Posts Tagged food

In Defense of Food: My Review

Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food might best be described as a book which fares best when judged by its cover. Below the title, a reader finds some dietary advice which is not a bad place to start: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are a few good ideas inside the book, too. It would be easy not to look much deeper, as Pollan’s prose is so lively that most readers won’t want to stop and give things a closer look. However, the reader who does bother to check the details sees that In Defense of Food is not a credible work of nonfiction. Pollan twists facts and misrepresents the way science works in the course of assembling exaggerated, false, and contradictory narratives.

Pollan’s central thesis is that introducing science into our food system has done more harm than good and that the best thing for all of us would be to go back to eating a more traditional diet. It’s fair to point out that nutritional science has led to some mistakes (such as recommendations to replace saturated fats with hydrogenated oils), but Pollan devotes too much of his effort to dismantling his own shallow caricature of science. Pollan’s chief criticism of nutritional science is that it adheres to the ideology of nutritionism, which he defines as the belief that foods can be understood by studying their constituent nutrients. He explains that nutritionism is rooted in the idea that foods are “decidedly unscientific things” (19) and that studying individual nutrients is “the only thing [nutritional scientists] can do” (62). He even puts forth the idea that the goal of nutritional science is to find an “X factor” (178) — a single compound that is responsible for good health — so that food processors can add more of it to their products.

But science — to the people who study it — isn’t defined by the consideration of certain “scientific” things with hard-to-pronounce names. The scientific method is a general process for improving our understanding of the world. It entails using observations to form a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis experimentally, and refining that hypothesis based on the results of the experiment. As far as the scientific method is concerned, oranges are as good a subject to study as vitamin C. And nutritional scientists tend to be aware that human nutrition is too complicated to be explained by a single “X factor.” After all, that’s part of what makes their jobs challenging!

As proof of the malignancy of nutritionism, Pollan points to the various sets of nutritional guidelines which encouraged Americans to reduce their fat consumption. As Pollan explains, these recommendations gave rise to products like the SnackWell’s cookie, which was presumed healthy on the basis of its being fat-free. He contrasts the low-fat guidelines with the theory (put forward by Gary Taubes and others) that weight gain results when the consumption of refined carbohydrates promotes fat storage and overeating. If that theory is correct, he explains, “there is no escaping the conclusion that the [official dietary advice] bears direct responsibility for creating the public health crisis that now confronts us” (59-60).

By the end of the book, he’s moved on to blaming that same public health crisis on overconsumption of cheap sweeteners and added fats, pointing out that Americans have added 300 calories to their daily diets since 1980 and citing a group of Harvard economists who “concluded that the widespread availability of cheap convenience foods could explain most of the twelve-pound increase in the weight of the average American since the early 1960s” (186-187). If both the dietary guidelines and the cheap convenience foods are to blame, then it must be that the guidelines encouraged Americans to eat those convenience foods, right?

Not exactly, as it would happen. For all his insistence that Americans have “an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating” (9), Pollan gives us precious little evidence that we’ve actually been following the official dietary advice. Indeed, a reader of the various guidelines would see that falling prey to the food marketers often meant going against the science-based dietary advice. For instance, the second edition of the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States, one of the main sets of guidelines which Pollan criticizes, included warnings against overeating and recommended a decrease in consumption of both fats and refined sugars. So while the sugary SnackWell’s cookies might have helped to reduce fat intake, the dietary guidelines were hardly an invitation to eat them without restraint.

It should thus be no surprise that in his quest to fault science-based nutritional advice for our public health crisis, Pollan often misleads readers about what the dietary guidelines actually said. He tells us, for instance, that a literature review “found ‘some evidence’ that replacing fats in the diet with carbohydrates (as official dietary advice has urged us to do since the 1970s) will lead to weight gain” (45). It sounds pretty damning, at least until you look at the actual paper, which, in fact, reported “some evidence” that replacing dietary fats with refined carbohydrates leads to weight gain. Pollan, of course, had a very good reason to leave out the extra word: that little bit in parentheses would have been false if he’d included it. The government recommendations never urged Americans to replace dietary fats with refined carbohydrates. Truth be told, the official dietary advice could have done better here, but a reader of the recommendations would see encouragements to decrease our consumption of a major class of refined carbohydrate (sugars) and to eat more unrefined carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

