Explaining food vs. nutrition: Michael Pollan talks at Google

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34 Responses to “Explaining food vs. nutrition: Michael Pollan talks at Google”

  1. AnnC says:

    Please dismiss healthy eating proponents because they don’t like be told what to do and definitely what to eat. It has nothing to the message; people eat what they want to eat not what other people tell them to eat.

  2. Avi Solomon says:

    Pollan 12 Food Rules:

    1. Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
    2. Avoid foods containing ingredients you can’t pronounce.
    3. Don’t eat anything that wouldn’t eventually rot.
    4. Avoid food products that carry health claims.
    5. Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.
    6. Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmer’s market or CSA.
    7. Pay more, eat less.
    8. Eat a wide diversity of species.
    9. Eat food from animals that eat grass.
    10. Cook and, if you can, grow some of your own food.
    11. Eat meals and eat them only at tables.
    12. Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure.

  3. Scott says:

    Why am I taking dietary advice from a professor of journalism whose books are basically anecdotes strung together with larger aphorisms? And why is Cory advocating against science?

  4. Avram says:

    Scott, how on Earth is Cory “advocating against science”?

  5. Jerril says:

    I don’t think Pollan’s argument is that people with serious health concerns shouldn’t look out for tainting in their food – many of us are perfectly fine with peanuts or shellfish, but for those whom these are life-threatening, it’s a serious concern.

    I wouldn’t call your attention to copper contamination “nutritionism”.

  6. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    People managed to eat, live well and be healthy for thousands of generations before science was invented, and now in a generation or two nearly all eating is analyzed in technical or pseudotechnical terms and a molecule in a plastic water bottle can set off a national panic. Something about the way that we understand and misunderstand science drives us to view our bodies as machines that will abruptly malfunction with disastrous consequences if not fed precisely the right substances.
    I’d be very interested to read about how this derangement of our appetites happened, and Pollan’s writing might be a good place to start. I’ll enjoy reading this essay.

  7. Antinous says:

    And why is Cory advocating against science?

    Science is neither good nor bad. Some science improves our lives. Some science screws them up horribly. Food science has mostly done the latter.

    “Have some margarine. It’s better for your heart!”

  8. ThreeFJeff says:

    Maxoid, to agree with you, have you tried Pollan’s beloved eggs from pastured chickens? The shells are so thick, I just about have to put my hips into cracking them (and my hobbies include blacksmithing). The chickens I get my eggs from have a far superior diet to industrial chickens, or even “organic” chickens. The eggs are worth every penny for the flavor.

    Besides, I, as do all of you, have to eat every day. Every day. Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy it every time? There is nothing to dislike about his message.

  9. Jeff says:

    There is something common-sensical about eating plants (organic). If we try to eat with few general guide lines, most of us will get by. The science of nutrition is quite dynamic, and we’re learning more and more. I’m sure that Pollan’s opinions are in part based on science, the kind that has shown us that eating a lot of crap is bad.

  10. Thinkerer says:

    As a scientist and engineer working in food-related studies, the “nutritionism” problem is substantial.

    Our nutrition “information” results from industry/commodity-organization sponsored studies that generate a (usually statistically marginal) physiological effect in animal models, which is immediately converted into the latest nutrition fad by a toxic (and very convenient) combination of passive scientists, industry overmarketing, and technically ignorant media. This allows food companies to continue to “grow” a largely stagnant commodity-processing industry and to remain profitable while doing so.

    If there were a “smoking gun”, the miracle food that would allow you to beat cancer, stay young and never get fat (or thin — fashion ads in the late 1800′s were about gaining rather than losing weight), there would be a population that would have found it by munching around at random many thousands of years ago.

    The “eat (real) foods, mostly plants, and not too much” is about the best advice you can get, regardless of the source.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Interestingly, the plastic bottle/DEHP furor (@ROSSINDETROIT) is the exact mirror image of this. Animal model effects converted into media hype and thence into a health scare.

  11. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I was making the point that nutritional faddism is based on the appearance that it is scientific. The fact that many Americans trust science makes them vulnerable to being manipulated by those who put the appearance of scientific rigor on alarmism and marketing.
    There is no doubt that legitimate Nutritionists have greatly improved our quality of life. Unfortunately many people canot tell science from scam.

