Defending food

Michael Pollan talks food and nutrition at UD’s speaker series

By Paula Johnson

Michael Pollan has become America’s foremost leader in food philosophy, examining the social and political forces that shape our food production, and writing and speaking about the implications of what and how we eat. He will be appearing at The University of Dayton’s Speaker Series Thursday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. With seven books to his credit, and a new Netflix series Cooked, his ability to distill the complicated morass of the American diet has made him a singular beacon of light and reason.

Pollan’s become famous for seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Far from preachy and pedantic, his voice is thoughtful, engaging and accessible. And hopeful. His slender volume “Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual” is practically revolutionary in its simplicity in helping us to easily redirect our eating choices. In it, Pollan touches only briefly on the copious research and scientific depth of his other books, instead offering short bullet points as a guide to negotiating what and how to eat. (For instance, Rule number two: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”). Recently, Pollan made the time to chat with Dayton City Paper about this rule and many others.

I’m thinking of where you began with your first books—“Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” and especially “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View Of The World.”  It seems like you’ve come full-circle from examining the life of plants, to examining our food sources and choices, and now to how we prepare that food—essentially, cooking. Can you talk about that?

Michael Pollan: “The Botany of Desire” is where I really started thinking about GMO’s and genetic engineering—particularly how we grow potatoes in this country, for instance. McDonald’s demands Russet Burbank potatoes, which are horrifically destructive to our ecosystem, but because it’s McDonald’s we grow them. Then I saw my first feedlot, and I had no idea that’s how animals lived. When I began delving into nutrition science I wrote “In Defense Of Food.” That’s when I began to see the whole story—that it’s not just about nutrients; it’s a story about how we eat. So you can see the progression.

Back in 2002 you wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times about the destructive nature of corn. You explain how cheap government-subsidized corn made its way into not only soda but into everything we eat, and the corresponding obesity epidemic and devastating environmental impact that resulted.  Has anything changed?

MP: No, I mean corn still dominates our agriculture. Subsidy systems changed a bit but we’re still subsidizing monocultures of corn and soy. The big change is with soda. Sales are tanking and that’s encouraging news. But we’re still growing too much and feeding too much of it to our cars, and too much of it to animals who aren’t evolved to eat it, like cattle.

You’ve likened the soda industry to the cigarette industry in terms of a public health risk. Do you see anything changing there?

MP: Well, you can see what happened when soda got really cheap as the sugar in it was replaced by high fructose corn syrup and people began drinking it every day instead of every now and then. Obesity and diabetes exploded, and resulted in a public health crisis. But I can see it changing when cities and municipalities begin to realize how much tax revenue is to be made from it. England and Mexico recently passed soda taxes. We won’t be far behind.

For those who may not be familiar with the term, can you describe what “food-like substances” are, and explain how they came to such a place of prominence in the American diet?

MP: Real food is plants and animals and fungi that are minimally processed. Food-like substances are things like hyper-processed cheese food—that’s not cheese, and it’s not food—it’s like food, but not really. The rise of food science technology ushered in a whole era of convenient food-like substances that became part of our diets, much to the detriment of our health.

You talk about the difficulties in making ethical food choices. For instance, if you are concerned about buying organic, you might buy something that isn’t produced locally, but has an organic designation.  But if you are concerned about fossil fuels, you might choose to buy local even if it’s not organically produced. What advice can you give around these issues? 

MP: What I tell people is that there’s no right answer. They need to decide for themselves what values they support. But, I say that’s why the one question to ask a farmer at the market isn’t are you organic, it’s how do you deal with pests and fertility on your farm? Then you can get into a real conversation that tells you if you should support that operation.

Even though you espouse casting a vote for the kind of food system you want by your ethical choices, do you have a secret food vice? What’s that one food Michael Pollan eats in the closet when no one is looking? 

MP:  Haha. Well I don’t do it in the closet, but I really love chocolate.

I was fascinated to find out when I watched the last installment of Cooked that chocolate is a fermented product.

MP: Yes, I’ve seen the process and it’s fascinating! But if I’m forced to buy a snack at a gas station, which I try not to, it would be a bag of Cracker Jacks.

Michael Pollan speaks from 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21 at UD RecPlex, 300 College Park in Dayton, as part of the UD Speaker Series. Admission is free, and limited seating is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information, please visit go.udayton.edu/speakerseries or call 937.229.2245.

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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