by cooking with what was sold on the markets which was usually seasonal and local, assuring that we were eating a good balance of proteins, fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. I learned so much about how and why we eat when I changed cultures and took notice. I’ve never read Michael Pollan’s books. Now I should.

Chris July 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

The modern diet is responsible for many ailments of the human body
85% of our immune system reside in the digestive tract – this is where our health problems begin and this is where they have to be fixed. There is also a direct connection between soil nutrition and the nutrition of the human body. I occasionally conduct nutrition cooking classes
the next 2 classes are No knead sourdough & nutrition = health
ww w.artcw.com.au
cheers!

tania@mykitchenstories.com.au August 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm

What have we come to?…. where will it all lead. It is so true that we do listen to every scientific expert that pipes in, and we still have a supermarket full of stuff that barely classifies as food. Scarey. I should read these books

Maurice October 2, 2012 at 7:29 am

Thanks for this, I am currently reading Michael Pollan’s books and was trying to research to what extent it applies to the Australian food industry.
Did he mention this in his talk or can you shed some light or recommend a reference. I’m particularly interested in the growing of corn and soy, the government subsidies, and the meat processing industry.
Thank you again,
Maurice.

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