Michael Pollan is an author, activist, and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He's a James Beard Award recipient, appeared in the documentary “Food, Inc.," and his book “The Omnivore's Dilemma” was called one of the 10 best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Earth Eats' Annie Corrigan sat down with Pollan and wanted to know more about his new book, “Food Rules.”
Annie Corrigan: Your new book “Food Rules” is a handbook for how to eat better. So talk to the people who have read your other books, like “Omnivore's Dilemma.” Why should this book go on their shelves?
Michael Pollan: This book is kind of a distillation of everything I learned, both about how our food is produced and how our bodies make use of it, all of that reduced to some handy rules of thumb. It doesn't have a lot of explanation. It doesn't have a lot of words.
It's a very short book, you can read it in a half hour. I wrote it because a lot of people were asking me, “Okay, now you know all this about nutrition, now you know all this about the food system. What should I eat?” So, it's really a distillation of everything I learned, and to put it in a very practical form for people.
Omnivore's Dilemma And Young Readers
AC: Let's also talk about “Omnivore's Dilemma.” You put that in a format for young readers. Talk about presenting this sort of information to young people. Why is that important, how did you change your message?
MP: I didn't change my message at all actually, I just simplified my message. What I've been doing since “Omnivore's Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” has really been an attempt to reach people who might not read a big fat book about the food system but are very concerned about their health.
In terms of the young readers edition, what I tried to do is make it attractive to middle schoolers and high shcoolers by shortening it to some extent but mostly adding a lot of visual elements and shortening the sentences. The writing is somewhat simplified. But there are lots of charts and grafs and photographs and updates.
I realize that at a certain point if we're going to change our food system, it's going to be the next generation that's going to be critical. This generation is very interested in food issues, very concerned about things like animal welfare and the impact of the food system on the environment. So, that's who I wanted to reach.
Both of them are similar projects, and I worked on them in the same year. I was tired of hearing “You're speaking to the choir,” so this is an attempt to reach far beyond the choir. And it appears to be working.
AC: Have you heard from any of your young readers?
MP: I get letters from classes all the time. Say it's assigned in someone's 8th grade class, and the teacher asks everyone to write a letter to me about their impressions and what they learned. So, it's incredibly gratifying to hear.
Students are very engaged by these issues, and it's not surprising because food choices are one of the few powers a child has. The decision whether to eat something or not is in a way your first assertion of independence and autonomy.
Once you introduce the issue to young people and suggest to them that they have the ability to vote with their forks, either by positively going for certain kinds of foods or rejecting other kinds of foods, they realize that this is a responsibility and an opportunity to shape the world a little bit by their own choices.
So, I see students responding in a really profound way to this sort of message.
AC: Does this give you hope for the future?
MP: Yeah it does actually. I'm very hopeful that we'll see some change in our food system. I don't know how far we'll go, or how quickly we'll get there, but there is no question that a significant percentage of the American public is dissatisfied with the food system. And even people who like the kind of food on offer, are coming to recognize that eating from this food chain is not conducive to good health.
Everything from the risks of food safety to the problem of obesity, that there is something wrong with this system. It needs to be changed at the federal level, at state level, and at the individual level. There are more and more people who are willing to join this movement to change the food system.
Cooking At Home
AC: Making change on the individual level… You talk about the importance of cooking for yourself, cooking at home, cooking for your family. Talk to me a little bit about that, how that will help this problem.
MP: The longer I've looked at these questions, of the American diet and the public health crisis that we face because of that diet, the more I've come to the conclusion that the collapse of cooking is a big part of the problem.
One of the reasons we eat fast food is that we don't have to cook fast food. We are out-sourcing cooking to corporations, which would be fine if we could count on them to cook well. The fact is, though, they don't cook very well. They tend to cook with far too much salt, fat, and sugar.
Why? Well, because we love those flavors and they are among the cheapest of flavors you can add to food. So, if you are a corporation cooking food, you don't want to spend a lot of money on raw materials. You want to satisfy people as cheaply as you can, and the way you do that is lots of salt, fat, and sugar – three things we are eating way too much up, and that explains a lot of our chronic disease.
Setting Your Own Food Rules
AC: We don't have a lot of steadfast rules and regulations about food. For instance, I snack a lot. I eat small meals every three hours. And you've said in your books, “You probably shouldn't snack.” People have all these sorts of different beliefs. So, what should we believe, who should we believe when it comes to food rules for ourselves?
MP: There are things we know and things we don't know about food. I'm very modest about the state of nutritional knowledge, and there are things we'll figure out that we haven't figured out yet. But there are certain basic things we do know, and that's what I've tried to build these rules on.
That is, people eating the western diet of heavily processed food, of lots of meat and added sugar and added fat, and very little whole grains and fruits and vegetables… Populations who eat that way have seriously high incidences of chronic diseases. Populations who don't, have little chronic disease. So, on that fact alone, you can construct a sane diet. Nobody argues about that.
All the arguments about nutrition are really about what is the problem ingredient in the western diet. Is it the fat? Is it the lack of fiber? Is it the refined carbohydrates? And people will be arguing about that for a long time to come, but we don't have to worry about it. We just have to try to get off that diet to the extent we can.
The issue of snacking is complicated. In principle, “grazing” is probably a good idea. It would even out the insulin spikes and things like that from eating large meals. The problem is it makes it harder for people to control the amount they're eating. They lose track of it if they're not at a meal and filling a plate.
