Michael Pollan, Natural Products Expo West's keynote speaker, is a professor of journalism at the University of California-Berkeley and author of several best-selling books, including The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, 2006) and the new In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin Press, 2008).
NFM recently interviewed Pollan about the role of food in American lives.
NFM: In the broadest sense, what does it mean to "reclaim our health and happiness as eaters"—in terms of the food on our table, the way the food industry works, and in terms of agricultural policy?
Michael Pollan: It means a lot of different things. I think it means relaxing around food a little and not being overly influenced by the latest nutritional science, not subject to the ever-changing conventional wisdom about this good nutrient or this evil nutrient. This approach has hurt us in a lot of ways. It's taken a lot of pleasure out of eating. It's made us feel that we're relying on a class of experts to know what to eat, and we don't need all that. We need to trust our instincts a little bit better, trust the instincts of other species that are in our food system, and take back control from the food industry, which is very happy to have us think that things are really complicated and only experts and food scientists can feed us.
There is this idea that you really have to understand nutrition and science in order to eat well, that you have to know what an antioxidant is. Well, people have eaten perfectly well and been perfectly healthy for thousands of years without knowing what an antioxidant is. If you eat real food, you're going to be fine.
NFM: How did we get from talking about foods to talking about nutrients? How did we end up ceding control to scientists?
Pollan: One of the things I was surprised to learn is that the whole idea of a scientific way of eating is an old idea in America. It goes back to the late 1800s. We've been elevating science as a principle of eating for a very long time. More recently, I think nutritionism has triumphed because it serves the interests of so many different constituencies in the food world. The scientists like it because that's how they think, in terms of individual nutrients. They need a variable they can isolate and measure and test. The manufacturers like it because every new theory of nutrition is an opportunity to re-engineer the food supply and come up with foods that would appear to be even better than nature's foods. And the journalists like it because it's a constant supply of news. Nutritionism is a wonderful thing for the food industry, and to the extent that it makes you believe you need experts and scientists, it makes processed foods look a lot better and more sophisticated then something as old-fashioned as an apple.
NFM: You mention in your new book that the French spend more time eating and enjoy it more while consuming fewer calories than Americans do.
Pollan: That's right. If you read 19th-century accounts of how we ate, it's a lot like how we eat today, which is to say, huge quantities really fast. We were known for pigging out at the table and eating very thoughtlessly. Slowing down and enjoying a meal has never been an American trait. We have to build a food culture from the bottom up, but as we've done in so many aspects of our culture, we can borrow and steal from other cultures that have figured it out. And the French are an interesting model because we're always looking at them in terms of the French Paradox: How can these people eat such unhealthy foods and be so much healthier than we are?
One of the things people overlook is it's not just the wine or the cheese or the foie gras, it's really these cultural habits, such as eating very slowly, eating in groups, their ability to get a lot of food experience out of a lesser amount of food. I think that's a very interesting idea, because it is experience that we're looking for as much as calories. If there's a way to eat where you can get more food experience on less food, that sounds like a very good way to go. Food is not fuel, but Americans act as if food is fuel very often.
NFM: How does the natural products industry play into this idea of spending more time with food, of eating better food, of spending more for higher-quality food?
Pollan: One of my rules is pay more and eat less. Selling quality rather than quantity is a very important premise. We're going to have to learn—and many of us are beginning to—that the really good-quality food is something worth paying more for, and that striving for excellence instead of abundance is a worthy goal. For some reason, many Americans feel they have a right to very cheap food, and that there is no difference between an egg that comes out of an industrial factory farm and an egg that's grown with care by a small farmer because they look the same. But of course they're substantially different things.
Our whole food system has been based on quantity rather than quality. Our subsidies are based on quantity, our marketing is based on quantity. You look at the ads for most foods in the supermarket, and the main thing they're promoting is not the quality of the food but the price. The natural foods industry has the potential to lead the way toward another way of thinking about food.
But there are negative things in the natural foods industry, too. There's a lot of money made on snack foods and convenience foods. One of the rules in my book is: If you want to be able to tell the food from the edible food-like substances, look at the number of ingredients. If there are more than five, or if there are ingredients you don't recognize or can't pronounce, then you should assume it's something other than real food.
NFM: Twenty years ago, it was very rare to find a natural products store selling meats; now you see it all the time. Do you believe that meat can be sustainably produced?
Pollan: Yes—not only sustainably, but compassionately. There is industrial meat and there is another kind of meat, and increasingly people are recognizing that there's a way to eat meat that is good for your health and good for the health of the land and good for the welfare of the animals, and that's a very encouraging development. It's still a very small market, and most of the meat on offer in America is still factory-farmed meat that takes an enormous toll on the environment.
Pastured-livestock products, whether it's beef or milk or eggs, turn out to be really healthy animal protein, and in many places it's the most sustainable food chain you can design. If you take the example of grass-fed beef: The sun feeds the grass, and the grass feeds the ruminants and the ruminants feed us. We can't eat grass, so it's not like the animals are competing with us for food we could be eating, as is true when they're eating grain. In the process, if you're grazing properly, you're actually building soil as you're taking food off that land. It's a win-win; it's a non-zero-sum way of getting protein off the land. It's still a tiny segment of the meat industry, but it's growing, and it needs to be supported by natural foods retailers.
NFM: On the issue of fat, the scientists have been so wrong so many times it's mind-boggling. How should people approach this loaded issue?
Pollan: First of all, we're learning that you can't generalize about fats. There are some very good fats and there are some less-good fats. The really bad fats are the ones we invented, which is to say hydrogenated oils. We invented those to replace supposedly bad fats like saturated fats. Saturated fat still has a negative image, but I can see even that changing in time. Fat is not a monolith. It's not to be demonized. It's a critical nutrient. Our brains are 60 [percent] to 70 percent fat. The problem with fat will always be that it's the same word for the nutrient as it is for the stuff on our bodies that we want to get rid of. If fats were generally known as lipids instead, it would be much to the good because we could learn to like lipids. We would do well to worry a little less about fats and enjoy them more. There are low-fat products that are probably less healthy for various reasons because of all the adulteration going on than the full-fat version. The best thing to do is eat less of the full-fat version and enjoy it.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 26,28