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Michael Pollan Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Michael Pollan, Jamie Kennedy and Andrew Heintzman

Berkeley Professor, journalist and author Michale Pollan is a popular man. His latest book, In Defense of Food: An eater's Manifesto is firmly lodged into The New York Times bestseller list, where it's been since it came out. In Defence follows his 2006 blockbuster The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which also spent many weeks on the list and changed the way many viewed industrial farming. His current mantra, "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants" is being touted by pundits all over the English speaking world, along with his devilishly simple advice: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food". Maybe it's just because, folks get it. It's easy to digest, and they want more. They want to hear him speak.

Pollan arrived in Toronto recently to do a public Q&A session with radio host Matt Galloway. It was an event put on by the Cookbook Store that sold out so quickly they had to find a bigger venue. Then, the extra tickets sold out within a day. In the meantime, before he addressed the thousands of Toronto readers that evening, Investeco President Andrew Heintzman decided to buy him (and an ecclectic mix of Bay Streeters, food activists and journalists) lunch at Jamie Kennedy's Gardiner restaurant. Pollan spoke to us about his book, why "cooking must become a political act" and how "the food industry is manufacturing patients for the medical industry". Investeco is an investment fund that only puts money into green, sustainable and environmentally friendly ventures - with apparent success. In his opening remarks, Heintzman made the parallel between investors putting all their trust in financial experts and consumers' relationship to food science. He also made the link between the harmful effects of cheap energy on the environment and the harmful effects of cheap processed food on the human body. Before serving an all Ontario three course lunch, Kennedy promised Pollan and guests they would "not be assailed by the industrial food complex here." And he couldn't have been more right.

I sat down and spoke with Pollan as JK Gardiner's tables were being set with organic willow branches.

Gremolata: I'd like to gauge your reaction to something that happened to me recently. I got a package from a PR company that included a red heart shaped bowl and two big bags of potato chips. The letter that came with it read "February is Heart and Stroke Awareness Month," or something like that, "And your readers will want to know that they can help fight heart disease by switching to these chips that contain 50% less sodium than our regular brand."

Michael Pollan: That's outrageous.

Gremolata: I agree, but my question is did they believe it? Or were they as clueless as many others seem to be?

Michael Pollan: Well, they're doing this using some very old science, and I've seen claims on bags of chips in the States that claim they're "heart healthy" because they're using polyunsaturated fats instead of animal fats, but I can't help but think that that's just cynical. There's a lot science being done right now that says refined carbohydrates are as big a problem as fat in diets. I mean, if you go to the food store all those claims are based on old science - like the link between diet cholesterol and serum cholesterol, which is increasingly tenuous.

So the more charitable view is that they're making these claims mistakenly using junk science. But the less charitable view is that they're dying to make any claim and we'll use anything they can to do it.

Gremolata: As a reasonably sophisticated eater, I have trouble believing anyone would think eating potato chips would be good for you.

Michael Pollan: Sure. On some level everybody knows they're not, but what happens with the health claims is that they become a license. Then you get "whole grain coco puffs". You give them to your kid and tell yourself a little story that they're ok. Or look at the fortification that's been going on in cereal for fifty years. You can tell yourself a story that makes it ok to feed your kids what's essentially candy for breakfast. So we're kidding ourselves, but there are also health claims that genuinely confuse people, like eggs and cholesterol.

Gremolata: That one almost seems instinctual: there's cholesterol in eggs, if I eat them I'll be putting cholesterol in body and it will show up in my veins.

Michael Pollan: But in fact it doesn't. Eggs have been have been more or less exonerated. But the problem is when the scientists change their minds and decide they were more or less wrong, they never come out and tell us. They'll just quietly drop the recommendation and industry will lag way behind.

Gremolata: One interesting bit of science in your book is this emerging idea that refined carbohydrates in the western diet may be making people fat in a way they don't realise, by spiking their blood sugar. It almost suggests that it's beyond their will, that it's not their fault that they're fat.

Michael Pollan: Well, we don't really understand how people get fat. We used to think it was just a matter of taking in more energy than you're expending. Now, it turns out, it's not even that simple. Our metabolism and how it reacts to fat and sugar is a very complicated and not a fully understood process. There is a great deal of evidence now that hormonal disorders may play a role and if two people eat exactly same food, and exercise exactly the same amount, one might get fat and the other might stay in a healthy range.

So, blaming people is probably not fair. I'm sure there are people who have real problems in their relationship with food, who binge. And there are people who are too sedentary, and we shouldn't overlook the importance of exercise. But there are many people who are going to get fat no matter what they do, or at least if they stay on a Western diet.

Gremolata: I am describing In Defence of Food to friends as "The William Goldman Book" after his line "Nobody knows anything" about Hollywood. It seems to apply to food science.

Michael Pollan: I should have used that! Actually that was one of the big surprises for me writing this book: the general state of knowledge on nutrition is, to be charitable, primitive. I mean that it's a very young science. They may figure this out, and I hope they do. I'm actually very interested in nutrition science and I'm not anti-science. But the more you look at it, and the more you talk to the scientists themselves, the more you realise that this is still poorly understood.

It's poorly understood at both ends of the food chain. I mean what's going on in the food itself: what are the important nutrients in a carrot? Why don't they work when we take them out of the carrot? These are complex systems. And on the other side of the food chain is the human body, which is even less understood. The whole history of nutrient science has been identifying one new nutrient after another, but the next phase of the science will be to identify systems, and it's not a simple input/output thing.

Gremolata: As a liberal arts grad, the part of In Defence of Food that I like the best is when you say, 'never mind the science, just go for the culture!'

Michael Pollan: Me too. But that's a pragmatic decision. I mean that it's not simply my prejudice. In fact, I'm a professor of science journalism, so I'm supposed to be much friendlier to science than I often am. But once I realised that science wasn't the best guide to what to eat, that they had got a lot wrong and there is still a lot to understand, then I wondered what is a better guide? So, I went back to the one we've had for thousands of years. People have navigated a culture of food abundance, they've navigated a culture of diversity, they've navigated all the difficulties of being an omnivore through culture. Through memory, through rules of thumb, through the wisdom of their grandmothers. I mean culture's just a fancy word for your mother, at least when it comes to food.

We displaced our mothers. Scientists working with the food industry and all its marketing has undercut the authority of mothers, and undercut the confidence of mothers. My mother is a great example. She would give us margarine because you were supposed to, but the whole time I remember her saying, "I know that some day they'll figure it out that butter is better for you." She knew it in her gut! But she didn't trust her gut because the consensus opinion of food science, government and industry was that margarine was healthier.

Gremolata: To be fair, you point out that coming out of the Second World War, there was a command economy that had to make a lot of food very quickly and that changed a lot.

Michael Pollan: Right. It changed both the way food was prepared and the way that food was grown. Industrial agriculture is very much the product of the conversion of munitions to fertiliser, and nerve gas to pesticides! It really is. Vandana Shiva has the best line about this: "We're still eating the leftovers of World War II".

Gremolata: Going back to culture: this book and Omnivore's Dilemma are tough on science and they're tough on government and industry, but there's another 'estate' that you're tough on: journalism.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, absolutely. We journalists are part of the problem. And the reason for that is we amplify the latest scientific discovery, and we put it on our front pages. And part of that is food is a really old story. We've known how to eat for thousands of years. But we journalists need a new story every day, so we're suckers for novelty, the new food. But we have to realise that food doesn't work like that.

Photo Credit: Margie Cook for Investeco.


Michael Pollan rocks.
Post Reply By Nathan in SCARBOROUGH on 9/24/2008 8:51:41 PM

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