Review of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (and the Kindle app for iphone)

Michael Pollan's latest was my first. First ebook purchase, that is. I bought it using the Kindle application on my iphone--very cool. I'm sure reading on the iphone is nowhere near as nice as reading on a genuine Kindle, but the price is better (the app is free). Reading a book on the iphone is actually a much more pleasant experience than I expected. The font size is adjustable, and though you read a lot of tiny pages, flipping them is a super simple, super fast swipe of the thumb. During the times inbetween--you know, on metro trains, airports, planes, taxicabs, sometimes even while walking--I've managed to read two books. Beside's Pollan, I also read Akerlof and Shiller's Animal Spirits on the iphone.

Okay, on to Michael Pollan.

There is a lot I like about this book. Far better than your average agricultural economist, and surely better than yours truly, Pollan can draw the interest of a broad audience and accurately describe some of the dizzying and truly fascinating details of our food system. I think his popular resonance should say something to agricultural economists about the kinds of issues and questions on which we should focus.

I also think Pollan gets most of his facts straight. His characterization of food marketing and, to a large extent, of nutrition science, seems right to me. Pollan's key themes: (1) That nutrition scientists really don't know that much about what's most healthy for us to eat; and (2) food companies exploit and often distort narrow findings from nutrition science when they market goods, misleading us into thinking were eating healthfully when we're really not. Pollan's now famous take home message: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." By food he means food in the raw, not processed; the rest is self explanatory. It's really hard to argue with his main themes or the take home message. I'm now trying to figure out where to put a vegetable garden in my yard.

Although I liked the book and recommend it, I think there are places where Pollan goes too far. My quibbles with Pollan are not so much with any of the particular facts he exposes (save for a few I'll mention below), but with sweeping consequences he attributes to them; and to some extent, his conspiratorial tone.

For example, Pollan faults the farmers for their "single minded focus on higher yields" over nutritional aspects of foods. Well, okay. But is this really so surprising? Farmers are small businesses and they all make more money if their yields go up, all else the same. So they all strive for higher yields--because it pays. Same goes for seed companies, fertilizer companies, and so on. My point here is that the food industry is just like every other with regard to its increasing decentralization, specialization, homogenization, over-zealous advertising and general single-minded focus on profits. That's what makes the world go 'round. And on some level everyone knows it.

What bothers me is that Pollan seems to overplay "nutritionism" and false advertising and underplay prices and taste. I imagine many people (including my mother) were duped into eating too much margarine and transfats because they were told it was a healthier alternative to butter (it wasn't). I think that was an honest mistake (one among many). But I think it's hard to believe that "nutritionism" and advertising are the main culprits in the obesity crisis. Rather, I think technological change and (likely unstoppable) economic progress has made food both very cheap and very tasty. People know that all the junk food they eat is bad for them, but they can't help themselves, and so they eat it anyway. The thing is, when you couch the problem in these terms, it become much harder to point a finger at a devious and unseen culprit. At the end of the day, it's just people making stuff to try to make a living and people eating stuff because the like it and can afford it.

Yes, we seem to have a problem. But don't think Pollan needs to point conspiratorial fingers. It doesn't change the essential story nor help with a solution.

In reading Pollan I almost start to feel sorry for the nutrition scientists. These dedicated scholars are plugging away at their jobs over many decades and have managed to learn a lot about the different kinds of nutrients in foods, how our bodies process those nutrients. I mean, so much of what Pollan is reporting is what they discovered. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! There is--as all the scientists freely admit to Pollan (but he's surprised by this)--a lot they still don't know. They have a hard time understanding how nutrients work in conjunction with each other and whether their absorption is in some way facilitated by the foods in which they are contained. For example, taking a multivitamin every day may be a poor substitute for ingesting vitamins in foods that naturally contain them.

Pollan does a nice job explaining how scientific empiricism typically works--by carefully controlling for all factors except one particular nutrient--and how difficult it is to disentangle the workings of more complex mechanisms with multiple nutrients and delivery systems. All of this sounds right and very much like any science. Science is always hard. There's always lots we don't understand. Every huge discovery leads to a zillion new questions and nothing turns out to be quite as seemed when first discovered. And so it goes.

Pollan describes all of this in a chapter titled "Bad Science." Provocative title, yes. And most of the facts seem to be right. But what, exactly, would Pollan call "Good Science?" What Pollan describes is true for all scientific fields everwhere. Slow, plodding, and riddled with errors, yes. But it's not bad. This is the science that feeds a planet of 6 billion+ better (at least in most respects) than it ever has before, with the longer life expectancies, with stupendous variety, with jet airplane travel, and cool gadgets like iphones. But at its most basic level, science is typically riddled mistakes. Each truly novel discovery is miniscule. And oftentimes wrong. This is the nature of science, and every scientist knows it. Even the nutrition scientists.

So this is the tone that grates. Pollan writes as if the nutrition scientists are conspiring in a sinister plot with the food business to make us all fat and unhealthy. He doesn't actually say that but it is implied. And, well, that's just silly. The reality is that food companies exaggerate findings from food science to market their goods. But this is neither new nor surprising nor in anyway unique to food. It's absolutely ubiquitous. That doesn't make it right, but the problem surely isn't science. And by misrepresenting the problem it becomes more difficult to articulate reasonable solutions.