  12. Don says:

    Maxoid – the funny thing about those people who reject Pollan because of those assumptions about him is that they make it clear they have never read him. There were sections of The Omnivore’s Dilemma where I just wanted to jump up and down and scream… and Pollan’s tone was so amazingly casual and non-judgmental that often times it was HIM I wanted to scream at!

    Pollan reveals his even-handedness and journalistic background in almost every paragraph.

  13. Gumby says:

    MMM, I’m eating chowder made from scratch right now, delicious. Better than anything from a can. No, it’s not new information, just good to remember. Pollan’s approach is more common-sensical and doable and less ‘new-agey’ and outrageous than a lot of others seem.

    I enjoyed this talk and went to find more of these and found Cory’s from maybe a year ago. I’ve seen Cory’s picture before, but had no idea how cute he was in person. Aooga!

  14. zikzak says:

    The problem is he’s conflating issues which don’t necessarily intersect for everyone. For example, some people get really excited about how flavorful a locorganic tomato or a free-range steak is, and that quality is worth extra money and/or effort for them.

    But that’s not the case for me, and a lot of other people. I think at least part of the reason people fetishize local, fresh, organic food is because of the perception of value, the concept that it’s “luxury food”, and therefore to be appreciated and connoisseur-ed.

    For me, and a lot of other people, we don’t really give a crap. Give me a snickers bar and you make my day, I’ll savor that thing and get all the same enjoyment that you would from an expensive fresh tomato. I don’t just eat a snickers bar because I’m a stupid American who’s been duped by industry, I really and truly like that shit.

    Of course, I have very strong objections to the industry which produces snickers bars, so I refuse to buy them despite their deliciousness. And I try to support locorganic non-gmo farmers because they’re environmentally and socially friendly, even though I don’t really enjoy their food any more.

    The point is that I think this marriage between food snobs, health nuts, and socio-environmental concerns is a bit forced. The points that he makes are very good, but anyone coming from only one of those 3 perspectives is going to see the overall picture he paints as more than a little inconsistent.

  15. maxoid says:

    @annc – we’re told what to eat all the time, though. It’s part of culture, isn’t it? Cuisine? I think it’s more that we don’t want to be told we are wrong, and especially that the experts we’ve relied upon thus far are also wrong.

    @threefjeff – I haven’t had the chance to try pastured eggs, unfortunately, but I do work at a large vibrant farmers market and am lucky enough to trade my booth’s vegetables for just about anything else (and take home the veggies for free). So for me, eating real food is cheaper than anything else could possibly be–it’s all free!

    @don – My thoughts exactly, and such behavior is certainly not limited to gastronomic literature. Again, I think this stems from someone telling us that Progress, with a capital P, is more complex than the linear ideal we’ve been spoon-fed. It’s not uncommon to hear all unsolicited advice as “you’re doing it wrong,” and it’s kind of sad.

  16. seyo says:

    @zikzak

    I love the way that a lot of that stuff tastes too, so I recreate it in my kitchen with real, whole, healthy ingredients, that don’t contain emulsifiers, artificial colors, preservatives and texturing agents. You are the one polarizing this issue. Why can’t your nachos be delicious AND healthy? They can be. Burgers, fried chicken, nachos, cakes and cookies all existed and were delicious before industrialization. Industrial processes aren’t so much about making things delicious, they are more about making them cheap to produce so as to increase profits in a market that suffers (from a capitalist’s perspective) from inelastic demand. The growth rate of the market is linked to population growth, which is only 1% per year, not enough for big business. The only way for capitalists to create growth of profits in this sector is to simultaneously reduce their costs while adding the perception of value to their product so as to increase it’s retail price. It has nothing to do with deliciousness which, I agree, is subjective. It’s about MONEY. The reason this is so important is because capitalism needs to let go of the food supply, otherwise we’ll all be faced with disease and starvation in the very near future. Well, all except for the rich, as usual.

  17. Antinous says:

    I don’t just eat a snickers bar because I’m a stupid American who’s been duped by industry, I really and truly like that shit.

    But….you like it because you’ve been trained to like it and to be addicted to the sugar rush. I’ve lived on Haagen Dazs and it tasted good at the time. But now that I eat really well, I do feel much better than I used to. Of course, I still eat a pint of Haagen Dazs every night before bed, but it’s in context of three cooked meals and fifteen portions of fruits and vegetables. I think that age makes a big difference, too. At twenty, you can get shitfaced every night and feel fine. At fifty, heavy drinking makes you feel horrible. Your diet will catch up with you as well.

