Feed­ing furore

We don’t know enough about what we put into our bel­lies, or how what we eat af­fects the planet, claims this ‘good food’ guru.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By EL­IZ­A­BETH TAI

EAT food. That’s rule No.1 in Michael Pol­lan’s book, Food Rules. A tad ob­vi­ous, you think? The prob­lem is, eat­ing has be­come com­pli­cated in our time. Nu­mer­ous diet books and sci­en­tific re­search – many with con­tra­dic­tory re­sults – have cre­ated nu­tri­tional con­fu­sion, mak­ing the act of de­cid­ing what’s for din­ner more com­pli­cated than it should be.

Hu­man be­ings, be­ing om­ni­vores, have a very spe­cific prob­lem that is con­nected with our spe­cific ad­van­tage, says Pol­lan. Un­like other mam­mals, such as, say, koalas and cows, with limited di­ets, hu­man be­ings can eat a great many things.

“This has al­lowed them to live in many places. And when you can eat al­most any­thing, you have to watch out for things that will make you sick, like poi­son mush­rooms or foods that lead to (dis­eases),” says Pol­lan via tele­phone from London where he is on a book tour pro­mot­ing Food Rules.

And now, with the plethora of pro­cessed, chem­i­cally en­hanced foods avail­able, we hu­mans have to choose our meals even more care­fully.

“Food cul­ture is tra­di­tion­ally how peo­ple have nav­i­gated that land­scape, but food cul­tures have been fad­ing in our time, and in some places like the United States, it is al­most ex­tinct,” he says.

Pol­lan, 55, is a well-known “food ac­tivist”. He has writ­ten sev­eral books about how our cur­rent mod­ern food prac­tices and in­dus­tries are not just de­stroy­ing our health but also the world.

But it was never Pol­lan’s plan to get on a food soap­box. The Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Pol­lan, who cur­rently lives in Cal­i­for­nia, has al­ways been in­ter­ested in writ­ing about man’s re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral world and has done so for 25 years, win­ning many awards for his ef­forts.

The vet­eran jour­nal­ist, who teaches at the pres­ti­gious Berkeley grad­u­ate school of jour­nal­ism, Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, first shared his love for gar­den­ing – to which he was in­tro­duced by his Rus­sian grand­fa­ther – in Sec­ond Na­ture: A Gar­dener’s Ed­u­ca­tion (1991). Then, he wrote A Place of My Own (1997), in which he re­counts how he de­signed and con­structed with his own hands on his ru­ral Con­necti­cut prop­erty a small, one-room struc­ture where he hoped to “read, write and day-dream”. Af­ter that came The Botany Of De­sire (2001), in which he high­lighted man’s re­la­tion­ship with do­mes­ti­cated plants.

“I’ve al­ways liked to grow food. And if you’re in­ter­ested in hu­mans’ im­pact on the nat­u­ral world, sooner or later you’re go­ing to look at food be­cause food is the most pow­er­ful way that we af­fect the rest of the world,” Pol­lan says.

In 1998, he was asked to write an ar­ti­cle about ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food. He ap­proached it as a gar­dener and grew ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied pota­toes in his gar­den. In the process of re­search­ing the story, he be­gan learn­ing about in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and re­alised that most Amer­i­cans – most peo­ple in Michael Pol­lan’s books – such as his lat­est, be­low – claim that there’s some­thing very wrong with the world’s food sys­tems. – Alia Mal­ley the in­dus­tri­alised world, ac­tu­ally – did not know where their food came from. He thought it would be in­ter­est­ing to “fol­low the hu­man food chain” and show peo­ple how food came to be on their plates.

In 2002, he did just that. For three years, Pol­lan in­ves­ti­gated all as­pects of the food in­dus­try and even had hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence in pro­duc­ing food – he hunted game, slaugh­tered chick­ens on a farm and picked wild mush­rooms.

