We've always felt like we would get along with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and many other books that address food systems and the American diet: He loves to cook, his idea of a good time is inviting friends over to cook with him, and he believes that many of the world's problems can be solved by getting into a kitchen.
When we attended the premiere of upcoming movie, an adaptation of his book, In Defense of Food, earlier this week, we were reminded of some of our favorite tenets—which he shared with us in a talk after the film. Here are ten of our favorite things he shared with us—and what we learned from them:
Throughout the evening, Pollan repeatedly warned against following health trends, using margarine as a prime example. Because of our fear of fats like butter, we replaced butter with low-fat margarine, before realizing that the trans fat margarine contains is even worse for for us than the natural fat in butter. History shows time and time again that it's always good to stick with the real stuff.
Pollan is an advocate against nutritionism (not to be confused with nutrition), which he describes as an obsession with breaking food down to its biochemistry and consuming it according to the vitamins and nutrients it contains. He asked us, "Where else in your life do you need so much biochemistry to function?" Rather than counting the amino acids and vitamins in any given food, he simply suggests eating good food—especially lots of fruits and vegetables. He said, "As ordinary people, we don't need that vocabulary to eat well."
One of Michael's most well-known tenets is to never eat anything you see advertised on television. While cereals and processed foods can change their labeling and marketing contains to fit whatever health trend is in vogue ("Low-fat! No sugar! Gluten-free!"), foods like fruits and vegetables don't have the budgets to market or the ability to change their labels to fit trends, despite the fact that they're the healthiest things in the grocery store. He said, "When fat was bad for you, the avocado just sat there the whole time—until it was finally decided that avocado fat is good again."
Because large, mass-marketed brands have the largest budgets, their stories often overwrite other stories told by members of the food community (think of the poor avocado). Pollan said, "People building a positive food culture don't have the economic muscle to fight large brands. We're up against enormous odds—but I put faith in our storytelling as the way to build culture around real food."
When asked what he thought about GMOs, Pollan said that they aren't necessarily a threat to our health—the most important GMOs, like corn and soy, are going mostly to car fuel and animal feed, so they aren't dangerous to us. But, he said, "they've accomplished remarkably little besides consolidating company control. Does it contribute to public welfare? To the environment? To our health? The final answer is no, no, and no."
"There are some people who are never going to cook," he elaborated. And there need to be people in the healthy food movement who can help them by lobbying for healthier fast food options and higher taxes on high-sugar items like soda.
Yes, it's important to buy organic and grass-fed meat (it's healthier and supports better farming practices), but it isn't the most important thing. Pollan suggests buying the best food within your ability—and if that simply means moving away from processed foods to the real thing, organic or otherwise, that's a huge step in the right direction.
Just as important as making healthy choices for yourself is becoming involved in food policy. Michael explained that the way our agricultural system is set up now, the government subsidizes the building blocks of processed foods. "No question," Michael said, "We have to address policy and fight parts of the system that leads to obesity, which are not designed with the health of the public in mind."
Milk and dairy are often at the center of food questions: Are we supposed to drink non-fat? Is full-fat the way to go? Are adults supposed to drink milk at all? Pollan said that you can get more calcium from spinach, but he still occasionally drinks milk, and when he does, it's full-fat. First, he said, "The more fat you take out of milk, the more sugar and lactose is leftover." Second, he said that when fat is skimmed from milk, it's re-sold to us as cheese (he noted that the when low-fat milk was in vogue, sales of cheese went up). He said, only half-joking, "They're getting paid twice for the fat, so I drink full-fat milk to only have to pay for it once."
Pollan said that the more he works on food issues, the more he is convinced that cooking is the solution to some of the largest food issues people face as individuals, like obesity and diet-related health issues. He said, "Cooking food yourself—nothing else you do will help more. Calories take care of themselves and it's also a political act; it supports farmers and creates equity between men and women. In the end, my one-word answer is always the same: cook." Here are 22 of our favorite quick weeknight meals to get you in the kitchen.
In Defense of Food will premiere on television on PBS on December 30th.
What are some of your favorite Michael Pollan quotes? Do you agree with him? Will you be watching the film? Tell us in the comments below!