Friday, 6 January 2012

Cannonball read #02: In defence of food by Michael Pollan

My mum taught me to avoid processed food. With the exception of pasta and rice, which we didn't eat that much of when I was growing up, everything else on our table was cooked from scratch and with in-season ingredients that were usually bought at the local street market.

Since I moved away, processed food has slowly gained more and more space in our fridge and pantry. Not that J and I buy take-away and frozen pizzas that often; but carbs are a staple of our diet, a common ground that he (an omnivore) and I (a vegetarian) can agree on, so that we can eat our meals together.

Michael Pollan's book was an important reminder of what my mum taught me all those years ago: eat food (real food). Not too much. Mainly plants. It's a simple lesson, one that should be obvious – humankind survived by following these rules for thousands of years. Yet, the past few decades, heart related and other diseases have increased dramatically in the Western World. Pollan thinks that processed food is to blame, partly because of the amount of junk that it contains, and partly because of all the nutrients that it doesn't contain, thanks to processing and bad science. He supports this thesis by providing research evidence of indigenous populations with a previously clean bill of health getting sick as soon as they abandon their traditional diets and replace them with bad Western habits.

Although I found him repetitive at times, Pollan really drives his point across. He writes in a manner that is easy to understand, and his Don Quixotic crusade against the food industry giants makes him sympathetic to the reader. You wouldn't exactly call him objective on the matter, but then again he's not trying to be. Unlike his ”Omnivore's dilemma”, where he succeeded in advocating for a more plant-based diet without coming across like a rabid environmentalist, ”In defence of food” can at times feel like a personal vendetta. Not that it's a bad thing; the ideal world according to Pollan is a world where families gather around for a healthy meal every day to form strong bonds and bodies. And that's not a bad world to live in.


  1. I have read both of those and really enjoyed them both. I think he has exposed some of the more shocking parts of the american food industry (things like how much power the sugar farmers have over the government) which do not happen over here. But I think the basic message is just so important. There is no "perfect" diet- compare indigenous people form the arctic eating mostly meat to naturally vegetarian diets- as omnivores we are adaptable, but you are right it is the processed foods that mess us up (not sure if it was that book or the other one that had a study about Australian natives having all sorts of diseases once they were introduced to a western diet. Plus all the stuff about how we didn't even know about vitamins until recently, and now we are discovering anti-oxidants- what else lurks in natural foods that we need but do not know about.

  2. It was in this one he talked about that study. What I found most intriguing was how isolating the nutrients seems to take away their positive effects. I love the "holistic" approach - just eat real and varied food and you'll be fine!

    Like he says, it all boils down to money. Sell the idea that isolated nutrients are good for you, put them in a nice package and charge extra for them. Much sexier than to just tell people to eat an apple ;)