Julia Child is out to kill us all. That’s the conventional wisdom in America, at least. French food with its rich cheeses, its fatty creams, and above all its pounds upon pounds of butter must be the most decadently unhealthy cuisine on earth. The problem with that theory, however, is that the French are some of the healthiest people on earth. Despite consuming more dietary fats on a regular basis than most of the rest of us, the French are slimmer and live longer than most Americans. Nutritionists refer to this phenomenon as the “French paradox.” Nothing in nutrition science can explain it. But journalist and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan argues that it’s no paradox at all, but rather evidence that nutrition science completely misunderstands the relationship between food and health. In his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explored the three main options available to American eaters. In his latest release, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Pollan challenges our basic assumptions about food.
He opens his book with simple instruction: “Eat food.” The trouble is, Pollan says, we don’t eat food anymore. Most of what we buy in the supermarket isn’t food; it’s food imitation product, something engineered to look and taste like food to fool our senses, infused in labs with chemicals that science tells us we need to improve different health functions. He chronicles the history that brought us this process carefully, and makes a revolutionary argument: misapplied science is making us sick.
Pollan contends that while science is a powerful tool we humans can use to improve our world and ourselves, it is a tool of limited effectiveness. It is necessarily reductionist. Science excels at examining natural phenomena, but it must isolate components to their most basic level in order to do so. This paradigm led western society to approach food as a series of independently functioning components called nutrients, rather than as chemically-complex objects affected by the environment of their origin, the interaction of the various chemicals and compounds within them, and the distinct physiology of the individuals who ingest them. “Nutritionism” as Pollan terms it, instead focuses on the basic nutrients, leading to nutrient fads: dietary fat is the great enemy one year, refined carbohydrates the next. It only takes a moment of thought to realize the absurdity of adding fiber to yogurt –or the benefit agribusiness and marketing firms stand to gain from doing so.
Pollan’s solution is simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While the book is instructive in how to go about doing that (the chapter on identifying food will revolutionize your grocery shopping), there’s much more to this book than a call to good nutrition. In his exasperation at agribusiness and the food industry, Pollan exposes far more than a marketing model that keeps us all hopping from one ‘healthy’ diet to the next.
Pollan’s suggestions are surprisingly conservative. In an interview with Ron Dreher for American Conservative, Pollan said he was shocked by how conservative his ideas were. He encourages people to buy from local producers. Know the product you’re eating and, more important, know the person who grows it. In this simple instruction, Pollan makes three unexpected arguments.
First, conservatives and liberals can agree, if only accidentally. The search for environmentally and health-friendly foods leads liberals to buy from local farmers who view their consumers as people rather than faceless buyers. The search for economically-viable farming (particularly family farming) leads conservatives to encourage people to buy from local farmers. Forget debates over health insurance – if Pollan’s health claims are sound, a revolution in agriculture could save billions of health care dollars. But the important point to remember is that Pollan’s solution makes liberals and conservatives happy, without qualification. That’s rare.
Second, the war on science need not be a war. Scientism is running its course if progressive thinkers like Pollan are questioning its authoritarian reign as the ultimate authority on everything. Science sold its soul to agribusiness in the 20th century, and if Pollan’s argument takes hold in our culture, people will begin asking more important questions. If science is a tool, how should science be used? And more important, who else has science sold its soul to?
Finally Pollan reminds us that human interaction is humanizing. That may sound obvious, but so does Pollan’s reminder to “eat food.” When you know the person who grows your food, you tend to treat that person as a person, and that relationship goes both ways. Farmers who grow food thinking of the individuals who will enjoy it will take better care to make sure it’s healthy, and eaters who know the farmers and ranchers who produce their food will enjoy it more considering the time, work, and art that went into producing it.
In short, Pollan’s In Defense of Food reminds us to be human. Food is for producing in community, enjoying in community, and enriching our community. Just like Julia Child knew, all those years ago, something as delicious as butter has the power to bring us together – and set us free to enjoy the world God has created.