the kitchen reader: in defense of food

by Stacy

This post should have gone up on July 31 except that I totally forgot to write and post it. Here it is!

July’s selection for the Kitchen Reader was chosen by Margaret of Tea and Scones. She selected In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan.

A few years ago I actually chose and read this book for my book club in Minnesota and really enjoyed it. However, I don’t own it and always get the contents confused with another good Pollan book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan is a supporter of the Slow Food (as opposed to fast food) movement and is featured in the movie Food, Inc. and many other books about local, seasonal, sustainable food.

If the reader is to absorb anything from this book, it should be seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Pollan argues against nutrition science which studies nutrients in isolation as opposed to as whole foods as a way for food manufacturers to make false health claims. He touts following a few simple rules for eating, such as:

Eat food. Not food products. Things that are grown, not manufactured.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. This is not a semantic argument about your Norwegian ancestors not knowing what a mango is, this applies to things like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Avoid food products with more than 5 ingredients or ingredients you can’t pronounce. If it’s got that many syllables, it’s a chemical, not a food. And this doesn’t mean homemade dishes with multiple ingredients, it’s talking about shelf-stable food with added salt and stabilizers.

Avoid food products that make health claims. Drugs need government approval to make health claims, foods do not. Check your cereal box (a common offender). It may cite a study which supports the claim that it reduces your risk of heart disease, but you may want to find out who funded that study.

Shop the periphery of the grocery store. The outside edge of the grocery store tends to have produce, bulk bins, dairy, meat and fish counters, and the bakery. The inside aisles often have cereal, snacks, soda, and candy. Never entering the middle aisles make it easier to resist.

Get out of the grocery store. Pollan suggests shopping at farmer’s markets or specialty shops for better quality, sustainable, seasonal foods. Can’t argue there.

Are there flaws with some of Pollan’s arguments? Of course. Many accuse him of being elitist (see a recent article where he touts paying $8 for a dozen eggs) and advocating a diet which is unattainable and too expensive for many people. Like Food Matters by Mark Bittman I still think the basic information is valid even without directly addressing socioeconomic issues. One of the other main points of the book is that “cheap” food isn’t actually cheap, it’s a subsidized commodity which keeps prices artificially low which is bad for farmers and farm workers as well as people’s health.

I highly recommend reading this book for an eye-opening look at our food system. For a concise version, Pollan also wrote Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a slim volume featuring 64 rules that flesh out specifics of “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”

Have you read In Defense of Food or another Pollan book? What did you think?

For other opinions check out the blogroll at The Kitchen Reader for more reviews.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate August 10, 2010 at 8:57 am

I read this book a few weeks ago, it had been on my wishlist for a long time, I was so excited to finally be able to read it! A few thoughts:
1. I will never again be able to buy a loaf of bread without reading the ingredients label.
2. My husband and I have always thought ourselves to be the kinds of eaters / cooks who follow his general guidelines, even before reading his book. But this book absolutely convinced me to shop differently…to change our menus and look into buying not just whole foods, but organic foods and trying to widen our range of ingredient diversity.
3. Since shopping at our co-op we are spending less to feed 3 people than we used to for 2 people at our chain grocery store…I was surprised at how much more affordable it was than I originally thought and is making me re-think the elitist claims that are often thrown at him. I think it’s a matter of better planning, better portions and being less wasteful with our food. I’ve also lost some weight, yay!
4. He says to be weary of foods that make health claims. It seems that nearly ALL of the fancy organic foods in our co-op make some kind of health claim..there is no avoiding it.
5. My husband and I want to grow some purslane – I look for it everywhere when we go for walks now!


Stacy August 14, 2010 at 11:06 pm

It’s amazing how much impact some simple information can have. I agree about the co-op shopping being much cheaper than you might think.

I think there’s an increase right now of health claims on non-processed foods (“Get your antioxidants! Buy blueberries!”) to increase in-store sales in addition to the common cereal box claims that are just getting more outlandish.

Have you seen Food, Inc? After reading Pollan’s books I wasn’t as surprised, but my husband was suitably impressed by the movie.


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