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Michael Pollan: The Truthdig Interview
Posted on Apr 11, 2006
By Blair Golson
You write about resistant starch, a new starch from corn that is virtually indigestible, which means it goes through the digestive track without breaking down and turning into glucose. Does this mean it doesn’t add any calories to our waistline?
That’s right. This has been the holy grail of food science for a while: to allow people to eat endlessly without getting full or fat.
So how do you feel about this new substance at first blush?
I think it’s a crazy idea. In the same way Olestra was a crazy idea.
Olestra was an oil that passes through your system, but people rejected it because of other things it did to your system. Did you ever read the warning label on Olestra? It warns of anal leakage. I find this very unappetizing.
This is going to be a very novel food; and we don’t know what it’s doing to us.
The food we have, the food we have had, is perfectly fine. I get an enormous amount of pleasure in eating the carbs that are already out there. I don’t think we need this. I think this serves the food marketers more than us. I suppose for obese people looking to lose weight, it’ll be useful to them. But sell it with a prescription.
We gotta ask: Why do ingredients labels say, “This product may contain one or more of the following…” How can the manufacturers be unclear about something like that?
They’re not unclear. What they’re doing is keeping their options open. So that on a given day, they can use any fat—they could switch from soy to cottonseed to corn oil, depending on today’s market conditions. That symbolizes a food that is highly processed. The reason you process food is so that you’re not highly dependent on any one raw ingredient, and you want to be as far removed from dependence on the corn market or soy market as possible. You engineer your foods so you could substitute any one ingredient for another.
After all you’ve seen about the way that animals are grown and slaughtered, what moral calculus do you use to continue eating meat?
I’m a limited carnivore. I only eat meat that is grown in a way that I feel morally comfortable with. And that’s not a lot of meat. But I’ve found a few producers whose practices strike me as defensible.
I also think that there are always trade-offs when we eat. Even vegans inflict collateral damage on the environment. Many animals die in row crop agriculture—not just in animal agriculture, and we have to remember that.
Animals are going to die so that we many live. And then you have to think about which animals, and how. And I think animals coming off of a humane farm where they get to live as their evolution dictates—cows on grass, for example—is better for them and for us than if they never lived at all. Domestic animals only exist to the extent that we eat them. There would be no pigs, no chickens, no cows as we know them, if people weren’t eating them. I don’t see domestication as something we’ve imposed on other species. I see it as a co-evolutionary arrangement, where the animal gets something out of it as well.
You can’t domesticate a species just because you want to. There are many species who have refused to be domesticated. The ones who have are the ones who gain something from the relationship. And I think that’s true even of the animals we are eating. Many animals depend on their predators for the health of their species.
I also think you can make a very strong ecological argument for eating meat. As I described earlier, the sustainably-raised meat is ecologically a very positive thing for the environment, for the grasslands. There are many grasslands that are diminished for not having ruminants on them. And ruminants need predators to be healthy, and we are those predators in cases of certain ruminants.
And without animals on farms, you’d need artificial fertilizer, because you wouldn’t have manure to compost. So I think truly sustainable agriculture depends on animals in relation to plants. And if we took the animals out, I’m not sure we’d like the result. I don’t think the vegan utopia, from an ecological standpoint, is very sustainable.
I also think that if you didn’t have meat agriculture, there are many places in this country and this world that would not be able to feed themselves. I’m talking about hilly places, places where grass grows, but where you can’t grow crops. You condemn people in those places to eat off of a very long food chain. I’m thinking of New England: without meat protein, you’d have to eat off the Midwest.
Finally, what did you mean in writing that we’re not only what we eat, but how we eat, too?
At the end of the industrial food chain, you need an industrial eater. What you eat, and how you eat are equally important issues. There is a lot of talk and interesting comparisons drawn between us and the French on the subject of food. We’re kind of mystified that they can eat such seemingly toxic substances—triple crme cheeses and foie gras, and they’re actually healthier than we are. They live a little bit longer, they have less obesity, less heart disease. What gives? Well, according to the people who study this: It’s not what they eat, it’s how they eat it. They eat smaller portions; they do not snack as a rule; they do not eat alone. When you eat alone, you tend to eat more. When you’re eating with someone there’s a conversation going on, there’s a sense of propriety; you don’t pig out when you’re eating at a table with other people.
So the French show you can eat just about whatever you want, as long as you do it in moderation. That strikes me as a liberating message. But it’s not the way we do things here. We have a food system here that is all about quantity, rather than quality. So how you eat is very, very important, and to solve the obesity and the diabetes issue in this country, we’re going to have change the way we eat, as well as what we eat.
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