“(It’s) about look­ing at food in a more in­ti­mate way and see­ing if I could re­con­nect with food that is ac­tu­ally hunted and gath­ered by me. That was prob­a­bly the most fun I’ve had as a writer ever,” says Pol­lan, laugh­ing wryly.

His ex­pe­ri­ences re­sulted in The Om­ni­vore’s Dilemma (pub­lished in 2006). The award­win­ning book es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion as the “good food” guru.

Food rules

Af­ter that book came In De­fense Of Food: An Eater’s Man­i­festo (2009), a book about the his­tory of man’s ef­forts to fig­ure food out.

“It kind of con­cludes that we know a lot less than we think we know, and that nutrition sci­ence is, to put it very mildly, a very young sci­ence, and there’s a lot they haven’t fig­ured out about what we eat and how it af­fects us and why we get sick from cer­tain kinds of di­ets,” he says.

Af­ter the book was pub­lished, a num­ber of doc­tors be­gan telling Pol­lan that they’d love to have a sim­ple pam­phlet of food rules that they could give to their pa­tients.

“And I thought that was a very in­ter­est­ing idea, to boil down ev­ery­thing I’ve learned about food – nutrition in par­tic­u­lar – into a set of very sim­ple, easy-to-fol­low rules that will not be couched in the lan­guage of sci­ence so much but in cul­ture that ev­ery­one un­der­stands,” he says.

Cul­ture has a lot to teach us about food, says Pol­lan: “We al­ways go to sci­ence and think that sci­ence has the last word. But, in fact, for hun­dreds or thou­sands of years be­fore we had nu­tri­tional sci­ence, we had the wis­dom of the tribes en­cap­su­lated in say­ings and the kind of ad­vice you hear from your mother or grand­mother,” he points out.

He set out to col­lect this wis­dom, and be­gan by ask­ing peo­ple for sug­ges­tions on the blog he had in The New York Times’ blog pages. He re­ceived 2,500 “food rules” in two days. He sorted through those, and then con­sulted doc­tors to make sure he wasn’t go­ing to lead any­one astray.

And the re­sult is the 64-rule Food RulesRules.

“(The book) is an ef­fort to help cut through the nutrition con­fu­sion that so many of us feel when we walk through the su­per­mar­ket,” he says.

Food cul­tures

There was a mas­sive revo­lu­tion in the sup­ply of food in the 20th cen­tury, and this re­sulted in foods that “your grand­mother would not recog­nise”. Pow­er­ful mar­ket­ing mes­sages are also un­der­min­ing trusted “food rules” handed down by cul­tures for cen­turies.

“(Food cul­tures) should be pre­served the same way as we fight to pre­serve paint­ings and beau­ti­ful gar­dens, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture,” says Pol­lan.

Food cul­ture is, ba­si­cally, peo­ple’s so­cial­ly­in­flu­enced tastes, val­ues, prac­tices and at­ti­tudes to­wards food (as de­fined in Tim Lang and Michael Heas­man’s Food Wars: The Global Bat­tle For Mouths, Minds and Mar­kets).

Pol­lan loves the food cul­ture of Asia and de­scribes it as “par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful and healthy”.

“They (Asians) tend to in­volve a lot of veg­eta­bles and treat meat as a flavour­ing more than the cen­tre of the meal. And I think that’s a healthy way to ap­proach meat,” he says.

Ital­ians en­joy food in small quan­ti­ties, and the French have good food habits – they do not, for one, snack much at all and look at food not as fuel but as com­mu­nion, a part of their so­cial life.

And even the “stranger” tra­di­tional di­ets – the high pro­tein diet of the Ma­sai in Africa, for one, con­sists mainly of the meat, blood and milk of cat­tle – are health­ier than the Western diet, which con­sists of pro­cessed food, re­fined white flour, lots of meat and calo­ries and very lit­tle fruits, veg­eta­bles or whole grain.