But some falsehoods can’t be made to look true just by neatly hiding the pesky details behind a missing adjective, and Pollan’s book contains some of these ideas, too. Indeed, the notion that nutritional scientists study nutrients to the exclusion of foods is incorrect; the ideology of nutritionism that occupies so much of Pollan’s attention is a straw man. A reader might get the sense that something isn’t quite right when Pollan refers to a few nutritional studies that considered whole foods. On the other hand, the reader might suppose, perhaps those studies are outliers. After all, Pollan tells us that (since 1977) the official dietary recommendations have always been expressed in terms of nutrients rather than foods. As an example, he gives us the 1982 report, Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, in which the National Academy of Sciences “was careful to frame its recommendations nutrient by nutrient rather than food by food, to avoid offending any powerful interests” (25). The only problem is that it isn’t true. The report contains six “Interim Dietary Guidelines,” only one of which was expressed in terms of nutrients, and two of which were expressed in terms of foods. (Of the remaining three, two were encouragements to keep dangerous substances out of the food supply, and one was a reminder not to drink too much.)

The antidote to nutritionism, as Pollan explains, is “to entertain seriously the proposition that processed foods of any kind are a big part of the problem” (141) and  “escape the Western diet” (142) for a more traditional diet. That’s a bold declaration, considering that “processing” in the food system includes not just things like hydrogenating vegetable oils but also everything from chopping vegetables to slaughtering animals. Pollan reasons that science has made us unhealthy by encouraging us to eat in new ways, but a traditional diet must be healthy because “if it wasn’t a healthy regimen, the diet and the people who followed it wouldn’t still be around” (173). Unfortunately, he thereby misses the rather important point that a diet can be unhealthy without doing away with its eaters. Pollan’s line of argument would, for example, vindicate the diet of white rice that left so many with beriberi. And some day, it may well exonerate the American diet, whose worst health effects tend to show up well beyond reproductive age.

For all that Pollan gets wrong, there is a grain of truth to his message. Though Pollan errs in faulting nutritional science for giving us a license to eat every high-carb, low-fat food that processors might concoct, it is true that it would be a bad idea to assume that a low-fat food is a healthy food. Pollan is probably even right that some people reached that conclusion based on their interpretations of the official dietary advice. However, the lesson to take away from this is not that we should ignore nutritional science but that when we oversimplify our decision-making processes, we leave ourselves particularly vulnerable to cheap marketing ploys. With that in mind, the solution he offers is regrettable. Rather than embracing critical thinking and careful attention to detail, Pollan gives us a few simple rules backed up by the same sort of lazy thinking that he claims to have seen in nutritional science. It should therefore be no surprise that food companies have begun to take advantage of his rules for eating, with Frito-Lay advertising that its Lay’s potato chips have only “three simple ingredients” (less than Pollan’s recommended maximum of five ingredients) and manufacturers reformulating products like Gatorade, Hunt’s ketchup, and Wheat Thins to replace the taboo high-fructose corn syrup with other sugars.

To be fair, a few of Pollan’s rules, such as “eat slowly…in the sense of deliberate and knowledgeable eating promoted by Slow Food” (194) and “plant a garden” (197), will probably prove difficult for food companies to use for their own ends. For the most part, however, these reflect a level of privilege which many people do not have. This isn’t too surprising, as Pollan makes no secret of the fact that he writes for a well-to-do audience when he declares, “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should” (184). That doesn’t invalidate his perspective, but there is nonetheless something a bit distasteful about a bestselling author lamenting the eating habits of people whose lives are worlds away from his own. Absent any indication of a good-faith effort to understand why people might choose to microwave frozen dinners instead of preparing a family meal from home-grown ingredients, Pollan’s work seems less likely to inspire positive social change than, as Julie Guthman puts it, to appeal to “those who already are refined eaters and want to feel ethically good about it.”

Michael Pollan remarks in the introduction of In Defense of Food that had he written the book forty years earlier, it would have been received as “the manifesto of a crackpot” (14). In light of the superficiality of the book’s merits and its loose relationship to the facts, that wouldn’t have been a particularly unfair appraisal. Alas, in the time since the work’s publication in 2008, our collective judgment has proven decidedly less sound. Thanks to its engaging style and appealing commonsense message, In Defense of Food has become required reading for thousands of college students, and its author now stands at the helm of a respected social movement. With the alarming rise in diet-related disease, the time was indeed ripe for someone to fill that leading role. It’s just too bad that it was somebody who mostly gives us the same kind of simplistic solutions and sloppy reasoning that helped to create the problem in the first place.

Also posted at Amazon and Goodreads. For more on In Defense of Food, I recommend the following posts:

You can also look at all of my posts about In Defense of Food.

