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Book Review: In Defense of Food
Enuja, Inkscape

Pollan, Michael.  2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. The Penguin Press, New York.

After writing Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan got a lot of fans asking him “What should I eat?” His answer is this book, summarized as “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I enjoyed reading this book. But I'm not entirely convinced by it. Some writers have accused Michael Pollan of being anti-science, both in general and about this book in particular, and they've got a point. I honestly don't think Michael Pollan is, personally, anti-science, but I think he tends to get carried away with his point of view, and I don't think he's a very good scientist. Which is a bad thing for a science writer, which he kinda sorta sometimes pretends to be. And it's also a bad thing for any popularizer of ideas, which he most certainly is, and is trying to be. I think the origin of Michael Pollan's science problem is two fold; he isn't a particularly skeptical thinker, and he doesn't do a great job at fighting the human bias towards essentialism,  particularly the bias that natural is automatically good.

Pollan talks a lot about mothers. In the introduction, he tells the reader that what his grandmother fed his mother is completely different from what his mother fed him, which is completely different from what he, and his mother, eat now. And, in the interest of defining what “food” is (as opposed to “edible foodlike substances”), Pollan tells us that food is what your great grandmother would recognize as food. While he is completely correct that food cultures have historically solved the problem of what to eat, there is absolutely no reason for him to focus on mothers and grandmothers. It's partly his essentialism and naturalism, and that he lives in a culture in which he perceives mothers to be the ones who guide short term food choices, so he figures that that's always been the case. But the broad cultural wisdom of what is food and what is not food is not limited to a particular gender or a particular child rearing role. And Pollan’s exclusive rhetorical use of mothers as the original and proper cultural decision-makers about food really rubs me the wrong way.

Another big problem with this book is Pollan’s approach to human body fat. He thinks fat is bad, and in large part caused by how much and what we eat. I am not willing to accept either of those as givens. They aren't particularly science-based, they aren't defended (simply assumed), and they make this book quite the fat shaming mine field. In fact, the fat shaming alone is quite a good reason not to read this book.

In addition to the grandmother rule, in order to decide what is “food” what is not, Pollan tells us to “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high fructose corn syrup.” This rule attracted much of the ire about Pollan being anti-science, because familiarity and pronounceability are effects of education. I took organic chemistry, I can pronounce all of those “unpronounceables” words, even when I have no idea what they are. And many people are very familiar with all those “unfamiliar” food additives. In the sentence directly after this rule, Pollan argues that none of these points, by themselves, make food unhealthy, but that all of these are diagnostic features of designed food products, which are not real food, and, in Pollan’s opinion, not likely to be good for you. So it’s not quite as anti-science as it looks on the face of the it; Pollan isn’t saying that things have to be accessible to the uneducated in order to be healthy. But it’s easy to get carried away (and unscientific) with the additive hate, and things Pollan has said in interviews certainly cross that line.

It is true that historic foodways have been tested by culture, and (mostly) only contain stuff that works for humans. So, yes, new foods are riskier than old foods. And the health of individual processed foods, whose ingredients change with faddish whims and exaggerated certainty from new studies and new products in the active and difficult field of nutrition science, can change without any obvious signs on the package.

But Michael Pollan reacts differently to different new foods, because of his biases, not because of science. For example, he is very skeptical of the health of processed food, but not about the health of frozen food, which is interesting because home freezers and microwaves are newer than canned and otherwise processed food. I agree with him, but I've got to admit that this is, again, not about the evidence. And Pollan even champions new foods in this book: one of his food rules is “eat like an omnivore,” which he expands by saying that we should add new species to our diets. That sounds like rapid change, and therefore risk, to me! Of course, it’s likely that all the the “new” species anyone reading his book is adding to their diet are species traditionally eaten by some human culture. But, still. Pollan really treats different change differently.

Which really brings me to the basic problem I have with this book: it’s a biased, faddish, follow up to Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was about the economic, ethical, and land use consequences of our current food system. Pollan writes here in In Defense of Food “I’ve found that, in most but not all cases, the best ethical and environmental choices also happen to be the best choices for our health--very good news indeed.” I’m deeply skeptical of that claim, and reading this book didn’t convince me.

Pollan spends a lot of time criticizing “Nutritionism,” and I’m actually on board with that criticism. Science, especially the science of diets, is very difficult. In food, when you think you’re isolating one variable, you usually aren’t. And, of course, interactions between foods and our bodies are incredibly complex. So “isolating” one “nutrient,” or even a food, and stating a health claim for it, is usually highly misleading. But the solution to this is to be skeptical of single studies, and to do better, longer term studies on whole diets. The solution is not to dismiss all food science. And I don’t think that Pollan really believes that food and health science are useless. But, as he’s simplifying his book in interviews, and as people are reading this book with their own biases, I think it’s very easy to come to anti-science conclusions. No, science does not solve all our problems or have answers to all of our questions. It’s just a process. A long, difficult, complicated, worthwhile process, which has the trend of eventually producing true knowledge. A criticism of “nutritionism” could very easily become a resounding defense of science as a valuable process, but that’s not what this book is.

I'm glad I read this book, because I'm glad I know Pollan's arguments, and therefore which to support and which to push back against. But, unless you're getting into disagreements with people who've swallowed Pollan hook, line, and sinker (which might actually be a fairly large category), I don't think that reading this book is a particularly good idea.


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