  18. TwoShort says:

    Science is neither good nor bad.

    Science works, and I say that’s good.
    But this guy isn’t against science. This guy is in favor of having sensible, general ideas about food that lead you to eat reasonably. Whether you boil it down the one sentence, or to 12 rules, these are principles you can realistically follow without being obsessive about it, and wind up eating fairly well. You’ll even end up eating about how you would if you figured out how you ought to based on all the science. But if you obsess about the science, it’s easy to focus on the last 100 details you heard about how to eat, and ignore the big picture.

  19. seyo says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. Everyone is affecte dby what he is talking about, especially those who don’t give a shit about what they eat and consume mostly processed foods. They are the ones who have diabetes, obesity, and heart attacks and can’t afford health care.

  20. omnifrog says:

    @Antinous

    You say:

    “For the first time in decades, average life expectancy in the US is beginning to decline. The crap that we are fed is counteracting all the benefits of better medical care. When the eighty year olds who grew up eating real food are gone, the next few generations are likely to see life expectancy rolled back by a decade. And that’s laid at the doorstep of agri-business funded food science which gave us the nutritional advice which has larded an extra thirty pounds of fat onto us.”

    The problem is that none of this is true. Life expectancy is still going up. The CDC has reported no increase in childhood obesity in the last 9 years. Adults still eat vegetables, children still don’t (and never did).

    For some reason food has become the point at which many people are rebelling against the modern world. But what we are seeing is a political backlash, not a scientific one.

    As for organics versus factory farming, there is no proof that nutrients are more plentiful in organic produce. Actually, for nutrients, very often the best place to look is canned veggies. As for fuel usage, the marginal cost in fuel to ship a grape from Chile is remarkably small. One of the great things about capitalism is that with fuel prices rising, the large companies are very good at improving efficiency.

    Supermarkets operate on single digit percentage margins, so there’s very little waste that occurs in food production there. Compare that to organic markets which very often sell produce for double the price of the corner market and you can see that there is a lot more room in the price for waste, while still making a profit.

    And about organic farms being sustainable, I’ve seen some estimates that they have 1/3 of the yield of some of the best commercial farms. One article I read claims that on some commercial farms, the time between harvest and the start of the next planting is ~30 minutes. This allows us to make an incredible amount of food in a fairly limited area. If the entire world were to go organic, we would have to cut down a tremendous amount of natural growth forest in order to make space for all the additional farmland.

    All that said, I am a food snob. I love the organic markets in my city. I love heirloom tomatoes with high end balsamic vinegar. But my love for these things has the same impact towards the social good as if I purchased a BMW or a Gucci suit. It’s a luxury purchase and nothing else.

  21. bboru says:

    Hey, it woud be a little more user-friendly if you linked book titles to library searches, as well as merchant sites. For example, this link is useful for finding local copies you don’t need to purchase, thereby saving paper, yada yada. And have the link be descriptive.

    http://worldcat.org/wcpa/isbn/1594201455

    (I very much appreciate Michael Pollan, by the way, and have purchased his work.)

  22. Scott says:

    Scott, how on Earth is Cory “advocating against science”?
    He’s dismissing an entire branch of research, namely nutrition science. Pollan’s approach is very journalistic – take a bunch of personal anecdotes (i visited a ranch!), link them together with aphorisms (grandma says eat you greens!), and paradoxically sprinkle with a few scientific studies (omega-3s are good for you!). This isn’t a way forward. Normative recommendations for diet should be done through boring, peer reviewed journal papers. Pollan is fun to read, but “common sense” reporting shouldn’t trump actual experimentation and research.

  23. Antinous says:

    Life expectancy is still going up.

    Study Shows Decline in Life Expectancy for American Women. Among the causes are increased diabetes and heart disease.

    As for organics versus factory farming, there is no proof that nutrients are more plentiful in organic produce.

    I’m not talking about organic versus inorganic. The point is that agri-produce has selectively bred for shelf-life, not for nutrients. If you actually read Pollan, you’ll see, for example, that the ratio between types of Omega fatty acids has reversed in the negative direction due to the types of produce that have been selected. Have you even bothered to read what he’s written?

  24. maxoid says:

    @zikzak – Of course that stuff tastes good. It is engineered to taste good, and thus it sells well. It tastes like valuable and prized foodstuffs of old taste, and by golly there are many folks hard at work to systematically make it even tastier. You can hardly be blamed for liking it, ’cause we’re practically hard-wired that way. It’s just important to understand that the stuff is incredibly, beautifully destructive. The cake is a lie, and I don’t like being lied to.

