Michael Pollan and John Harvey Kellogg

Michael Pollan argues in In Defense of Food that Americans’ susceptibility to food fads is nothing new. To make his case, he tells of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Horace Fletcher. Dr. Kellogg ran the Battle Creek sanitarium, where, Pollan explains,

[P]atients (who included John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt) paid a small fortune to be subjected to such “scientific” practices as hourly yogurt enemas (to undo the damage that protein supposedly wreaked on the colon); electrical stimulation and “massive vibration” of the abdomen; diets consisting of nothing but grapes (ten to fourteen pounds of them a day); and at every meal, “Fletcherizing,” the practice of chewing each bite of food approximately one hundred times…Horace Fletcher (aka “the great masticator”) had no scientific credentials whatsoever, but the example of his own extraordinary fitness…was all the proof his adherents needed.

While I think it’s important to distinguish between sound science and food fads dressed up with scientific words, nothing I could say on this topic could compare to the ideas in a comment posted on the local news site Berkeleyside last summer by commenter Bruce Love. With a few spelling corrections, here is Bruce Love’s comment:

Are Pollan and Kellogg all that different? It’s a question that Pollan invites by criticizing Kellogg.

Kellogg, in some sense, got famous and influential by assuring rich people that: Affluent people were smart and superior to others to spend more money on diet issues than most could afford to spend. Kellogg was happy to get a taste of that spending. He assured the affluent that the typical food most affordable to and consumed by hoi polloi was morally inferior when chosen by anyone who might be able to sacrifice to avoid it. He offered that pursuing these newly coined food values for a hedonistic outcome of bodily pleasure was a political and religious virtue. He allowed that a masochistic element to his program of eating and other regimens was proof of its moral superiority. And finally he held that by pursuing these dietary values, one was actually bringing about a transformative improvement to society and the world at large.

So for Kellogg’s followers, you had a dash of self-flagellation, a sense of moral superiority, a valorization of conspicuous consumption, a messianic narrative, a false elitism, a false identification of one’s bodily sense of well-being with one’s political virtue….

Whereas, from that perspective, with Pollan…you have exactly the same thing with fresh curtains. Instead of Kellogg’s god in the equation you have a faith-based interpretation of traditional culture. Instead of a narrative in which science enables the perfecting of diet, you have a narrative in which science currently proves mainly its own limitations in diet design. Instead of services sold at the Sanitarium, you have farmer’s food boutiques, lifestyle small farming for an affluent customer base, and books and lectures.

I’ve very little doubt but that Pollan’s eating advice and notes on the supply chains are vastly better than anything Kellogg had to offer. I’ve very little doubt that many of his fans have had their lives objectively improved by their exposure to Pollan. Maybe his program even does some kind of good in the world — I hope so but I have my doubts. Nevertheless, the negative reactions are easy to understand when you see that the most visible evidence of his reception by the general public more closely resembles a slight update to Kellogg than it signals the dismissal of the social dynamic that gave Kellogg such influence.

I’m not sure I agree that Pollan would admit any “masochistic element” to his dietary philosophy or that Kellogg’s program could reasonably be described as “hedonistic.” However, I do think that the point about the reception of the two dietary philosophies is insightful. While I have known many of Pollan’s fans who were sincere in their concern for the environmental and health issues of which Pollan writes, there have also been those who seemed most interested in the conspicuousness of their consumption. With this in mind, it seems fair to discuss the possibility that Pollan is another of the food faddists whom he decries.

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  1. […] Michael Pollan and John Harvey Kellog […]

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