Michael Pollan: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 11, 2006
By Blair Golson
Sure, we have votes; but as a society, we seem to vote most often for fad diets. Why are Americans in particular so susceptible to those kinds of appeals?
I think it is because we’re not anchored by a single, stable food culture, that we’re really vulnerable to messages from marketers, messages from scientists, and we’re willing to throw it all out every few years.
Yeah. Since we didn’t have one national kind of cuisine, and one sort of eating rules, the result has been a diluted food culture that is much more vulnerable to marketing.
If we had a stable food culture that had a consistent set of answers about, “This is what you eat, and this is how you eat it,” I think we’d be much less vulnerable to a news article saying, “Fat is good, carb is bad.”
Square, Site wide
The food marketers deserve a lot of the blame for this. When you sell a product like Go-Gurt, or a nonfood like this new stuff called “Gu”—which is a pure nutrients in a gel that athletes are supposed to use, but that kids are taking in their lunch boxes—you’re destroying something.
You’re destroying the idea of people eating together. If you’re selling products designed to go in the cup holder, you are, not intentionally, but effectively destroying the idea of people sitting at a table across from one another and eating.
We don’t eat together as families nearly as much as we once did. Twenty percent of meals are now eaten in the car. Food marketers are barraging us with messages about what we should eat. New food products are redefining the eating experience. Your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize a Pop Tart or a tube of Go-Gurt, or know what to do with it. So we’ve changed the way we eat more in the last 50 years than probably in the thousand years before that—at every level: in the farm, but also in the market. So all this has contributed to this confusion about what we should eat.
Of course, because before you figure out what you should eat, you need to figure out what you are eating.
Which, it turns out, is a ton of corn. Literally. You write that each of us is responsible for eating approximately a ton of corn per year. How could that be?
Most of it is hidden from view, because most of that corn is passed through animals first. We eat corn in the form of chickens and pork and beef and eggs and milk. Almost all the rest of it is highly processed. It’s in chicken McNuggets. Not just in the chicken, but in 13 out of the 38 ingredients there—the additives, the various corn starches, the various oils, the oil it’s fried in. It’s kind of a hidden food chain. And it’s not just corn. There’s a lot of soybean in our food, too.
But the way our food system works, is we take these very simple commodity crops—that the government heavily subsidizes, by the way—and we break them down into their constituent molecules, and then we reassemble them in the form of proteins, carbohydrates and fats in highly processed foods: snack foods, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola. We eat something like 56 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup sweetener every year. When you’re drinking that soda, you’re really drinking quite a bit of corn. So we should worship the corn plant, because that’s what’s supporting us right now. We don’t, because we don’t realize we’re eating it. The Mayans, who called themselves the corn people, had a healthier sense of their indebtedness to this one plant.
What are the ramifications of relying so heavily upon one crop?
The last people to rely so heavily upon one crop were the Irish in the 19th century who ate potatoes and nothing else. This wasn’t very good for their health, and when the potato crop failed in 1845, a million of them died. In general, it’s a really bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket. Nature doesn’t work that way, and we are leaving ourselves open to risk from the devastation of the corn crop from some new microbe or terrorism.
As a health matter, we’re omnivores. We do need those 50 or so different chemical nutrients, and you’re not going to get them from processed corn. Processed corn is the building block of the fast food diet.
And that diet, we’re learning, is leaving us mal-nourished, even as it makes us fat. There are kids showing up in clinics in Oakland with rickets—very well-fed, over-fed kids who are suffering from nutrient deficiencies. That’s from eating too much processed corn.
Do you think we need new rules applied to food labeling? Either from the government, or maybe from the industry itself? Are labels the answer?
I think labels are important. They are a substitute for people actually being able to meet farmers and go to farms. But I think there are a lot of other changes at the federal level that would help. Our food system is not a creation of the free market. It’s a combination of a set of rules combined with the market. And those rules are dictating the fact that, for example, cheap corn and soybeans are the predominant ingredients in our food supply.
Because we subsidize those calories, we end up with a supermarket in which the least healthy calories are the cheapest. And the most healthy calories are the most expensive. That, in the simplest terms, is the root of the obesity epidemic for the poor—because the obesity epidemic is really a class-based problem. It’s not an epidemic, really. The biggest prediction of obesity is income.
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