And, now, the real rub. Did I mention prices?

A friend of mine often jokes that there are just three attributes of food that matter: fast, cheap, and good. He didn't list healthy. If fast, cheap and good is what people want, well, the market has done a very nice job providing it for them. As consumers, hopefully we're slowly recognizing the fallacy of this view. But these bad tastes are the main culprit in our predicament.

I also think there is conundrum beneath the surface here far deeper and more complex than even Polllan realizes or is willing to admit. (Maybe he's conspiring with the nutrition scientists.) High crop yields and the food industrial complex have made food very cheap for us. Especially processed foods and fast food. But these same forces have caused prices for staple grains, like corn, soybeans, wheat and rice, to become cheaper the world around.

In this country we consume processed foods and fast foods--food that takes little time to prepare. While cheap, these foods are a lot more expensive than the raw grains taken from farms. But because we're comparatively so rich, we prefer to pay the extra pennies to have those grains processed and made quick to prepare and tasty to eat. Or, even better, to eat those grains in tastier forms of meat, milk, cheese and eggs after they've been processed through cows, chickens and hogs.

In the poorest parts of the world, inexpensive grains have helped to feed the hungry masses. If yields did not grow as much as they had, hundreds of millions would have starved, died of illnesses related to malnutrition, or killed each other in conflict derived ultimately from food shortages. Not that atrocities don't still exist, but cheap food has surely made the world a much more humane place than it might have been.

Also, since yield growth took off in the 1940s, cropland expansion has slowed considerably. If yields hadn't grown like they did, the Amazon and south Asian forests, and perhaps even some of our own forests, would have been gone long ago. Indeed, today yield growth seems to be slowing a little, demand growth (especially for meat) is coming on strong from China and south Asia, and cropland is expanding more rapidly. If yields don't continue to grow we may have problems far larger than a little (or a lot) of weight gain stemming from overindulgence in rich countries.

Thankfully, Pollan's advcie for individual food choices helps on all grounds. Eating more plants, less meat, and less processed food is almost surely good for your health, good for the planet, and good for food prices. I'm just a little wary about all of this happening on a large scale without much stronger incentives. It's hard for people to get over fast, cheap and good.

More realistically I think the deeper problem here is global income inequality. If all the world were as rich as we are, food prices, and especially meat prices, would be a lot higher. But since we'd all be wealthy no one would be hungry. And prices would push us toward eating more healthfully, and maybe even push more of us to grow our own vegetables.

Oh, and one last factual quibble: It is in no way clear, as Pollan contends, that agricultural subsidies boost agricultural production in the U.S. This is way more complicated than it may seem. And, as I've suggested before, subsidies that pay farmers to NOT produce may well have a larger influence on production than subsidies that pay farmers for what they do grow. But more on this some other time...


  1. Try Stanza on the iPhone. Lots of free books.

  2. USA put out a Battle of Falulljah video game, glorifying the killing of an entire city of males. Short the fuck out of USD and leave Obama’s legacy as the Banker Prez.

  3. Thank you Mr. Roberts for an informative blog post. I liked Michael Pollan's book a lot, implemented some of his suggestions and have lost some weight and feel better.

    Although I liked Mr. Pollan's suggestions, there were a lot of things in the book that didn't sit right with me. I liked your criticisms and I would add to them.

    It was very new to think about the unintentional chemical changes that happen with processing. I had a problem with his implied "traditional = healthy" equation and after reading your criticism, I've figured out what it is. I think he didn't go far enough with concerns over processing reducing the nutritional value of foods because he let "traditional" foods off the hook. Some kinds of "traditional" foods are highly processed and expose the food to a high degree of oxidation, mold or spoilage; For instance, grinding the seeds of grain into a flour mechanically damages nutrients and exposes each speck of flour to the air, oxidizing many nutrients in the grain so anything made with grain flour such as breads, pastas etc. has oxidized and damaged nutrients relative to the whole, unground grain. Many types of cheese are deliberately inoculated with molds which improves the taste but what does it do to the nutritive value?. In nitrite- or smoke-cured or -preserved meats, the nitrite or smoke, in addition to retarding microbial growth, also induces chemical changes in the food itself.
    Lastly, canning thermally decays nutrients and promotes hydrolysis, while the UV in sunlight used for sun-drying induce chemical changes in the food molecules.

    As far as his characterization of nutrition science as "bad science" and your argument that science proceeds through mistakes, well, as a chemist, I have to disagree with you. Part of science is learning from previous mistakes. Novel mistakes advance science, predictable and preventable mistakes waste funding. Part of standard practice in experimental methods is to set up your math before you do an experiment, observation or data collection because its very easy to set up math afterwords in order to "find" the result you want. You have to start off from a hypothesis, typically the "null" hypothesis - you expect nothing to happen, no product from the reaction, etc. If you collect a whole host of data and then go looking for correlations, you undoubtedly will find them, not because they really exist but because randomness would cause some variables to coexist at higher than normal frequencies and other variables in lower than normal frequencies. Nutrition scientists and epidemiologists do a lot of correlation hunting and that IS bad science.


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