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Should Americans be spending more on food?

Michael Pollan echoes a popular foodie talking point:

For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week–and eat a little less of it. (187)

This amounts to a textbook case of statistical abuse. When Pollan refers to the small percentage of income Americans spend on food, that doesn’t say anything about the majority of Americans at all. It is, instead, a statement about our collective income (as compared to the incomes of other societies).

To understand this distinction, consider somebody who makes a million dollars a year. To spend 9.9% of that income (a figure Pollan cites in the next paragraph), this person would need to buy $99,000 worth of food in a year. Even assuming this person supports a large family and buys the kind of food that Michael Pollan says we should be eating, that’s a huge amount of food! Thus, people with large incomes will tend to spend a small percentage of their income on food. Moreover, because these people make so much money, their spending patterns are weighted more heavily in the figure than a comparable number of people at the lower end of the income scale*. The point here is that when we look at the percentage of income spent on food, that number is pushed downward by income inequality. Since the United States has a relatively high level of income inequality, this distortion is particularly pronounced in our case.

To look much deeper into the statistics, it would be helpful to be able to look at some actual data. Unfortunately, Pollan doesn’t give a citation on this claim, but when foodies compare food spending among countries, if a source is provided, it’s the USDA’s data on “Expenditures on food and alcoholic beverages that were consumed at home, by selected countries.” This looks at food spending as a percentage of household final consumption expenditures (which is certainly not the same as income). I don’t know for sure that this is Pollan’s source, but since he’s given his endorsement to a similar use of that data before, I’ll say a few things about it here. One weakness of the data shows up right in the title: it’s referring only to meals eaten at home. That means it’s not even clear that it includes the same number of meals in different countries. Looking at the data for 2006, for instance, if (and this is strictly hypothetical because I haven’t seen any data on the number of meals eaten at home) Americans devoted 6.6% of their spending to 14 meals eaten at home per week at home and the British devoted 8.6% of their spending to 18 meals per week, the British and the Americans would actually be putting about the same percentage of their spending toward each meal. Again, this is hypothetical, but if foodies are right when they say that Americans eat too many meals in restaurants or at their desks at work, this could be important.

Another problem with the data lies with the way that household final consumption expenditures are defined. Americans tend to have lower taxes than Europeans and pay for some things out of their pockets that are paid for with taxpayer money in Europe. For example, things like health care, education, and transportation are more heavily subsidized by taxes in Europe than in the United States. This means that those expenses are largely included in household final consumption expenditures for the US, but less so for the European countries. This, in turn, serves to decrease the percentage of household final consumption expenditures which Americans spend on food.

None of this is to say that Americans are spending the ideal amount on food. Nor do I mean to defend everything on which Americans spend money. My point is simply that the comparison of the US to other countries doesn’t support Pollan’s argument very well because the data reflect many differences among the various countries. I don’t doubt that there are significant externalities in the production of food or that food would cost more if these were reflected in the price. However, I don’t see much to be gained by throwing around misleading statistics to overstate the extent to which people are able to pay those costs.

*To see why, consider a fictitious country with only two people, one making $10,000 and spending $3,500 on food and the other making $150,000 and spending $9,000 on food (these are approximately at the averages of the top and bottom income quintiles for the United States for recent years). One person is spending 35% of income on food and the other is spending 6% of income on food. The population as a whole spends $12,500 of its $159,000 income on food. That’s only 7.9%, much closer to the wealthier resident’s figure.

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Foods are (relatively) easy to isolate

Michael Pollan explains the problem with nutritionism:

The problem starts with the nutrient. Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, a seemingly unavoidable approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”

If nutrition scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done. Scientists study variables they can isolate; if they can’t isolate a variable, they won’t be able to tell whether its presence or absence is meaningful. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complicated thing to analyze, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. (62)

Of all the things I’ve taken issue with in In Defense of Food, this is probably the one that most consistently makes me cringe each time I read it. The problem is that everything Pollan says about the complexity of foods actually works against his thesis. To claim that a food is “a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another” is to say that the chemical compounds in foods are difficult to isolate. Foods, by contrast, are relatively easy to isolate because when scientists study the effects of foods as a whole they take a pass on analyzing that “hopelessly complicated thing.”

