In Defense of Food - Book Review

- POSTED ON: Nov 15, 2012


In Defense of Food” (2009) was written by Michael Pollan who is a Professor of Journalism at University of California at Berkeley. Pollan is not a doctor, a scientist, or a nutritionist - he’s a journalist.

Pollan's message is:

Go back to nature, eat whole foods. Don’t diet.
Don't overeat; instead eat slowly, and enjoy your meals.
Our curse is processed food.
Artificially 'improved' foods and natural foods have very little in common

The best-selling, "In Defense of Food" provides a guided tour of 20th century food science, a history of "nutritionism" in America and a snapshot of the marriage of government and the food industry. It then works as a hard-sell for the “real food” movement.   Pollan's arguments are basically:

  • High-fructose corn syrup is the devil's brew. It must be removed from one’s diet.

  • Avoid any food product that makes health claims, these mean it's probably not really food.

  • In a supermarket, don't shop in the center aisles. Avoid anything that can't rot, anything with an ingredient you can't pronounce.

  • "Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does." Avoid buying foods sold at mini-markets.

  • "You are what you eat eats too." One must pay attention to what is fed to one’s food.

  • "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." By which Pollan means: Eat natural food, the kind your grandmother served because the food industry had not yet learned that the big money was in processing, not harvesting. Use meat sparingly. Eat your greens, the leafier and more varied the better.
  • In short: Kiss the Western diet goodbye. Look to the cultures where people eat well and live long. Trust your gut. Literally.

 In all this, Pollan insists that you have to save yourself. He says that the government is so overwhelmed by the lobbying and marketing power of the processed food industry that the American diet is now 50% sugar in one form or another, and calories that provide "virtually nothing but energy." Politicians are terrified to take on the food industry. And as for the medical profession, the key moment, Pollan writes, is when "doctors kick the fast-food franchises out of the hospital".

Pollan is a not a scientist,  and doesn't seem to find it very important to ground his assertions with unimpeachable facts. His book is based on notions of a romanticized past, and his advice can sometimes be contradictory ("don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize" but "eat tofu" - - If your grandmother didn't come from Asia, it's doubtful she would recognize anything made of bean curd) and he tends to cite sources that he likes, rather than sources he's really investigated.

For example, Pollan would never list a dairy-industry pamphlet as one of his sources, but he gleefully quotes some rather doubtful statements from an organic-food-industry pamphlet, and apparently didn't bother to ask even one secondary source to verify them.

He writes a compelling essay showing that nutrition and dietary habits are incredibly difficult for scientists to study, and implies that any information based on nutritional studies is flawed, yet quotes certain studies as if they are somehow immune to this problem. Pollan maintains that the American government's health-education programs are a major cause of the obesity epidemic, yet his descriptions of these programs contain many inaccuracies. 

 Pollan's tone appears occasionally condescending. He seems overly impressed with some of his own statements, such as his claim that humans are the only animals that turn to experts to tell them what to eat. Even if one accepts that this is true, humans do a lot of things that animals don't do, and in many cases, we should be glad of it.

Some people seem to reverence this book like the Bible.  Personally, I found it an interesting book, but one that needs be read critically, taking Pollen’s "facts" with a grain of salt. I, personally, didn't actually find the book insightful. He made a lot of scientific claims, but failed to support them. A great many readers seem to greatly care about Pollan's personal opinions, however, I’m not one of them.

Clearly the grandmothers with which Pollan is familiar were different from my own. I’m over 65 years old, and my own grandmothers, who were both born in the late 1800s, spent a lot of time processing and preserving their food, and most everything they cooked, including vegetables, contained a great deal of added saturated fat, sugar and/or white flour and other starchy foods. Pollan’s “real” food arguments, and his assumptions about the eating histories of our ancestors, seemed a bit naïve; and his opinions appeared to be strongly influenced by his own personal educational, economic, and cultural biases.

 I found the following food and health expert’s critique to be rather refreshing.

A Critique of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food
         by Mike Gibney, 4/23/2012
                      Professor of Food & Health at University College in Dublin, Ireland.

Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food’ has been a global best seller within the genre of books on food and health. It appears to be extremely popular among journalists since it bashes conventional wisdom on food. Twice, correspondents for the Irish Times chose to feature this book and marvel at its wisdom. Pollan’s book is peppered with half-truths, circular arguments and highly selective supporting material. His fundamental point is that we should focus our dietary choice on foods and not bother too much, if at all, with all of this nutritional advice that abounds today.

Pollen’s belief that health is the driver of food choice in the modern era is a cornerstone of his argument. Take for example the statement he makes: “That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new, and I think, destructive idea”.

The interest in healthy eating is as old as civilization and this obsession is the pursuit of a relatively minor section of society. The vast majority chooses food that they plan to enjoy and, in making those choices, take care to get some level of balance as regards to their personal health. Every study that has examined the drivers of food choice have come away with the conclusion that the “go – no go” part of food choice is whether the consumer likes the food.

