Review of Michael Pollan’s Talk: Reviving Traditional, Real Food Cultures

Review of Michael Pollan's Talk: Reviving Traditional, Real Food Cultures

Michael_Pollan

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  (Pollan)

These are the wise words that have become emblematic of the ‘real food’ movement, popularized by Michael Pollan, and many others who believe in the sanctity of whole, unprocessed food.

On October 26, 2011, I went to hear Michael Pollan speak in Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.

Michael_Pollan_Talk_at_Strathmore

For those of you who don’t know Michael Pollan: he’s a renowned American food writer, activist and professor of journalism at University of California in Berkeley. He’s the author of several bestselling books on food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsIn Defense of Foodand most recently, Food Rules: An Eater’s ManualI’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a Cultural Studies class in graduate school – and loved it! After reading that and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, I was inspired to write this paper about the failures of ‘industrial organic’ and the need for a more local-based food distribution system.

This video should give you a good, albeit (very) summarized background of Pollan’s food philosophy:

Over the past couple of years since reading Pollan’s writing and learning about the health-damaging impact of the ‘Western’ diet and the astounding shortcomings of the industrial food complex, I’ve made it my mission to learn as much as possible the best way to cook and eat to maintain health. Not having a strong biochemistry background, I struggled with understanding how different nutrients are absorbed by the body, and spent weeks grappling with the inconsistency in claims made by different “experts” in the food and health industries. Only recently have I begun to understand that I need not listen to these talking heads who base their claims on skewed research and pseudoscience, but that I should direct my attention to learning about traditional cooking, which is both time-tested and proven to have kept humans alive, well, and free from most of the ‘lifestyle’ chronic illnesses plaguing humans only recently, only in this century. And that is precisely the reason we were inspired to start midEATS – to preserve our prized Middle Eastern diet in the face of the globalization of the Western one.

(taken by Heba)
A very traditional Egyptian meal of spiced ful medames (fava beans) topped with fresh scallions, tomatoes and cilantro

Turns out, according to Michael Pollan, we were onto something …

Michael Pollan on Returning the Focus to Real Foods

Before Pollan started speaking, he starting taking out colorfully packaged food products – a Dannon yogurt, cereal boxes, cereal bars, crackers, energy drinks, ‘organic’ chocolate milk with omega-3 added, ‘whole grain’ bread with a long shelf life, and diet sodas with ‘antioxidants’ – and started setting them on a table close to the podium. “14,000 new ‘food’ products per year are placed on supermarket shelves, all touted as ‘healthy foods’. No wonder people are confused about what to eat.” The food industry has convinced people that they need to be eating certain nutrients, and more than any other time in history, biochemistry terms like ‘antioxidants,’ ‘omega-3s’, ‘probiotics’, ‘saturated fats’, etc are becoming part of our vocabulary, though people hardly understand their scientific use. And yet, Pollan noted, chronic lifestyle illnesses that are directly related to diet, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers are on the rise – more than any time in history.

The problem? When we defer our entire decision-making process on what to eat to so-called “experts” of the very young science of nutrition, we cannot make simple food decisions without needing their advice. And so, the concept of ‘nutritionism’ is born, which is the term Pollan uses to describe the reduction of complex real foods (such as a carrot) into isolated nutrients (such as beta-carotene). It turns out, he said, that when these nutrients are treated like standalone substances and are given to people in the form of supplements, they either don’t work or they are toxic to the body. “We just don’t fully understand yet what is going on in the soul of a carrot to make it so good for us,” he astutely stated.

The Soul of a Carrot
“The Soul of a Carrot”

An additional problem with nutritionism is that it lends itself to oversimplification of foods and becomes a massive marketing tool for corporations that are creating processed foods, or what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances”. For example, the cereal he brought out screamed “Fiber!” and “Full of Antioxidants!” in striking colorful fonts on the box, and yet the ingredients share a different story altogether about the nutritional contents – or lack thereof – of the cardboard-tasting flakes.

Now, cereal might be processed, and more people are realizing this, but fat-free yogurt? Everyone knows it’s healthy. Right? Holding up a small cup of fat-free Dannon yogurt, he read aloud the health claims on the package: “Probiotics”, “Has Vitamins A & D!”. He then twirled the cup around to read the nutritional stats: “26 grams of sugar in a 6-ounce cup.” He quickly picked up a Coca-Cola bottle which read: “27 grams of sugar in the 8-ounces of soda”. The supposed health food, yogurt, now has more sugar per ounce than the soda! They take out the healthy fat and substitute with a ton of sugar, stabilizers and additives to achieve the taste and texture that consumers crave. The health claims on the yogurt now become null … and it’s “amazing that Americans got the fattest on a low-fat diet, with the average American woman putting on an extra 19 lbs and the average man, an extra 17 – each consuming an extra 300 calories per day than in decades past”, Pollan noted.

He continued to do this with all the products he brought for show-and-tell. The ‘organic’ milk had omega-3s added – a fish fat. Now that is novel, but is it natural? No. Splenda now claims that it has added “fiber” on its package: how is a chemical fake sugar-substitute with fake fiber (probably cellulose) touted as a health food? He went on, mesmerizing the audience with his humor and shrewd ability to read through all the bogus claims. The solution to navigating this health-crazed world? Pollan’s advice is priceless:

“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food; and food is what you want to eat.” (Pollan)

He finally grabbed an apple out of his jacket pocket, holding it up in the air. No ‘health claims’ there; and yet, it was incontestable to all present that it was a definite health food. Real food doesn’t need health claims.

