We sent editorial intern James Williford to attend the Tate Lecture Series with Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Here’s what he learned from the Pollanator:
Last night, after toting bagfuls of Tom Thumb groceries onstage at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium, Michael Pollan opened this year’s Oncor Lecture with a familiar pronouncement: Americans have a disastrous relationship with food. Aside from an apple, the locally-bought foodstuffs—which, one after another, he pulled out of the bags and joked wryly about—were over-processed junk with appallingly misleading label copy. Holding up an almost neon-yellow tube, he said: “No one has ever confused Pringles with health food, right? But now you can get Pringles Multigrain. ‘Cheesy Cheddar,’ artificially flavored, but multigrain. So that’s a real winner. You put ‘multigrain’ on everything, because we’ve read that it’s good for you.” The audience laughed.
Pollan has his shtick down, but his message is serious and not quite as uncontroversial as it might at first seem. It’s not just the quality of the food that we eat, he says, but the way that we think about food in general that, over the last 30 years or so, has swelled our guts, impoverished our culinary culture, and left us increasingly susceptible to coronary disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. And how do we think about food? As nutrition.
According to Pollan, we don’t see whole, simple, recognizable items to be placed on the table and consumed anymore—we see a collection of nutrients, each either “good” or “bad,” depending on the prevailing and highly variable trends in dietary research and marketing. “You don’t eat a steak,” he said, “you eat a quantity of protein and fat and salt and iron.”
He calls this attitude “nutritionism,” and identifies it as an ideology, not a science. Consider: Have you ever seen a nutrient? Most of us don’t spend our time peering through microscopes at our dinner plates. And even if we did, without at least a modicum of scientific training, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish the carbohydrates from the proteins, much less decide which of the two we should be putting into our bodies and in what amounts. Nutrients are effectively invisible. And the upshot of basing our understanding of food on its invisible qualities is that we have to rely on experts to tell us what to eat. “It’s sort of like a religion,” Pollan said, “a religion in which the gods no longer talk to us. You then need a priesthood to mediate your relationship to those gods. Well, we’ve come to that point. We need a priesthood of experts.”
The problem with that, of course, is that the experts don’t quite seem to know what they’re talking about—not yet. Their science is young, given to errors, and too easily co-opted by crafty big food marketers (recall those “healthful” Pringles). We don’t know, Pollan pointed out, exactly what happens to our bodies when we drink a soda, or why we have as many neurons in our stomachs as we have in our spinal columns (“What are they thinking?”), or why some people get sick from beta carotene extracted from carrots. Our blind faith is an unproven science, he argues, at the heart of our dietary dysfunction. “As I see it, nutrition science is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650—really promising, really interesting to watch, but I think I’ll wait to get up on the table.”
In the meantime, Pollan insists, the situation isn’t hopeless. His advice poses the wisdom of culture—which he says is just another word for “mom”—against the bizarre logic of nutritionism. “Don’t eat meat in an airport,” he remarked, reading one of the 83 rules detailed in his latest book, Food Rules. “Avoid products containing ingredients that a third grader can’t pronounce.” And one of his favorites, “The Great-Grandma Rule”: “Pretend that your great-grandmother is there with you, rolling down the aisles of the supermarket. If she would not recognize something as food, then it’s not food.”