The Tate Lecture Series hosted Michael Pollan to speak on the food industry and its impact on health last Thursday evening in McFarlin Auditorium.
President R. Gerald Turner introduced Pollan to a packed audience as author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food,” “Food Rules,” and a contributor to the 2008 film “Food, Inc.” Pollan is one of Newsweek’s Top 10 New Thought Leaders of 2010.
After his introduction, Pollan came onstage with Tom Thumb grocery bags. He explained that what was once a very simple concept – eating – has become incredibly complex.
“What is healthy food?” he asked the audience.
Today, it’s difficult to find food that’s ethically and morally aligned with America’s views. However, Pollan believes there’s a way to approach eating with happiness and sanity.
“Grain and sugar are being sold as medicine,” he explained while revealing a purchase from what he found to be the most “treacherous” part of the grocery store: the cereal aisle.
Cinnamon Toast Crunch is thought to be acceptable as healthy breakfast cereal for kids because whole grain wheat is listed as the first ingredient, but Pollan said that sugar is actually broken up into four types on the ingredients list. If these were consolidated, he explained, sugar would absolutely come in first.
Even white bread, Wonderbread, is now being made with whole grain. However, it takes thirty-seven ingredients to make this supposedly healthier white bread that is still fluffy and soft.
“This is the kind of science that sent us to the moon,” he said while letting out a chuckle.
He pulled out a new kind of juice by FUSE called “Slenderize.” The label claims to contain an ingredient that the body uses in metabolism. The audience erupted in laughter as Pollan pointed out:
“What doesn’t the body use in metabolism? It’s a worthless claim.”
“We’re way too busy for normal food,” he said of Americans’ eating habits.
When cereal was first brought into production, it was the ultimate convenience food. Daily nutrients were put into a compact form so that consumers would only have to pour milk in a bowl to eat them. Now, America needs cereal bars instead to get rid of the milk, bowl and spoon.
He pulled out pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with no crust. We’ve reached the point, it seems, that America’s moms no longer have the time or energy to even make a their kids PB&J.
“I don’t remember her ever breaking a sweat,” he joked in reference to his own mother.
Pollan got more serious when he started defining what exactly is wrong with America’s health-obsession, asserting that the concern with health is what is making us unhealthy.
This is the “American paradox,” he said.
According to Pollan, four myths need to be broken in order to turn things around:
- The key to understanding any food is the nutrient.
- You need an expert to tell you how to eat.
- You can divide food into good and evil – “satanic nutrients” and “blessed nutrients.”
- The whole point of eating is health.
America has been eating this way since the low-fat campaign of the 1970s, according to Pollan. The Senate tried to pass a set of rules for the nation, including one that would encourage Americans to eat less red meat. This upset the cattle industry, so it had to be reworded to encourage Americans to choose meats that would reduce saturated fat intake.
This, he said, was the start of a move from “clear language to obfuscation,” and from “a recognized food to an unknown nutrient.”
This was a fateful development. Since then Americans have gotten fatter and less healthy.
So, how should Americans decide how to eat?
“Nutrition science is a very young science and it’s very hard to do,” he said. “Nutrition science today is where surgery was in the year 1650.”
Instead of relying on scientific advances, he explained, people should go back to the basics, back to when families relied on culture for food rather than science.
“Culture’s just a fancy word for your mom,” he joked.
The remainder of Pollan’s talk was filled with simple rules of thumb for eating and grocery shopping, many of which can be found in his book, “Food Rules.”
Pollan’s most resonant rule of thumb: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
He said regulation is the most difficult part of the rule for Americans. In Japan, people eat until they are 80 percent full. In the Quran, a full belly is 1/3 food, 1/3 liquid, and 1/3 air. In China, people eat until they are 75 percent full. In America, people don’t need to stop eating until they are full.
Eating is not just about rules and diets and moderation. Eating, in other words, should be about a sense of ceremony: flowers on the dinner table and creating the opportunity for people to simply enjoy their food. Home-cooked meals are really important and the foundation of a healthy diet.
The most important rule, Pollan said, is not to be a fanatic. He ended with a quote from Oscar Wilde:
“All things in moderation, including moderation.”
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