Pollan continues,

So if you’re a nutrition scientist you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: Break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring subtle interactions and contexts and the fact that the whole may well be more than, or maybe just different from, the sum of its parts. (62)

In reality, nutrition scientists often do study whole foods and broader dietary patterns, which is why Pollan can claim on the very next page that “researchers have long believe that a diet containing lots of fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer.” It’s also wrong to say that nutrients can only be studied one by one; Pollan will later tell us about interactions betwen omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

That said, researchers do expend considerable effort with the nutrient-by-nutrient approach, even if not for the reasons that Pollan cites. Frank Hu and Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health justified this choice in a letter (included in Pollan’s references) responding to T. Colin Campbell’s criticism of reductionism:

Although we agree that overall dietary patters are also important in determining disease risk, we believe that identification of associations with individual nutrients should be the first step because it is the specific compounds or groups of compounds that are fundamentally related to the pathophysiology of the disease. Specific components of diet can be modified, and individuals and the food industry are actively doing so. Understanding the health effects of specific dietary changes, which Campbell refers to as “reductionism,” is therefore an important undertaking.

Not being a dietitian or a public health expert, I’m not going to try to evaluate the merits of this argument. What I think is significant here is that Pollan has invented his own dubious argument for focusing on nutrients instead of discussing an argument that researchers actually use. By doing so, not only does he fail to address the real argument, but he also opens the door to a broader dismissal of scientific inquiry on questions of nutrition.

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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.

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Julie Guthman on Michael Pollan’s letter to Obama

In the concluding chapter of Weighing In, Julie Guthman addresses an open letter that Michael Pollan wrote to the winner of the then-upcoming 2008 presidential election. The letter gave the candidates a long list of suggestions for fixing the American food system. Guthman writes,

 The White House must have been listening. After all, it was one of Pollan’s recommendations to “tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White house lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.”

…[T]he garden encountered little resistance and was widely heralded, especially by the alternative-food movement. If nothing else, this demonstrates the huge success of the organic farming and gardening movement in communicating its ideas, which used to sit on the countercultural margins, to a much wider audience. To wit, as Pollan also pointed out in the same letter, there is room for food and farming across the political spectrum. “Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry–the culinary equivalent of home schooling….There is also a strong libertarian component to the sun-food agenda, which seeks to free small producers from the burden of government regulation in order to stoke rural innovation. And what is a higher ‘family value,’ after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal?” Therein lies the problem: an approach that appeals to all parts of the political spectrum cannot challenge the political economic forces that are producing cheap, toxic, and junky food–and making some people dependent on it. (185-186)

Though Guthman agrees with Pollan that farm policy reform may appeal to the entire political spectrum, she faults him for failing to properly place the broken food system in its political context. Guthman argues that our food system’s problems are at least partly the fault of our broken immigration policy (which provides cheap farm labor) and our extreme economic inequality (which creates a need for cheap food), and the solutions to these and other problems would not be nearly as palatable to conservatives as alternative food. Guthman continues,

Since the Obamas planted their organic garden, the rest of the food and agriculture agenda has remained the same, more or less…There is definitely something to be said for creating a highly visible model. My concern, rather, is the absence in the policy agenda of any move that would begin to undermine a food (and industrial) system that simultaneously brings hunger, danger, and unremittingly undercompensated toil; it’s the absence from public discussions of acknowledgment that our food system is part of a political economy that systematically produces inequality; and it’s the reluctance of much of the alternative-food movement to take on the big fights, instead promulgating the notion that education will change how people eat–and thus transform the food system. Obama’s garden, in other words, throws into sharp relief the limitations of alternative food as a change strategy.

Yet, it is the appeals to obesity to which I draw your attention. Naturally, in his open letter Pollan also discussed the health costs and dangers of type 2 diabetes and obesity, which he said could be avoided with changes to diet and lifestyle…

…[I]n urging people to make better “choices,” those who advocate for fresh, organic, and local produce as a means of weight loss are not wholly unlike those who want to combat global warming by getting consumers to swap their incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent ones….These suggestions are based on a singular hegemonic understanding of the cause of the problem: calories and carbon dioxide emissions, which to some degree forecloses efforts to search for other causes…

This, by the way, concludes my series of posts on Weighing In. I’ll have some new posts based on my own thoughts in the near future.

