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Book review: In Defense Of Food November 12, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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I’m cheating a bit by posting a review of Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, on this blog. The book doesn’t focus on food ethics, but is mostly a commentary on food history and culture, so its topic is tangential to mine. But it’s Michael Pollan, so I can’t resist at least giving it a mention (insert sheepish shrug).

Pollan kicks off IDOF with an attack on nutritionism, the notion that we can explain everything important about food in terms of its component nutrients. The arrogant assumption accompanying nutritionism is that scientists can create a comprehensive list of everything human health requires and then engineer foods – or processed food-like substances – that deliver them to us, thereby making and keeping us healthy. Pollan lays bare the sad history of scientists’ attempts to do so, culminating in the advice to avoid fat and cholesterol that has so influenced the American diet over the past 30 years and is in the process of being debunked. He follows that up with a discussion of the current western diet and its links to the western diseases: heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. And finally, he gives some advice for how we should eat instead.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan proves himself a lyrical writer capable of evoking the misery of the feedlot or the electricity of the hunt, but in IDOF he is best when he sticks to pure journalism, as when he reveals the absurdity of the scientific community’s reliance on a couple of obviously flawed studies to shape Americans’ eating habits for generations. He anticipates and convincingly deflects challenges, like the oft-heard proposal that we are only seeing more cases of heart disease and cancer because health care advances cause people to live longer, and older. (As Pollan points out, life expectancy has mostly increased because infant and childhood death rates have dropped, not because people who would have died at 50 are now living to 70 and getting cancer in their old age.) He takes the care to document evidence that lazier writers merely gesture at – for example, the studies that show that conventional produce is becoming less nutritious over time.

One does get the feeling that his huge success has taken a small toll on the quality of his writing. Pollan has a few shrill or self-indulgent moments, which I haven’t noticed in his previous work. (Do we really need to be prodded along with “Say what?” (p. 43) and “Do I need to go on?” (p. 189) to appreciate Pollan’s points?) Also, his closing advice on how to eat needs more thought. He wants us to embrace a traditional food culture, but also to eat healthily, and is thrown off by cases in which those two ideals conflict, as they may in his own traditional Eastern European Jewish diet. Still, if you’re interested in the topic, he is the one to read.

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