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Monday October 18, 2010

Make informed choices about food

We don’t know enough about what we put into our bellies, or how what we eat affects the planet, claims this ‘good food’ guru.

EAT food. That’s rule No.1 in Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules. A tad obvious, you think?

The problem is, eating has become complicated in our time. Numerous diet books and scientific research – many with contradictory results – have created nutritional confusion, making the act of deciding what’s for dinner more complicated than it should be.

Human beings, being omnivores, have a very specific problem that is connected with our specific advantage, says Pollan. Unlike other mammals, such as, say, koalas and cows, with limited diets, human beings can eat a great many things.

“This has allowed them to live in many places. And when you can eat almost anything, you have to watch out for things that will make you sick, like poison mushrooms or foods that lead to (diseases),” says Pollan via telephone from London where he is on a book tour promoting Food Rules.

And now, with the plethora of processed, chemically enhanced foods available, we humans have to choose our meals even more carefully.

“Food culture is traditionally how people have navigated that landscape, but food cultures have been fading in our time, and in some places like the United States, it is almost extinct,” he says.

Pollan, 55, is a well-known “food activist”. He has written several books about how our current modern food practices and industries are not just destroying our health but also the world.

But it was never Pollan’s plan to get on a food soapbox. The Oxford-educated Pollan, who currently lives in California, has always been interested in writing about man’s relationship with the natural world and has done so for 25 years, winning many awards for his efforts.

The veteran journalist, who teaches at the prestigious Berkeley graduate school of journalism, University of California, first shared his love for gardening – to which he was introduced by his Russian grandfather – in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991). Then, he wrote A Place of My Own (1997), in which he recounts how he designed and constructed with his own hands on his rural Connecticut property a small, one-room structure where he hoped to “read, write and day-dream”. After that came The Botany Of Desire (2001), in which he highlighted man’s relationship with domesticated plants.

“I’ve always liked to grow food. And if you’re interested in humans’ impact on the natural world, sooner or later you’re going to look at food because food is the most powerful way that we affect the rest of the world,” Pollan says.

In 1998, he was asked to write an article about genetically modified food. He approached it as a gardener and grew genetically modified potatoes in his garden. In the process of researching the story, he began learning about industrial agriculture and realised that most Americans – most people in the industrialised world, actually – did not know where their food came from. He thought it would be interesting to “follow the human food chain” and show people how food came to be on their plates.

In 2002, he did just that. For three years, Pollan investigated all aspects of the food industry and even had hands-on experience in producing food – he hunted game, slaughtered chickens on a farm and picked wild mushrooms.

“(It’s) about looking at food in a more intimate way and seeing if I could reconnect with food that is actually hunted and gathered by me. That was probably the most fun I’ve had as a writer ever,” says Pollan, laughing wryly.

His experiences resulted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (published in 2006). The award-winning book established his reputation as the “good food” guru.

Food rules

After that book came In Defense Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2009), a book about the history of man’s efforts to figure food out.

“It kind of concludes that we know a lot less than we think we know, and that nutrition science is, to put it very mildly, a very young science, and there’s a lot they haven’t figured out about what we eat and how it affects us and why we get sick from certain kinds of diets,” he says.

After the book was published, a number of doctors began telling Pollan that they’d love to have a simple pamphlet of food rules that they could give to their patients.

“And I thought that was a very interesting idea, to boil down everything I’ve learned about food – nutrition in particular – into a set of very simple, easy-to-follow rules that will not be couched in the language of science so much but in culture that everyone understands,” he says.

Culture has a lot to teach us about food, says Pollan: “We always go to science and think that science has the last word. But, in fact, for hundreds or thousands of years before we had nutritional science, we had the wisdom of the tribes encapsulated in sayings and the kind of advice you hear from your mother or grandmother,” he points out.

He set out to collect this wisdom, and began by asking people for suggestions on the blog he had in The New York Times’ blog pages. He received 2,500 “food rules” in two days. He sorted through those, and then consulted doctors to make sure he wasn’t going to lead anyone astray.

And the result is the 64-rule Food Rules.

“(The book) is an effort to help cut through the nutrition confusion that so many of us feel when we walk through the supermarket,” he says.

Food cultures

There was a massive revolution in the supply of food in the 20th century, and this resulted in foods that “your grandmother would not recognise”. Powerful marketing messages are also undermining trusted “food rules” handed down by cultures for centuries.

“(Food cultures) should be preserved the same way as we fight to preserve paintings and beautiful gardens, music and literature,” says Pollan.

Food culture is, basically, people’s socially-influenced tastes, values, practices and attitudes towards food (as defined in Tim Lang and Michael Heasman’s Food Wars: The Global Battle For Mouths, Minds and Markets).

Pollan loves the food culture of Asia and describes it as “particularly beautiful and healthy”.

“They (Asians) tend to involve a lot of vegetables and treat meat as a flavouring more than the centre of the meal. And I think that’s a healthy way to approach meat,” he says.

Italians enjoy food in small quantities, and the French have good food habits – they do not, for one, snack much at all and look at food not as fuel but as communion, a part of their social life.

And even the “stranger” traditional diets – the high protein diet of the Masai in Africa, for one, consists mainly of the meat, blood and milk of cattle – are healthier than the Western diet, which consists of processed food, refined white flour, lots of meat and calories and very little fruits, vegetables or whole grain.

“The point is, over many, many years through trial and error, people have figured out what works in whatever area they live in and how to make a healthy, traditional diet out of what nature offers them. The one diet that seems reliably to make people sick is the Western diet. And as I said in the book, what an achievement, to invent the one diet that makes people sick!” he says.

And as many cultures around the world adopt the seemingly more prestigious Western diet, the diseases of “civilisation”, such as heart disease and Type II diabetes, will be on the rise as well.

But it is not just the nutritional content of our meals that needs to be revolutionised.

Pollan is a great believer in eating less meat, and says that the current American rate of consumption – more than 200g a day – is detrimental to human health and to the environment.

“There’s recent research suggesting that eating lots of red meat contributes to cancer in some ways, and to eat that much meat, you need a very brutal meat industry to produce it cheaply – and that takes up enormous environmental resources,” he says.

And it’s so unnecessary, since there is another way of getting your protein: “Fish is a terrific source of protein!”

“Americans don’t eat nearly enough fish and Asians do eat more – the only problem with fish is, there aren’t enough left,” he says.

Food fad

The food guru thinks that there is at least one more book in him.

“Funny fact about humans: we’re the only species that cooks its food. Why is that? Why do we like cooked food?” he asks.

Cooking has shaped human beings as a species from an evolutionary and cultural point of view, he says, but he thinks that the practice is now becoming a danger.

“We’re moving into a time of letting the corporations do the cooking for us, and I think that’s a very bad idea,” he says, referring, presumably, to ready-to-eat frozen or other convenience meals as well as fast foods.

So, Pollan, who enjoys cooking with his family, wants to write a book that will show people the importance of cooking as a daily activity and make them feel excited to do it.

When he’s not busy writing or talking about food, Pollan indulges in gardening, and spends time with wife Judith Belzer, a painter, and their 17-year-old son, Isaac. Family time is precious, as Pollan travels quite a bit now, lecturing about health, food, agriculture and the environment in universities in the United States. (Here’s another interesting titbit about Pollan: One of his three sisters is actress Tracy Pollan, who is married to actor Michael J. Fox.)

All that travelling gives him the opportunity to do one of his favourite things: sampling food cultures.

“When I’m on the road, I like to taste food wherever I go. I love to eat, so I’m always interested in trying new restaurants. Whenever I go to a new city, I always go to the produce market to see what they grow and eat,” he says.

There are signs that people in America are becoming educated about what’s good food, and becoming more aware about the problems in the food system; Pollan is optimistic that things could change, though it’ll take a lot of work.

Ultimately, the best way to change the way things are is to tell people the truth about how their food is produced, he says.

“When people understand where the food comes from, how it’s produced and who is involved in making it, they tend to make better choices,” he says.