Pollan’s assumption that it is the pursuit of health that drives food choice is an opinion based his personal reflections and observations. However, our own research, published in peer-reviewed journals shows the opposite. In a survey of over 14,000 consumers across the EU, some 71% either ‘agreed strongly’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement: “I do not need to make changes to my diet as my diet is already healthy enough”. Figure that Mr. Pollan!

The putative obsession with food and health of modern consumers that Pollan puts forward arises from the dogmatism and doctrine, which he calls “nutritionism”. He argues that nutrition has reduced the food and health issue to nutrients. In his view, nutritionists see foods solely as purveyors of nutrients and summarizes their view thus: “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts”. He quotes his fellow food saviour and author Marion Nestle who says of nutrition: “…it takes the nutrient out of the food, the food out of the diet and the diet out of the lifestyle”.

Eloquent, but utter baloney! This needs to rebutted along several lines. In 1996, I chaired a joint WHO-FAO committee that issued a report entitled “Preparation and use of food-based dietary guidelines”. The notion behind this was that many developing countries did not have detailed data on the nutrient content of their food supply, that they didn’t have nutritional surveys and that we should encourage the development of healthy eating advice in terms that consumers can understand. Indeed, statistical techniques such as cluster analysis are widely used to study food intake patterns and moreover, there are many examples of systems that score food choice for their nutritional quality. To write a book based on the impression that nutritionists see foods solely in terms of nutrients is simply daft.

Let me go a little further with this. Take the disease spina bifida, which is one of several forms of neural tube defects (NTD) that occur early in pregnancy. Extensive human intervention studies have shown that an increased intake of the B vitamin, folic acid, will significantly reduce the re-occurrence of an NTD birth in women who have previously had a child with this condition. This research has led to a threshold value of folic acid in blood above which this reduction occurs and the research shows that in human intervention studies, it is not possible to attain this threshold with normal foods, naturally rich in folate. Such folate has a rather low bioavailability and the threshold can only be reached if the volunteers consumed foods fortified with synthetic folic acid. This has led to the mandatory fortification of flour in the US with folic acid leading to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of new cases of spina bifida.

What is laughable about Pollan’s approach is that he himself engages in his so-called reductionism because he devotes at least almost 11 pages to the argument for and against the polyunsaturated fats from plants (omega-6 variety) and the polyunsaturated fats from fish (omega-3 variety), ultimately favouring the latter and then ends up with the statement: ”Could it be that the problem with the Western diet is a gross deficiency in this nutrient?” Now Michael you can’t have it both ways. You can’t decry nutritionists for studying individual nutrients in relation to health and then proceed to do so yourself! And remarkably, this champion of foods over nutrients goes on to argue that older persons should take multivitamins. Don’t take a bow Michael. Just stop doing summersaults.

The final piece in his jigsaw is to dismiss the modern processed food, as though bread, cheese, yogurt, pasta, wine, chocolate, coffee and the like are not processed. Their processing details were worked out long ago and so they don’t qualify for the derogatory tag of “processed”. The first sugar refinery was built in Crete in 1000 AD and that the Arabic name for Crete, Qandi, gave rise to what we today call “candy”. This process requires the sugar can to be pulped in water, the water filtered through muslin and the water evaporated in the searing heat of the Crete sunshine, which is why Crete was chosen and not Cork. And Pollan makes the inevitable mistake of the agricultural romanticist that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventionally farmed food, which is palpably untrue.

Pollan is a California food-head, and among the world’s few privileged elite.  Most of the other High Priests of “Healthy Eating” and their “real food” followers tend to give great respect to his unsubstantiated opinions. Pollan’s best-seller status demonstrates that he has been very successful at “preaching to the choir”.

Although a fellow Californian, I am not a “real food” person, nor a Michael Pollan fan.
There are many different ways to look at the world,   and I see a great deal of cultural bias involved in the way that Pollan views it.  As a well-known Journalist, Pollan’s writings have great appeal for educated, white, middle-class, environmentalists, … especially for organic-whole-food-“health-nut” people … many of whom are also employed by the media.

Leave me a comment.

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Existing Comments:

On Nov 15, 2012 wrote:
Hi Phyllis, Thanks for the review and I never doubted for a moment you were not a fan of Pollan.

On Nov 15, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Hi John, I seldom review diet/nutrition books that are of little personal interest for me, but Pollan has become an unopposed Guru for many dieters, and is erroneously considered by many to be SUCH an authority, that I decided to finally give his work an in-depth review.

On Nov 15, 2012 jethro wrote:
I'm finding that the overwhelming majority of diet/exercise gurus are more like politicians than scientists.

On Nov 15, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Jethro, in fact, scientists are NOT gurus. Science cannot prove what IS true, only what IS NOT true. Much of the research information we hear is distorted. We don't often even hear what science actually says, but instead we hear whatever the media and the marketers choose to SAY that science said.

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