    @scott – From what I understand, Pollan himself finds the idea of him being some sort of nutritional prophet absurd, and he knows the science of nutrition to be very important, just incomplete. At least for now, as progress is being made and will continue to be made, regardless of whether we eat real food or processed food products, regardless of whether a journalist reminds an eager audience of common sense, regardless of who writes what book and who thinks that book is bullshit. To paraphrase, we may soon have a complete picture as to what makes a carrot a carrot, but this doesn’t change how you should probably just eat carrots rather than powdered beta carotene.

    I don’t know how a journalist doing what a journalist will do has any effect on whether peer-reviewed studies continue to be produced, continue to be relevant. The two types of writing serve different purposes for different audiences, and that is an okay thing.

  25. seyo says:

    I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma right now, it’s really a great book. I’m in the chapter that exposes the truth behind all the so-called organic food being pumped out now by the same industrial agribusiness that has been degrading the quality of food, depleting the soil and polluting the waters. It’s quite revealing. Whole Foods and most all the organic brands being sold there and elsewhere are for the most part a scam and marketing ploy. What ashame the the organic movement has been subverted into a tagline.

  26. Antinous says:

    Normative recommendations for diet should be done through boring, peer reviewed journal papers.

    The same ones that put us on the path to national morbid obesity. Food science is the biggest public health disaster since the influenza outbreak of 1917. He’s done the detective work that shows how agri-business has leaned on Congress to twist the results of scientific research. Food science is paid for by the food industry. It’s the kind of science which will inevitably come to conclusions that support nutritionally valueless products that put more money in the pockets of the ultra-rich. Unsaturated fats? The carb revolution?

    For the first time in decades, average life expectancy in the US is beginning to decline. The crap that we are fed is counteracting all the benefits of better medical care. When the eighty year olds who grew up eating real food are gone, the next few generations are likely to see life expectancy rolled back by a decade. And that’s laid at the doorstep of agri-business funded food science which gave us the nutritional advice which has larded an extra thirty pounds of fat onto us.

  27. omnifrog says:

    As for the article:

    “The downward trend appears to be driven by increases in death from diabetes, lung cancer, emphysema and kidney failure. It reflects the long-term consequences of smoking, a habit that women took up in large numbers decades after men did, and the slowing of the historic decline in heart disease deaths.”

    There are two issues:

    an increase in smoking among women, which in studies has shown a relative risk >40 for many diseases

    and the “possibility” that this is the leading edge of the “obesity epidemic” something that has rarely shown an RR greater than 2 for most diseases.

    I see a case of potential scientific bias and fear mongering.

    I understand Pollen’s case. I am a vegetarian. I probably don’t get as much iron as iron as some of my meat eating friends. However because food is plentiful, I have no problem getting enough. I’m pulling a fast one on you, because I argued before that there is no proof that organic food is better for you, and I still claim that, but my argument here is that almost all food in this country is good enough for us. There are a host of diseases caused by malnourishment, including scurvy and anemia, however they are virtually unknown in this country outside of anorexics, people who have had obesity surgery, and some people with specific medical problems. The important issue is that there is a baseline to the nutrition that we need, but beyond that, there is no proof that overnutrition does anything good.

    I realize that a decline in omega fatty acids could be a bad thing, if I weren’t getting enough. However, if I am, then a slight decline really isn’t a problem. My guess is that, like calories, I’m getting far more nutrition in our modern world than I would have been getting even 50 or 100 years ago.

  28. Sister Y says:

    And about organic farms being sustainable, I’ve seen some estimates that they have 1/3 of the yield of some of the best commercial farms. One article I read claims that on some commercial farms, the time between harvest and the start of the next planting is ~30 minutes. This allows us to make an incredible amount of food in a fairly limited area. If the entire world were to go organic, we would have to cut down a tremendous amount of natural growth forest in order to make space for all the additional farmland.

    I think I might understand the definition of “sustainable” differently than you – my understanding is that a sustainable agricultural practice is one which could be sustained forever on a particular piece of land (rather than burning out the soil after a few years). The issue of whether human population growth is sustainable is different from whether a farming practice is sustainable. And if a particular farming practice can’t be sustained forever, then building extra population on top of that practice isn’t sustainable, either.

