Minutiae, pages 85-158

Here’s another weekly list of things so minor that you probably don’t care about them unless you happen to be editing a new edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Pollan’s publisher. I’ll have at least one more substantial post to write on these pages, too, but that’s going to take a bit more work.

  • Pollan writes, “Corn syrup (which is mostly glucose or dextrose—the terms are interchangeable) became the first cheap domestic substitute for cane sugar” (88). It’s not quite correct to say that the terms glucose and dextrose are interchangeable. Dextrose is the most common form of glucose.
  • Pollan explains the concept of natural flavorings: “‘Natural raspberry flavor’ doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may well have been derived from corn, just not from something synthetic” (98). I didn’t really like this because what does it mean to come from “something synthetic”? If you trace any ingredient far enough back, you’ll necessarily find materials that were found in nature (at least if you’re willing to consider oil natural in the sense that humans didn’t make it). So what exactly do to something before we have to consider it synthetic?  For purposes of food labels, here’s how the FDA defines a natural flavor :

    The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

    Rather than by defining natural as the absence of “synthetic” materials, the FDA defines it in terms of a few starting materials and processes that can be used.

  • I found the following seemingly innocent paragraph to be slightly irksome:

    Since 1985, an American’s annual consumption of HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] has gone from forty-five pounds to sixty-six pounds. You might think that this growth would have been offset by a decline in sugar consumption, since HFCS often replaces sugar, but that didn’t happen: During the same period our consumption of refined sugar actually went up by five pounds. What this means is that we’re eating and drinking all that high-fructose corn syrup on top of the sugars we were already consuming. In fact, since 1985 our consumption of all added sugars—cane, beet, HFCS, glucose, honey, maple syrup, whatever—has climbed from 128 pounds to 158 pounds per person. (104)

    My objection is a subtle point relating to the way the sweeteners are measured. Pollan tells us that our total consumption of added sugars has increased by 30 pounds. It’s not exactly clear what this means. Is Pollan talking about the weight of sugar in added sweeteners or the total weight of the sweeteners? The difference is particularly significant because we’re considering both solid and liquid sweeteners. For example, 128 pounds of cane sugar actually contains more sugar than 158 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup (which is twenty-four percent water by weight). The meaningful number to consider would be the amouont of sugar in added sweeteners, and one might guess that this is what Pollan is using when he refers to “our consumption of all added sugars.” However, in the first sentence I’ve quoted, he refers to the weight of HFCS (and not of sugar in HFCS), which makes me think he’s referring to the latter. I think the point he’s trying to make here is probably a valid one, but I wish he’d express it more precisely (or at least offer a citation so that the interested reader can figure out what’s going on).

  • Pollan reports some results from a study:

    A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the “energy cost” of different foods in the supermarket. The researchers found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies; spent on a whole food like carrots, the same dollar buys only 250 calories. (107)

    This strikes me as a misleading comparison because the chosen whole food, carrots, is not energy dense and is thus typically not consumed for the calories. When people eat carrots, it’s rarely for the calories. You have to eat a lot of carrots to get a good number of calories, and that’s a fact that has nothing to do with price. Offhand, I can think of at least one whole food, sunflower seeds, which provide calories about as cheaply as potato chips or cookies. I’ll usually buy organic sunflower seeds for $2.39 per pound. Sunflower seeds contain 584 calories per hundred grams, which comes out to 1109 calories per dollar. That number would be larger if the sunflower seeds, like the junk food, were not organic.

  • Pollan tells us, “What it has done, of course, is to sell an awful lot of chicken for companies like Tyson, which invented the nugget—at McDonald’s behest—in 1983” (114). In fact, the nugget was invented in the 1950s, well before McDonald’s introduced the McNugget.
  • Pollan writes, “I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds of corn for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat)” (115). Based on these numbers, I calculate that the quarter-pound burger represents 3.5 pounds of corn.
  • Pollan writes, “A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another 1 pound” (115). According to the nutritional information, 86 grams is the mass of sugars in the soda. The mass of high-fructose corn syrup, which includes some water mass, is surely higher.
  • Pollan writes, “If you walk five blocks north from the Whole Foods in Berkeley along Telegraph Avenue and then turn right at Dwight Street, you’ll soon come to a trash-strewn patch of grass and trees dotted with the tattered camps of a few dozen homeless people” (140). The road on which you would need to turn right is more correctly referred to as Dwight Way.

Since the book lacks citations, it would be too time-consuming for me to check facts in a way that was at all comprehensive. If you think I’ve missed something, please share it in the comments.



  1. […] (167). This bothers me for reasons similar to something I wrote about in last week’s minutiae post. I don’t think it makes sense to look at the number of calories of fossil fuel energy […]

  2. Britni said

    Hey Adam,

    I realize this comment is about a year late. I’ve only just read Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, and I’ve been very interested in your thoughts. Thanks very much for sharing them!

    I have just a quick thought about the 3.5 vs nearly 2 pounds of corn calculation. Maybe Michael Pollan is assuming that the other half pound of gain (the inedible part) is used for something else. With this assumption, you might say that each edible half pound of meat comes from about 3.5 pounds of corn, and thus a quarter pound of meat comes from 1.75 (or nearly 2) pounds of corn. Of course, it seems strange to even mention the inedible half pound if you are just going to discard it in your calculations.

    Anyway, thanks again for the site.

    • Adam Merberg said

      That’s a good point. I hadn’t considered the possibility that the the inedible part might be used for something else.

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