On eating well

I have just finished reading Food Rules by Michael Pollan. This book can be seen as a continuation of In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating, which came out in 2007. In fact, Pollan has been writing about food for a number of years now and in Food Rules he distils his knowledge into 64 rules. This book, which is just under 120 pages long, can be read in under an hour. For Pollan it all comes down to this simple slogan: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. We don’t’ need all these complicated nutritional science. Although I have reservations about some of his ideas, I do find him a very perceptive observer of our food habits and culture.

I have posted a complete list of the rules but here are some of my favourites:

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)
  • Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the colour of the milk.
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements—then skip the supplements.

 I think a lot of his advice is very sensible and it is difficult to disagree with many of the rules. I think we have lost our way with food over the last few decades. There have been some real horrors perpetrated over the years. Pollan mentions Go-GURT Portable Yogurt tubes. I haven’t had that particular gastronomic experience but I can remember Alphabet Spaghetti and Pot Noodles. I like his term for these culinary atrocities: “edible food-like substances.” Actually edible is exceedingly generous in most cases.

I like his attitude to food. He actually talks about eating as a pleasure. In many circles food has become the new sex. I read about this phenomenon in a fascinating paper by Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institute. We have seen a transformation in societal attitudes; food is marked by a whole series of taboos while  sex has gone in the other direction. So we get mindful eating and mindless sex. Of course as with sex in the past, one thing is the morality and a completely different thing is how we behave in reality. If food is the new sex, Eberstadt asks, “Where does that leave sex?” She says it leaves us with a kind of junk sex, akin to junk food. Personally as a libertarian I don’t want government sticking its nose in either the bedroom or the kitchen.

I do have some reservations about Pollan’s ideas. Firstly as I mentioned in a previous post, I am not a big fan of the Buy Local movement.  I am too influenced by economic ideas of specialisation and the benefits of trade. Pollan is a little too atavistic in his support of traditional food cultures. The reality is that despite all the horror stories about Western diets, we are living longer.

When people go on about natural food what exactly do they mean? I like this quote from Justine Brian:

Consider the ubiquitous olive. When we talk of sourcing, using and eating real food, does that mean in the case of the olive that we (a) go to a local olive tree, (b) climb said tree to shake the bitter, hard and inedible berries off it, and (c) pickle them in a brine solution for about four weeks to turn them into edible little morsels?

 I appreciate the fact that these days we don’t have to go out with a spear to hunt for our supper. It is true that food consumption is divorced from its origin. There are times when you just want convenience. You realise that what you are eating is not perfect but … I have a lot of respect for gardeners and eating your own fruit and vegetables must be wonderful but I have other priorities. It is not necessarily a sin to be ignorant of exactly where our food comes from. Life is just too short.

I am also sceptical about organic. Price is not a trivial question. As that contrarian economist Steven Landsburg has argued there is a problem with banning all pesticides: fruit and vegetable prices go up, people reduce their consumption of these foods and cancer rates consequently rise.

Industrialised agriculture has produced many benefits. With a fraction of the farmers who were at the beginning of the 1900s we produce more food. Those people who have been freed from the land have been able to go into other sectors thus creating more wealth. Pollan’s ideas about top-down regulations miss the point. If there is a demand for better quality food the free market is perfectly capable of meeting that demand. We can demand better food and reject all those “edible food-like substances.”

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