Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Michael Pollan at Butler University

Yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a talk given by Michael Pollan. Butler University seeks out a wide spectrum of speakers and tends to be fairly progressive in the topics they cover. Their invitation to Michael Pollan is pushing the envelope a bit since Indiana is famous for its monocropping and produces massive quantities of two of the four "evils" described in Omnivore's Dilemma, corn and soy.

Being that I read widely in the world of food blogs, I have run into many reviews of Pollan's books and even more discussions of the concepts that are highlighted in his popular texts. It seems that even people who did not read his books have been influenced by the ideas that the media has gathered from his work. I attribute the popularity of the recent revision of the Farm Bill to the ideas regarding food sources and consumption that Pollan espouses in his journalism.

I , however, have not yet read his works. I am a second-hand Pollanite. I get the ideas from other sources, like the plethora of food blogs and I adopt them, or dont, based on how well it fits with my own concept of eating and the importance of food to my life. Because the majority of my understanding of Pollan's work comes from second-hand sources, I was pleased to finally be getting the information straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Also, because I hadn't read his books, I was more open-minded about the messages he spoke about and less disappointed that he didnt go into such-and-such topic or that he didnt bring anything new to the table.

As far as his speech went, he didnt say anything that I hadnt heard previously (which means that food bloggers have been appropriately distributing his message) but the language he used was clever, intelligent, and produced clear visual images for me which helped to drive home his food concepts.

He began by talking about this nation's ideology of food, which he calls Nutritionism. The basic idea is that in this country food is nothing more than the sum of its nutritional parts. He commented that no where else in our day do we ever use so much biochemistry as we do when we are trying to decide what we should or should not eat. Because the calculations based on this biochemistry are often over our heads, we must rely on experts, nutritionists, to tell us how we should eat. Pollan calls this group of experts the Priesthood of our food ideology. As most ideologies do, our Nutritionism divides things into a dichotomy of good and evil. There are evil nutrients and good nutrients and these, he reminds us, change according the the information thats available at the time. Previously the evil was protein, now its fat, and the new-comer trend is the fight to rid our diet of processed carbohydrates. The good nutrient used to be fiber, as it was thought to prevent cancer and a plethora of other conditions. Now the magic nutrient is Omega-3 fatty acids.

The fourth premise of Nutritionism is that the whole purpose of eating is to maintain our health. The ideology of Nutritionism began in the late 70's and since then, people have actually been getting less healthy due to the diet they have adopted. One of the primary problems with this ideology is that it is not based on solid science and that the science of nutrition is "where the field of surgery was in the 1640's." There is lots of potential but we dont really want to be the guinea pigs! One example Pollan uses to highlight this point is that of margarine. At one time the experts thought that saturated fats were bad for you (and we still are not certain where they stand on the 'real' scale of good and evil), and so margarine was introduced as a substitute for butter. Unfortunately, margarine happens to contain trans fats which we DO know are worse for you that saturated fats may potentially be.

All of the above is apparently discussed in Omnivore's Dilemma. In response to people becoming discouraged about food, Pollan has authored In Defense of Food and offers solutions on how to eat. He discussed several during the talk including "dont eat anything your great-grandmother wouldnt recognize as food" and "dont eat anything that wont rot eventually," if bacteria dont want it, neither should you. He suggests shopping the periphery of the grocery store if you cannot get your items from farmers markets or local, family-run stores. He also hints at adopting a new food culture, one that places more emphasis on the act of eating rather than the nutrients the food contains. He recommends slowing down when you eat, eating at a table, and sharing food with others.

Pollan warns that eating less processed foods will be more expensive than buying the pre-made and pre-packaged food items and that more time will need to be invested in food preparation. There is no solution to this spent money and time other than we will probably regain both due to good health. In essence, because we are healthy we will spend less on health care and will spend less time ill. Pollan says that this new food movement is currently an elite endeavor; however, I am a graduate student on a very small income and I can still manage to buy fresh produce and locally made products. There is a trade-off to be sure. Some people do not want to trade their up-graded cell phone plan for locally grown broccoli...

I was happy to hear most of what he said. It confirmed that ow I was eating was on the right track. While I am not able to find local products to substitute grocery store brands year round, I am conscious of the foods I do buy and purchase local produce whenever possible. I also tend to read package labels and do not buy items with ingredients that I cannot pronounce. I also try to eat most foods in moderation, almost never go back for seconds, and incorporate a variety of foods into my weekly diet.

I used to complain about the types of produce I could get my hands on here in Lafayette, assuming that things were better for me in California. I still balk at the high price of citrus (80 cents for a lemon), something that just doesnt grow locally, though recently I have come to find a multitude of local gems. There is a wine and cheese shop that sells local dairy products such as milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese. Purdue also has a butcher shop on campus that sells meat from freshly butchered animals though the cuts of meat might not be exact. Several vendors from the seasonal farmers market have an online shop where they make winter goods available and sell locally laid eggs.

I suppose the concept that I am trying to impart is that eating fresh foods that havent been touched by many hands is possible in even the most remote locations. It may take some research and may involve actually talking to local store owners, but the leg work is worthwhile.


Beverly said...

Phew! It sounds like the way I've always eaten is pretty much on track. I had no doubt that the way YOU eat is on track. You always seek out good ingredients and make good food. In general I kind of roll my eyes on books or people telling you how to eat. I kind of think that eating is a basic necessity of life, and our tastest naturally guide us to what we need to stay alive. Sure, it's good to have guidelines, like "Spinach is a super food because it contains antioxidants" and "Did you know tomatoes can fight cancer?", but too often people go overboard only to find out that their new "health obsession" was bad for them (like your margarine example -- classic!). I do think that a lot of people in the U.S. have horrible eating habits, and that can probably be partially resolved if they would just buy fresh, local ingredients -- then they would realize that unprocessed food DOES taste good!

I do have to say, though, that I'm not sure some families CAN afford to buy the fresh ingredients. Sure, their good health would make up for the time and money it requires, but some families really don't have the money to begin with. It's amazing that you, as a grad student, can make the time and budget appropriately for healthy eating (a great investment!), but then again you are starting at a certain economic level. Even when you and I are "broke," we're not truly broke, do you know what I mean? We probably mean that we can't afford to run out and buy a new outfit or buy an extravagant dinner at a restaurant, but we can probably afford to go to Trader Joe's or the local farmer's market. My question is (and it's not to you, it's just a general question), what about the families who are on WIC? I can't deny that even at my local junky Albertson's, the produce (even on sale, even when it's the Preferred Card savings) can be way more expensive than the Hamburger Helper. Or at the weekly Farmer's Market, when three pints of strawberries costs $5? Meanwhile, Top Ramen is like 10 for $1 or something ridiculous like that. I just wish what's around the periphery of the store is as affordable as some of the junk that's in the interior of the store.

Sarah C. said...

Beverly, I would generally agree with you regarding the fact that often the food that is worst for you is the cheapest available. I would argue though that people who eat top ramen probably dont feel full because they arent getting the important ingredients that your body craves. Personally, I know that I can easily eat 3 packages of ramen (and have) without putting a dent in my hunger. I, however, dont feel that same pang after I eat some lentils. Lentils are around a buck a bag too and one bag makes more than one meal.

B-Ring said...

Hi Sarah. cool site. glad to see that someone got to go hear Michael Pollan speak. Omnivores Dilemna is just being discussed on another site by a local plant breeder that got his master's degree studying quinoa. http://graduategrumblings.blogspot.com/