In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto Book Critique

McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Subway, Jimmy Johns, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Popeye’s and countless other food places are visited by thousands of Americans each day. Sadly, because of the convenience and price I am one of these people who give in to the endless fast food options we have in America today. Grocery shopping for most Americans is buying food that is the “best bargain,” or something you can get your moneys worth for. Quantity over quality is the mindset that a lot of people have in today’s society and how can you blame them? With rising costs in every aspect of living, a lot of people cannot afford to purchase organic, better quality food. Reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto has surprisingly helped me in becoming a better consumer and to make healthier choices in what I eat on a regular basis. As the title suggests, throughout the book the author tries to get the reader to take common sense approaches in improving the way they eat. The main argument he points out is that having science incorporated into the way we eat (especially the additives and chemicals put into foods) has vastly decreased the quality of our food and increased diseases and health complications in America.

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The “Western diet” compared to other regions of the world is obviously not the best diet and it would be in the best interest of everyone to go back to a more traditional diet. Pollan also wants us to remember to “Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.” Interestingly enough while I was writing this paper I was drinking Mango Passion Fruit Juice from Welch’s and I thought I would read the ingredients because there is a section in Pollan’s book that says to not eat or drink things with ingredients you don not know or cannot even pronounce. My juice contained high fructose corn syrup, filtered water, apple juice concentrate, mango puree concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial flavors, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid, gum acacia, beta carotene (color), and ester gum. Most of the ingredients listed sound like they are from a science laboratory experiment and not the ingredients needed to make simple fruit juice. Pollan discusses many methods and guidelines of how to eat healthy and what foods to avoid and to eat more of.

Throughout the book the main arguments that I thought were the most important and that I agree with was that having science dictate what we deem is healthy or nutritious in our diet should be changed and have us go back to traditional diets, that foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts, nutritionalism (the history of the isolated nutrients in our diet) is not a good approach to eating and the food manufacturing industry does not help the consumer’s health because all they really care about is marketing their products and increasing yields, and that our mindset when eating and purchasing food should be quality over quantity. The first main argument from In Defense of Food is the one that says having science dictate what we deem is healthy or nutritious in our diet should be changed and we should go back to traditional diets (versus a Western diet). An article by compares a specific Asian diet versus a western one.

The traditional Japanese diet includes fresh fish, rice, soy, vegetables, fruits, and green tea, while the Western diet relies heavily on red meat, poultry, fried foods, and processed foods that are high in salt or added sugar (Campbell). Looking at the two diets from a broad perspective and not from a narrow scientific view, it seems that the Japanese diet seems much more healthy to the consumer. Another few guidelines he lays out is that people should eat whole foods, purchase free range meats, buy from fair and local farmers markets or even directly from the farmer, savor your meals at the table with friends or family, avoid foods your great grandmother would not recognize, and to grow a garden to get the most fresh, ripe produce. I whole-heartedly agree on all of these points. It seems that the most natural and close you can get your food from the original source itself, the better quality it will be. There are many health claims and benefits about eating free-range meats, which include less cruelty inflicted on the animals, being able to obtain better nutrients from the meat itself, and to help local farmers.

Compared to free range meats, conventional meats are fed a specific grain diet that increases rapid weight gain (Walls-Thumma). There actually is a difference in the meat that comes from rapid weight gained animals from the slow free-range animals. Slow growing animals produce meat with lower lipid content and higher proportions of polyunsaturated fatty acids, making this type of animal attractive from a nutritional point of view (Bianchi et al. 318). In today’s world, science and technology are a part of our everyday lives and has improved our quality of life tremendously. With such improvements in our well being due to science, it seems silly that there would be a drawback to having “too much science” in one’s life. However, with the increase in health conscious consumers, most food products that are currently sold have added ingredients in them to make them more nutritious. Jennifer L. Pomeranz writes that health and nutrition claims have been shown to increase consumers’ perception of healthfulness and willingness to purchase the products.

However, studies indicate that these claims are misleading and confusing, detract from the use of the Nutrition Facts Panel, generate inaccurate references and often convey healthiness for products that do not meet objective nutrition standards (2). Minute Maid’s Cranberry Apple Cocktail advertises that it is “all natural” but in actuality contains citric acid, while Thomas’ Hearty Grain English Muffins claim the muffins are “made with the goodness of whole grain” but is mostly unbleached enriched wheat flour (white flour) (Center for Science in the Public Interest). This goes along with not eating anything your great grandmother would not recognize as food. Too many people are informed on diet by untrustworthy marketing with little knowledge of real science, and even scientists cannot agree with each other. One report would claim that saturated fats are bad while another claims they are healthy (Parker-Pope).

Pollan writes that in response to the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines, animal scientists genetically bred for leaner pigs and beef. A pork chop could now compete with chicken and be advertised as having “reduced saturated fat intake.” Genetically modified foods have been ever increasing in our supermarkets and grocery stores because they can be produced in greater quantities and at lower costs. Alcaraz, Bellows, and Hallman reports that by 2004 the U.S. accounted for 59% of the total area cropped with genetically modified varieties worldwide. This proportion could grow in the coming years due to the increasing rate of adoption of genetically modified crops by U.S. farmers (541). Several health concerns have been raised by researchers on genetically modified foods including not having enough research done on the long and short-term effects on our bodies, how the changes may mutate within our bodies, and the loss of natural seeds (taken from native wild plants) from being replaced by genetically modified seeds (Domingo 722).

The ideology of nutritionalism (isolated nutrients in our diet) is not in any means a good approach to eating. Throughout the book there are several examples of how overall a particular diet is great for a group of people, but when the nutrients are isolated and added to other foods, the achieved health effects are not the same. Nonessential and essential nutrients cannot be considered to operate in isolation; rather, they work in a dynamic, constantly changing milieu. Greater attention to all components of the diet and elaboration of their interactions should make possible specific and appropriate recommendations for the general population and allow for recommendations tailored to specific subgroups or individuals (Milner 1658).

Also, the food manufacturing industry promotes false health advertising in order to market their products and increase yield. They have helped to justify “foods” such as vitamin enriched Diet Coke and bread with Omega-3 fatty acids (Pollan 53, 80). Similar to nutritionalism, reductionism also takes complex things and reduces them to simpler constituents. Reductionism as a way of understanding how certain foods or drugs work may be harmless and quite beneficial, but when it comes to actually practicing it by applying to the way we eat (reducing foods and plants to their most salient compounds), can lead to problems. Nutrition scientists especially those involved with conveying health messages should adopt as their primary public health perspective one which recognizes that the influence of diet on health and diseases likely results not only from the subtle effects of a vast multitude of individual food components but from whole foods and the interactions that occur among their constituents (Appel et al. 1417). By isolating nutritional elements from the whole foods package in which they originate, food manufacturers can convince us that their highly-processed and nutrient-poor products are heart healthy, rich in omega-3’s, contain zero trans fat, provide daily fiber requirements, or contain no cholesterol.

Lastly, I thought that one of the more important arguments Pollan talked about in the book was how we should consume and purchase food that chooses the value of that product over the amount of what we are purchasing. However, in today’s world where our food system is organized around quantity rather than quality, the more low quality food one eats, it seems that the more one wants to eat in a unsuccessful but highly profitable quest for the absent nutrient (Pollan 124). Farmers have doubled or tripled the yield of most major grains, fruits and vegetables over the last half-century. American agriculture’s single-minded focus on increasing yields over the last half-century created a blind spot where incremental erosion in the nutritional quality of our food has occurred. The concentration of a range of essential nutrients in the food supply has declined in the last few decades, with double-digit percentage declines of iron, zinc, calcium, selenium and other essential nutrients across a wide range of common foods. As a consequence, the same-size serving of sweet corn or potatoes, or a slice of whole wheat bread, delivers less iron, zinc and calcium (Halweil 5).

Understanding not just what to eat to obtain our nutrients in the best way possible, but in how to eat will help to improve people’s lives that are on the Western diet. Many health problems, avoidable deaths, and other negative factors that have come from the way they eat will be eliminated if we take into consideration the many valid points that Michael Pollan lists in his book. The few arguments Pollan listed that I was able to validate from other sources were the ones that I thought were the most important but by no means were they the only ones.

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