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Julie Guthman on the obesogenic environment thesis

Julie Guthman writes,

In leaving questions of behavior untouched, however, they can easily give the impression that the environment simply acts on people in unmediated ways, as if once you find yourself living in the sprawling suburbs the fat will pile on. Surely, the idea that merely the presence of bad food makes people fat is well circulated. It is fairly explicit in Michael Pollan’s claim, “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” …Since not everyone is in fact fat, and since [Pollan and others] make great efforts to educate people to the quality of food to encourage informed decisions, they are in effect betraying their healthist sensibilities, suggesting that those who manage to exercise restraint in such environments (or avoid them altogether) must have greater disciplinary powers, taste, and knowledge. (75-76)

The passage comes in a chapter of Weighing In titled “Does your neighborhood make you fat?” which challenges the notion of the “obesogenic environment.” Many researchers and activists have argued that obesity results from lack of access to healthy food and neighborhoods  unconducive to exercise, but Guthman argues that this thesis rests on certain assumptions:

Explicitly, it assumes the energy balance model, which holds that obesity results from an excess of calories in relative to those expended. To the extent to which it black boxes questions about human behavior, specifically how humans negotiate their environments, it implicitly assumes that the environment simply acts on people, so that people are objects, not agents, in these environments. (68)

Guthman devotes a later chapter to challenging the energy balance model. In this chapter, she argues that social class needs to be a part of the conversation. She contrasts obesogenic neighborhoods with neighborhoods that promote thinness, which she terms “leptogenic” neighborhoods. She writes,

The obesogenic environment thesis, with its focus on access and proximity to grocery stores, restaurants, parks, gyms, and public transportation, leads to the conclusion that if these conditions are changed, behaviors will follow. It thus draws forth a set of interventions that are strongly supply-sided…Supply-side interventions are reasonably palatable politically and provide clarity about what to do. Accordingly, public health advocates have put a good deal of effort into soda bans in school or good neighbor agreements that ask corner liquor stores to sell fruits and vegetables, or even creating more walkable public space in new suburbs.

And those who endorse such efforts often do so in the name of combating racial and class inequality. Yet if those obesogenic environments are as inseparable from race and class as I contend they are, picking out particular features of the built environment and making them more leptogenic isn’t likely to cut it as a body-size-altering strategy–and may have unintended consequences. It effaces the problem that the very conditions and amenities that make certain places sites of “the good life” make them unobtainable to most…

Towns and cities with artistic, independent, and healthful restaurants, beautiful outdoor amenities, vibrant public spaces, and unique character are “leptogenic,” to be sure. But they are leptogenic not only because of the food choices and physical activity opportunities they offer. They are leptogenic because wealth has made them into even more pleasant (but costly places). That is because places with wealth both attract businesses to meet the food tastes of residents and generate the taxes to improve and maintain those enjoyable public spaces…

No matter what, to replicate features of the leptogenic environment to make people thin is unlikely to be efficacious…Trying to make environments more like those of the wealthy upholds an economic differentiation of urban landscape that could have perverse social justice ramifications. Already efforts to redress the supply-side problems, such as community gardens, farmers markets, and spruced-up parks, have led to gentrification, which is why people in low-income areas are beginning to reject such projects. (87-89)

In short, whereas Pollan and others see obesity arising from lack of access to good food and other environmental factors, Guthman argues that both obesity and the unhealthy environment arise from deeper problems of social class.

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Ask Michael Pollan

To go with this week’s Food and Drink Issue, the New York Times Magazine is running an “Ask Michael Pollan” feature. I’d explain more, but it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Here’s the question I submitted:

In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” you marvel at the brilliance of Joel Salatin’s animal polyculture farm, which seems to neatly solve so many of the problems of industrial agriculture. For example, you write, “The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season.” This obscures a very important point: chickens don’t fix nitrogen. The nitrogen in the chicken manure is imported in the form of corn, soy, and oats fed to the chickens; Polyface Farm isn’t self-sufficient in nitrogen at all. Earlier this year, Joel Salatin even told an audience at UC Berkeley that he doesn’t describe his farm as sustainable precisely because of the chicken feed. Is it fair to ask how much of today’s alternative food, particularly meat, can reasonably be called “sustainable”? Should the food movement be doing less to glorify meat from small farms and more to help people find satisfying plant-based meals?

Bizarrely, the last few words of the question were edited to read “a satisfying Plan B?” My guess is that a spellchecker was involved. I submitted a similar question with a note of explanation, so I’m hoping this will be fixed.

If you want Pollan to answer my question, you can vote for it by following the link and clicking on the upward-pointing thumb next to my question (login required). Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to the question, so use Control+F (Command+F on a Mac) to find it within the page.

(Updated 10/2/2011 at 9:33PM to clarify the last paragraph, as per Joseph Dowd’s suggestion in the comments.)

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