Beginning “In Defense of Food”

I will soon commence my third reading of In Defense of Food, and this time I’ll be blogging it. I haven’t exactly decided how much I’ll say. It won’t be a daily thing, but I’ll aim for a couple of posts a week.

For now, here are a few pieces of criticism which I’ve found interesting:

  • Daniel Engber critiques “Unhappy Meals,” the New York Times Magazine piece that grew into In Defense of Food. He argues, “Modern nutrition may be more of an ideology than a science, but so is Pollan’s nutritional Darwinism.”
  • Registered Dietitian Ginny Messina writes,

    But for the most part, Pollan’s reasoning about nutrition and research was pretty unsophisticated and uninformed. He carefully describes all of the reasons why nutrition research is flawed, and then employs some of the worst examples of research (animal studies and completely uncontrolled observational approaches) to support his own arguments. He quotes “nutrition professionals” whose credentials and opinions are questionable at best. Almost without exception, his observations on nutrition are wrong—sometimes subtly so, sometimes overtly so, and sometimes in ways that are actually dangerous.

    Pollan defends his right to provide nutrition advice because he speaks on the authority of “tradition and common sense.” But, tradition and common sense will get you about 90% of the way to a healthy diet. The other 10% can have devastating effects and Pollan really has no sense of this.

  • James McWilliams argues,

    Every book is allowed an inconsistency or two. But In Defense of Food contains so many logical contradictions that it eventually leaves the impression of having been cobbled together in a mad rush to meet a publication deadline. Pollan laments on page 9 that “we are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.” But by page 186, as if lacking a culinary care in the world, “we” are consuming calories “found in convenience food-snacks, microwavable entrees, soft drinks, and packaged food of all kinds-which happens to be the source of most of the 300 or so calories Americans have added to their daily diet since 1980.” Suddenly, and without explanation, a nation of obsessive nutrient-counting orthorexics has become a nation of careless, Twinkie-gorging anti-orthorexics.

  • If you have institutional access, food scientists David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker took to the pages of Gastronomica last summer to defend their profession in an article titled “In Defense of Food Science.” They argue, “Pollan’s rules are closer to clever catchprases that advocate a particular point of view rather than offering genuinely practical advice.” They go on to write,

    We…propose that foods be judged on the basis of their final relevant attributes (e.g., quality, nutritional profile, and environmental responsibility), rather than strictly on how they are produced (e.g., at home or in a factory). Although it is generally assumed that homemade foods are better than processed foods, this is not necessarily true. Homemade croissants, cakes, or french fries, may be free of additives, but the nutritional consequences of eating them are similar to those of their factory–or restaurant–produced counterparts. We therefore encourage food activists to advocate not only for high-quality fresh foods, but also for the development of more responsible processed foods.

Also, I’m introducing a new comments policy which delineates which kinds of comments are allowed and which I’ll respond to. In short, so long as you’re civil and stay on topic, you should be fine.

Update (1/18): In the comments, Signe Rousseau reminds me of food scientist Gregory R. Ziegler’s piece criticizing Pollan for “selective use of science to support his opinions.” I might as well also mention that I’ve previously blogged Julie Guthman’s criticisms, as well as a few of my own.



  1. Signe Rousseau said

    Thanks for the links. Nice body of criticism building up. Looking for the Gastronomica article, I came across this older piece, also called In Defense of Food Science:

    • Adam Merberg said

      I read that piece ages ago and forgot about it. Thanks for reminding me; I’ve updated the post.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: