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Food, Glorious Food


Photo by Ken Light

UC Berkeley journalism professor and writer Michael Pollan raised a number of thought-provoking questions about food in our country in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. With his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, he sets out to provide some practical advice in answer to some of those questions.

Why does food need defending? Is it under attack?

We need to defend food—by which I mean real food as opposed to processed foodlike products—because it is under attack from nutrition scientists on one side and the food industry on the other. Both encourage us to think in terms of nutrients rather than foods, and both benefit from widespread confusion about something that should be quite simple: deciding what to eat. If eating were again a matter of common sense, who would ever listen to nutritionists on TV or buy their books?

What prompted you to write this book?

After publishing The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I found that readers were, first, astounded to learn what they were eating, and second, eager to know how they might change the way they eat. So, I began researching the whole question of food and health to see if I could come up with a few simple rules of eating. To my surprise, I discovered that the scientists had less to teach us about eating healthfully than I expected—that the science of nutrition is still a very primitive science—and that there is a much more reliable source of wisdom on the subject. That wisdom is in the form of traditional foods, cuisines, and food cultures, which are the product of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of trial and error, figuring out how to keep people healthy using whatever grows in a specific place.

You boil down your advice for better eating to seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It sounds simple, but how do you apply that advice in today’s culture of fast food and packaged food?

The challenge is to know what food is and isn’t, because if you’re eating food, you’re probably going to be OK. In Defense of Food offers several handy tests for distinguishing between food and food products. For example, if your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize something as food, it probably isn’t. If it contains more than five ingredients, or contains high-fructose corn syrup, or has ingredients you can’t pronounce, it probably isn’t food. Fortunately, there is still plenty of food. At the farmers market, you’ll find nothing but real food—nothing processed, nothing hydrogenated. You can’t go wrong. 

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