People who snack sometimes – I'm not saying this is you – sometimes eat kind of thoughtlessly and end up eating a lot more. But in principle, it's a really good idea if you can exert the kind of discipline needed.
There are 64 rules in this new book “Food Rules.” I'm not expecting people to follow all of them. I'm expecting people to adapt the ones that sound right, appeal to their common sense, and they remember.
And if they can get a couple rules from each of the three sections… one of which deals with “What is food,” another deals with, among the foods, which are the better and worse ones, and the third deals with food habits (when you eat, how much you eat, the cultural rules surrounding your eating).
If you can adopt a couple rules from each of those sections, I think it will make a big difference without necessarily having to revolutionize your life.
Preaching To The Choir And Next Steps
AC: You talked a little bit earlier about preaching to the choir. We're your choir! So our listeners go to farmers markets, they like to know where their food comes from, many of them identify as vegetarians or vegans. So for people already living this way, what's the next step? What else can we do to live better in relation to our food?
MP: Well, I think there are challenges to eating that way. One is eating that way through the winter in a place like Indiana. There are a lot of people who are giving a lot of thought to food preservation, how do you do that well, finding people who are growing well under glass. So, extending the season for local food I think is an area where there's a lot of work that can be done and it's worth doing.
There are a lot of people who fashion themselves as committed to local and sustainable food that aren't cooking that much. I really do think that cooking is very important. It's really important for the farmers because it means you're going to be buying real food and not processed food, so that means the farmers will capture more of your food dollar.
It's really important for your health, because you will never use as much salt and fat and sugar as a corporation will use cooking for you. And you learn really valuable lessons in the kitchen and your children learn valuable lessons in the kitchen.
So, I still think we have a long way to go on rebuilding a culture of cooking. Everyday simple cooking. I'm not talking about having to consult Julia Child before you can take a pot off the rack. I think that's something we can all do more and do better.
Should Everyone Just Become Vegan?
AC: Talk to the people who say we should all become vegans, and that we should all take meat out of our diet because that is the root of most of the problem in this country.
MP: I just don't agree. I agree insofar as we eat too much meat. We're eating about 200 pounds per person per year. That's about 9 ounces a day. That's probably more than is good for us and it's certainly more than is good for the environment.
Meat is a tremendous environmental challenge. It contributes enormous amounts of greenhouse gas, especially beef eating.
However, any kind of food you eat is going to have an impact on the world. If you switch to tofu and get off meat, the soy bean is doing enormous damage in the Amazon and all throughout South America. Land is being cleared to grow more soy. Soy is taking over from really rich, important habitats. Yeah, a lot of that soy is being turned into animal feed, but a lot of it is being turned into processed food also.
Animals die even if you eat vegetables. That is the nature of farming. There is a certain sacrifice involved. I think that, though, a limited amount of animal agriculture is really important because you know, to have a truly sustainable farm, one where you close the nutrient loop, you will need animals to do it.
The best farming systems are ones where animals and plants are put into a synergistic relationship. Animals eat the crop waste, and the animals provide fertility to the crops. Without animals, it's hard to think that we'll get enough nitrogen on our fields. It's not the only way, but it's a very important source of nitrogen.
And there are many people who don't do well on a vegetarian or vegan diet, that for them, meat is a very nutritious food. So, I'm not prepared to give up meat. I don't think we need to give up meat, but we certainly need to change the way we raise meat and diminish the amount of it in our diet.
Health Care Reform and Food Reform
AC: One of our listeners asked: what do you think about the health care reform bill? Could we solve the same sorts of problems with food reform?
MP: Well yeah. I think that the American diet is a very large part of the reason we're spending 2.3 trillion dollar per year on health care in this country. 75% of that money goes to treat chronic diseases, preventable chronic diseases, most of those are linked to diet.
It's been a mystery to me and a disappointment why this conversation about health care reform hasn't turned more attention to the subject of food.
However, I do think if we do get a health care bill, and there's serious question now as to whether we will, it could have a profound effect. The way it's being structured, so that there are no longer pre-existing conditions and health insurers are forced to take anyone who wants to pay, you will suddenly have health insurers developing a strong interest in your health, which they do not now have.
Right now, they make money by keeping you out of their plans once you have chronic disease or if you're likely to get it. But if they have to take you, they will have a powerful incentive to prevent new cases of things like type-2 Diabetes. And when that happens, the health insurers will be working hard to reform the food system, and that will be a very powerful ally for the food movement.
So, the two things are synergistic, the health care crisis and the food crisis. Right now, to a large extent, the food industry's biggest product is patients for the health care industry and we have to break that.
What's In Michael Pollan's Fridge?
AC: One final question… what's in your fridge right now?
MP: *laughs* Let's see, what's in my fridge right now, I'm picturing it… I've got some milk and yogurt. I've got some wine and beer. I've got some cheeses. I've got some leftovers. I've got some various condiments, hot sauces and barbecue sauces. I haven't done the weekly shop yet. I've got apples in there, I've got carrots. And I've got some endive, and I've got a bag of washed lettuce from the garden, and some mustard and that kind of stuff. That's all I can picture right now.
AC: A lot of condiments!
MP: A lot of condiments, it's true! Well, we cook a lot.
Michael Pollan's book “Food Rules” came out in 2009 and is published by Penguin Press. He lives in California with his wife and son.
What SHOULD be in Michael Pollan's Fridge?
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