“The point is, over many, many years through trial and er­ror, peo­ple have fig­ured out what works in what­ever area they live in and how to make a healthy, tra­di­tional diet out of what na­ture of­fers them. The one diet that seems re­li­ably to make peo­ple sick is the Western diet. And as I said in the book, what an achieve­ment, to in­vent the one diet that makes peo­ple sick!” he says.

And as many cul­tures around the world adopt the seem­ingly more pres­ti­gious Western diet, the dis­eases of “civil­i­sa­tion”, such as heart dis­ease and Type II di­a­betes, will be on the rise as well.

But it is not just the nu­tri­tional con­tent of our meals that needs to be rev­o­lu­tionised.

Pol­lan is a great be­liever in eat­ing less meat, and says that the cur­rent Amer­i­can rate of con­sump­tion – more than 200g a day – is detri­men­tal to hu­man health and to the en­vi­ron­ment.

“There’s re­cent re­search sug­gest­ing that eat­ing lots of red meat con­trib­utes to can­cer in some ways, and to eat that much meat, you need a very bru­tal meat in­dus­try to pro­duce it cheaply – and that takes up enor­mous en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources,” he says.

And it’s so un­nec­es­sary, since there is an­other way of get­ting your pro­tein: “Fish is a ter­rific source of pro­tein!”

“Amer­i­cans don’t eat nearly enough fish and Asians do eat more – the only prob­lem with fish is, there aren’t enough left,” he says.

Food fad

The food guru thinks that there is at least one more book in him.

“Funny fact about hu­mans: we’re the only

species that cooks its food. Why is that? Why do we like cooked food?” he asks.

Cook­ing has shaped hu­man be­ings as a species from an evo­lu­tion­ary and cul­tural point of view, he says, but he thinks that the prac­tice is now be­com­ing a dan­ger.

“We’re mov­ing into a time of let­ting the cor­po­ra­tions do the cook­ing for us, and I think that’s a very bad idea,” he says, re­fer­ring, pre­sum­ably, to ready-to-eat frozen or other con­ve­nience meals as well as fast foods.

So, Pol­lan, who en­joys cook­ing with his fam­ily, wants to write a book that will show peo­ple the im­por­tance of cook­ing as a daily ac­tiv­ity and make them feel ex­cited to do it.

When he’s not busy writ­ing or talk­ing about food, Pol­lan in­dulges in gar­den­ing, and spends time with wife Ju­dith Belzer, a painter, and their 17-year-old son, Isaac. Fam­ily time is pre­cious, as Pol­lan trav­els quite a bit now, lec­tur­ing about health, food, agri­cul­ture and the en­vi­ron­ment in uni­ver­si­ties in the United States. (Here’s an­other in­ter­est­ing tit­bit about Pol­lan: One of his three sis­ters is ac­tress Tracy Pol­lan, who is mar­ried to ac­tor Michael J. Fox.)

All that trav­el­ling gives him the op­por­tu­nity to do one of his favourite things: sam­pling food cul­tures.

“When I’m on the road, I like to taste food wher­ever I go. I love to eat, so I’m al­ways in­ter­ested in try­ing new restau­rants. When­ever I go to a new city, I al­ways go to the pro­duce mar­ket to see what they grow and eat,” he says.

There are signs that peo­ple in Amer­ica are be­com­ing ed­u­cated about what’s good food, and be­com­ing more aware about the prob­lems in the food sys­tem; Pol­lan is op­ti­mistic that things could change, though it’ll take a lot of work.

Ul­ti­mately, the best way to change the way things are is to tell peo­ple the truth about how their food is pro­duced, he says.

“When peo­ple un­der­stand where the food comes from, how it’s pro­duced and who is in­volved in mak­ing it, they tend to make bet­ter choices,” he says.

Food for thought: What we put into our

mouths doesn’t just af­fect our bod­ies, it also has an im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment.

FoodRules,

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