Michael Pollan on the Importance of Traditional Foods and Cooking from Scratch

“The whole point of eating is to improve or ruin our health.” Right? Well, mostly that’s an American concept, said Pollan. In other parts of the world, food is seen a source of guiltless pleasure, a way to construct one’s identity, and a time to socialize with family and friends – all definitely more interesting ways of thinking about food than just its health properties.

Eating_together
Traditional people on a farm, eating together

One of Pollan’s greatest points that evening was his focus on the importance of traditional eating. He recounted the experiences of many scientists – both European and American – who observed that at the turn of the century, the Western diet’s creeping into other countries and taking the place of traditional diets was leading to the deterioration of different people’s health all over the world. As people adopted refined carbohydrates in the form of white flour and white rice, processed packaged foods with a seemingly eternal shelf life, lots of meat that is processed or sourced from grain-fed confined animals (in contrast with pasture-raised grass-fed animals), and consumed a high number of calories – they started suffering from lifestyle illnesses that had been virtually unheard of in their communities previously.

Though vegetarians and vegans claim that meat is unhealthy, thousands of years show that the Inuits of Greenland, who consume a diet that is 80% saturated fat from seal blubber, and Masai Africans who ate cattle milk, blood and organ meats as the bulk of their diet thrived until “store food” came into their villages and destroyed their health. Native Americans’ traditional food is very starchy, consisting of legumes (beans) and corn; and yet, they were in great shape until the Western diet replaced their own, thereby causing diabetes in 50% of their population. This is continuing to happen until today, where the traditional diets of Middle Easterners and Mediterranean peoples are being overtaken by American fast food and convenience foods; and as a result, their health problems are soaring.

TraditionalDiets_vs_ModernDiet
Traditional diets versus the modern, Western diet (according to Weston Price’s observations in the 1930s)

What Pollan observed and what has been known (but actively denied) throughout history is that there are many ideal human diets – not just one – but the Western diet is not one of them! “Getting off the Western diet at any point has enormous value,” he emphatically stated. “As a society, we’re at a fork in the road – either we get used to the broken food system with all its health-damaging implications, or we get off the Western diet.” The former is very expensive and not very effective, and the latter is healing, though not always easy to prioritize. So who do we learn from?

“Long before we had science, we had culture, a very powerful tool of understanding the world. Culture is really a fancy word for “your mother”, or “your grandmother”. People knew how to eat well long before they knew what an antioxidant was. They simply passed down their wisdom of how to eat.” (Pollan)

Pollan went on to list a few cultural nuggets of wisdom, from his crowd-sourced book Food Rules: 

  • “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.”
  • “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
  • “If your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, it’s probably not food.” (but likely an edible food-like substance)
  • “Shop the peripheries of the store – where all the fresh produce and meats are.” (in contrast to the central isles, where all the processed junk sits)
  • “Anything that won’t eventually rot is likely not food.”
  • “Eat until you’re 80% full.”
  • “Eat with other people – not while you’re by yourself (or in the car).”
  • “Use small plates to control your portions – it’s called ‘unit bias.’ “
  • “Change your philosophy from ‘eating till you’re full,’ to just ‘eating till you’re satisfied.’ “

Pollan ended with a discussion of the impact of our food decisions not only on our health, but also on our environment. When we buy processed foods, we support monoculture (farming of commodity crops like corn and soy), which increases the need for pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and water usage – creating a huge energy deficit. Eating from diversified food chains, as much as possible produced locally, encourages biodynamic farming which depends on available resources that work harmoniously with nature. In that way, Pollan describes “eating as an agricultural act.”

Vote with your forks, three times a day! Embrace cooking from scratch using real ingredients, and consult with your grandparents, mothers, aunts and traditional food enthusiasts in your community in order to reclaim the once-prized art of learning to sustain ourselves.

Traditional_Moroccan_diet
Traditional Moroccan dishes, made with unprocessed, fresh ingredients

I left the talk feeling both giddy and moved to act at the same time. I was glad that I was contributing, even if only on a small scale, to the world of traditional eating, through this growing food community focused on Middle Eastern food, midEATS. After I interviewed my grandparents and learned about their food experiences growing up, I knew in my heart that I had to share this with the world. We cannot forget our food culture and traditions. Thank you, Michael Pollan, for reminding us of how important that is.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this Heba! Now that I’m a mom, I feel it’s even more important to develop healthier eating AND cooking habits so that I am feeding my son properly and teaching him these same habits from an early age.

    • Thanks for your comments, ladies. I wish you both could have listened to the talk (I’ll try to find an online source and post it here if I do). I know that sometimes, it’s very discouraging to see the world headed in such an unhealthy direction overall … but there are pockets of sunshine when you also see the local, organic foods segment flourishing all over the world. For a lot of the people who choose unhealthy, fast food, they’re just misinformed about the importance of cooking from scratch … that’s why we gotta preach it to all who want to listen! 😉

  2. Heba this is a wonderful post. I wish I could have joined you at the talk. This is what the world needs to hear. It is so frustrating that people are so deaf and blind when it comes to food. It is frustrating to me that people don’t care enough about themselves or their children to eat well. What does this say about society?

  3. Excellent review, Heba! You captured the basic essence of his talk perfectly. I think the message was pretty clear – use your brain and culinary knowledge from your culture to make educated food choices – not targeted marketing printed on packages. Like the pretty Dannon yogurt boxes with “Probiotics” and “Vitamins A & D”!

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