  29. Antinous says:

    Food good. Unfood bad.

  30. jonodavis says:

    Here is a link to an essay by Pollan, essentially a transcript of his talk at the 2006 Bioneers Conference.

    Beyond the Bar Code: The Local Food Revolution.
    http://www.bioneers.org/pollan

  31. neven says:

    This will be a bit of a digression…

    I understand, agree with, and fully sympathize with the sentiment that most people should just eat the things most moms have always told us to eat (veggies, especially green ones, and varied, as-close-to-natural-as-you-can foods). However, being in an unusual position myself, I’d like to offer a brief defense of food obsession and micronutritional nitpicking in some (typically rare) cases.

    I have been diagnosed with Wilson’s disease; essentially, an inability to remove copper from the body, which then deposits in various tissues, leading to organ failure, paralysis, insanity, and death in untreated cases. It’s a “real” disease; it’s not a choice to abstain from gluten or dairy or HFCS or whathaveyou. This means that I have to watch my copper intake carefully and keep my liver, which gets hit with the copper first (and is now in chronic cirrhosis), as clean as I can. This means no alcohol.

    Most people are understanding about my dietary restrictions, but some get a “bah, crazy new age nut” attitude, arguing that *everyone* should have a glass or two of alcohol, or that mushrooms can’t possibly be bad for you, or that there’s nothing wrong with cooking using copper pots (when I’m eating, anyway).

    I’m not at all implying that Pollan is ignorant of food allergies and other “valid” food restrictions, and I understand that the overwhelming majority of people don’t have to tabulate their nutrients religiously. I just wanted to offer one case where obsessing over nutritional content – and you have to search pretty deeply to get info on copper in most products and produce – definitely matters.

  32. zikzak says:

    @ antonius and seyno:
    You’re both missing a significant part of his argument. Of course I’ve been trained to enjoy junk food, and of course it’s unhealthy. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not delicious and satisfying.

    There’s all kinds of people who tell you to eat things you don’t like for your own good. Your mommy, your doctor, your fashion magazine, your pals on Boing Boing…they all want you to eat in a way that you may not like, but is for your own good.

    Pollan differs – his argument is that you can eat a healthy diet that’s actually /more/ delicious and enjoyable than the shit they cobble together for us in factories. He says by eating the way he recommends you’ll not only be more healthy, you’ll be more satisfied and fulfilled.

    That’s where I disagree, because it comes down to personal preference. I think a lot of the people who subscribe to Pollan’s ideas already have a romanticized idea about eating a “wholesome” diet, with pure, unadulterated produce fresh from the garden. And /maybe/ already have a vague sense of guilt about eating unhealthy “artificial” food. So of course, when they eat a wholesome diet they have a much better subjective experience, and feel much better about the meal and themselves.

    I, on the other hand, romanticize a different sort of diet, one involving corn chips, kraft cheese, and candy bars. I’ve lived off fresh produce and whole grains for good portions of my life, and didn’t really feel any different about the food, except vaguely bored by the lack of flavor stimulation. Put a plate full of nachos with “cheese-flavored” dip in front of me, though, and I’ll remember it fondly for a long time.

    I’m not saying people should eat processed food-like substances – as was said, they’re unhealthy and socio-environmentally destructive. I’m just saying that so far all we can say is “don’t eat that because it’s bad for you” or “don’t eat that because it’s bad for the world”.

    For me, the second argument is all I need to hear to convince me to change my diet. But Pollan’s arguments don’t really acknowledge the fact that some people really do find their current diets delicious, and so telling them to change based on how good locorganic tomatoes are isn’t going to fly.

  33. maxoid says:

    I’ve met a number of people who are ready to reject Pollan as a new-agey buffoon, people of all different stripes. I don’t get why a dude telling you, urging you to eat delicious, real food is something to guffaw about. It’s not some moral thing, it’s not politically motivated, and the recommendations are broad, diverse, and tasty. Say what you will about the man himself, but what’s not to like about the message?

  34. Antinous says:

    I see your point and it’s true, except that I think you reach a point where the unhealthy food starts to gross you out and the healthy food starts to be really appealing. I love eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Part of the reason is that I don’t buy corporate styrofoam produce. Real strawberries and tomatoes are as tasty as candy. Agri-business ones? You can’t even tell the difference between a strawberry and a tomato. They’re bred for shelf-life rather than flavor.

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