In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan - with video interviews

The myth of nutrition and the pleasures of eating

By Robyn Lewis
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In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan

In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan [©Penguin Books (Australia 2009)]


Twenty-something years ago, Michael Pollan was a New York journalist. Now there are people saying he should be appointed as the US Secretary for Agriculture – although not the sugar or corn lobbies. Why? And what does he have to do with you?

In the intervening years, Pollan has explored and written about the relationship between humans and nature in various interfaces: gardens, architecture, drugs, and increasingly in food and agriculture. Along the way he has learnt much.

His previous books included Second Nature, The Botany of Desire – about leaving New York City with his wife to live in an abandoned dairy farm, where they created a garden and discovered natural history first-hand (which is about to screen on public TV) – and more recently The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the impact of our current agricultural systems on the environment. This was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

So when In Defence of Food is published, anyone with even the slightest interest in what they put into their mouths should take notice.

The book starts where The Omnivores’ Dilemma left off, addressing in more practical terms where you food comes from, what it does to you, and what you can do about it. Questions like ‘is free range really good enough?’ (for you and the chicken), is low-fat milk actually better for you? and what is the impact on your health of grain-fed beef? are given full treatment.

It’s only recently been released in Australia, having hit the shelves in the USA in 2008 in hardcover and earlier this year in softcover, where is it subtitled The Eaters’ Manifesto. Already there are around 300 reviews on, the vast majority positive. As one reviewer says: 'Care for your family? Want to live long and well? This is required reading.’

Firstly, what is ‘the myth of nutrition’? Pollan thinks that the problem starts with the nutrient, and in particular scientists studying food one nutrient at a time, a practice that has been going on since the discovery of vitamins in the early twentieth century. The term ‘nutritionism’ was coined by an Australian writer Gyorgy Scrinis in 2002, to whom it summed up a widespread ideological belief that food is no more than the sum of its constituent chemicals: nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins (and since the 1920s) minerals and vitamins.

To Pollan, the problem seems to have been caused in part by the fact that our understanding of what these nutrients are is still very incomplete and evolving. Take baby milk formula for example – when first invented, it caused malnutrition, because several key vitamins (then undiscovered) were missing. Even today ‘breast is best’, because despite all the money and research, we still can't replicate human milk composition – let alone that of more 'complex' foods such as fruit, for example.

Nutritionism is therefore the belief, largely unexamined and unquestioned by most of the population, that not only can food be divided into its simple nutrients, but taking this another step (usually made by marketers - of processed food, supplements or medicines) that some nutrients are good for you, and others bad – and thus, that some foods are good, and some bad. If only it were that simple.

On this basic assumption and great leap of logic rest entire industries and organizations promoting or railing against various diets, food supplements, cholesterol, butter, margarine, omega three oils, trans fats and more – Pollan looks at them one by one, chronicling the fads’ rises and falls, and their replacement by The Next Big Thing.

He then turns his razor-sharp gaze to the Western diet. There seems little doubt that the post World War II rises in obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and related diseases are correlated in some way with the modern Western lifestyle. However, opinions vary as to causes.

Pollan’s finger first points to refined foods, including white flour and sugar, the latter famously described back in 1973 as 'a second rate food … and a third rate poison', by none other than the then Australian Minister for Health, Dr John Everingham (who naturally then fell foul of the sugar industry lobby), but who was backed by an English professor of nutrition, John Yudkin, who claimed in his book Pure, White and Deadly that sugar was a contributing factor to heart attacks. But is it sugar per se or the fact that it now provides 20% of the average American’s calories, up from 13% in the early 1900s?

We’ve moved on since then, and just as with nutritionism, in 2009 we realise we can’t examine the causes of such complex changes in disease patterns in isolation from lifestyle (less exercise, changing work practices and family structures), the environment (pollution), agricultural practices (chemical fertilizers, insecticides) and in particular what Pollan calls the industrialization of the human food chain.

Firstly, we eat more grain than we used to, and so do our livestock. It started with multigrain bread as an antidote to white sliced and is now ‘with 5 added grains including pumpkin seeds and amaranth’ – so pervasive are grains and the assumption that they are good for us that we immediately view them with haloes….  it’s nutritionism all over again.

More seeds are however often at the expense of leafy vegetables, and for the producers of our milk supply, our cows now eat less grass. Is grain-fed better for you? You probably won’t think so – or at least you’ll be asking the question – after you read this book. Pollan links these changes to a decrease in omega-3’s (good) and an increase in omega-6’s (bad) – and it’s rather telling that you have to read it in these (nutritionist) terms to really accept the argument.

In other words, most food is made in a production line now. Then there’s fast food, snacking, pre-prepared meals and the move away from families eating together, or even eating at the table – the list of potential culprits goes on. But the fact that most modern-day Americans are at once overfed and undernourished remains, and that much of the rest of the Western world is rapidly following suit. And that something must be done, lest our bodies and already overburdened health systems collapse.

Pollan concludes this book with some positive guidelines, and it’s here we remember that the other part of the subtitle is The Pleasures of Eating. It’s about ‘escaping from the Western (processed food) diet’:

Eating meals (as opposed to things in packets), together with friends and family. Eating slowly, enjoying food more, and yes even with the odd glass of wine. Eating more leafy plants, and – if you eat meat or fish – thinking about what they eat, too. (In America: corn, unsold candy and their pulverized siblings, according to Pollan). Cook, and if you can, plant a garden. Don’t overeat – do as the French do and don’t have seconds. And one I particularly like ‘don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does’.

His call to action returns to his opening phrase:  ‘Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants’ and by the time you’ve read his book, not only will you understand what he means, but you’ll have the tools to put it into practice. As one Amazon reviewer said, it’s ‘a program I actually want to follow’.


In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan is published by Penguin Books (Australia), 2009. RRP A$32.95. First published in the USA and UK in 2008. and WInepros Archive subscribers and Members can purchase In Defence of Food from our bookpartners Seekbooks at 12.5% off RRP (postage extra) or from below.




Listen to Michael Pollan talk about his new book in this four videos interviews with Deborah Kane of Ecotrust:




Video 2:



Video 3:



Video 4:



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