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Michael Pollan And The Battle For Healthy Food

Author, journalist and food activist says we shouldn't obsess over eating healthy, or break the bank doing so; rather, he says eating real food --  organic or conventional -- is the key to good health. (Courtesy)

Author, journalist and food activist says we shouldn’t obsess over eating healthy, or break the bank doing so; rather, he says eating real food — organic or conventional — is the key to good health. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Food guru Michael Pollan has some rules about food, so it’s somewhat ironic that he thinks we’re obsessed with what we eat.

Pollan says we should relax about eating, and it doesn’t need to be expensive. Just eat real food — organic or conventional — rather than food made by large industrial food complexes.

He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about what we can do to eat better without stressing over everything we consume.

Pollar is the author of books including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” His latest is “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”

Interview Highlights: Michael Pollan

On people becoming obsessed with healthy eating

“I mean, look at the gluten-free craze. People get obsessed about particular nutrients. Sugar, you know, is another current, or high fructose corn syrup. And to the extent that we are fixing on the good or evil nutrient at any one time, doesn’t contribute to a relaxed attitude toward eating.”

“We don’t actually see food anymore — we see nutrients, we see calories. You don’t need to know what an antioxidant is to eat well.”

On the need for a “food policy”

“Basically, we have an agricultural policy in this country. We don’t have a food policy, and they’re not the same thing. An agricultural policy is designed to keep agriculture healthy, ostensibly, though it doesn’t work very well to do that. But a food policy, if we had that at the White House level, would force us to align our health objectives with our agricultural policies, our agricultural policies with our environmental policies, because, you know, agriculture is a tremendous contributor to climate change.”

“It has enormous potential to help with climate change. About a third of the carbon in the atmosphere right now was originally in the soil. I don’t mean in oil — I mean it was locked in healthy soils before we began to till. I mean, climate change, in a way, goes back to the invention of the plow, because as soon as you plow, you release lots of carbon. We also, then, now redouble these effects with modern agriculture, because we use — nitrous oxide is a very serious greenhouse gas, released by the fertilizers that we use. And then we have these cattle feedlots that produce huge amounts of methane. So, all told, agriculture is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases.”

On making healthy food available for all

“There is a danger that we will move toward — and, to some extent, we have moved toward — a system where some people can afford good food and some people can’t. But I think it’s important not to confuse organic and local food with healthy food. You can eat really healthy, leaving meat aside, with just simply eating the real stuff. Fruits and vegetables, however they’re grown, organic or conventional, are really good for you. We know that. We know that people that eat lots of fruits and vegetables have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease and obesity. So the idea that we have for everyone to have access to organic to improve our diets. We also know that poor people who cook actually have healthier diets than rich people who don’t. And cooking is available to everyone. Yes, we have enormous amount of time pressure, but you don’t have to be rich to cook. All you need is a pan and some olive oil.”

Guest

  • Michael Pollan, author, journalist, food activist, and professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @michaelpollan.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

We want to spend a few minutes now on something you do every day: You eat. And we're joined by a leader in the sustainability move to eat less processed and industrially produced food. But lately, Michael Pollan has been wondering out loud: Are some of us maybe too obsessed with what we eat? There's a name for it: orthorexia nervosa. And he asks if it's getting us into vicious, unhealthy cycles.

Michael Pollan is author of seven books, bestsellers like "Food Rules," "The Botany of Desire," "The Omnivore's Dilemma." His most recent, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," is now out in paperback, and he's here in the studio for a check-in on the food world. So Michael, start with this unhealthy obsession.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, orthorexia. It's not an official diagnosis yet, but it is this unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. I mean, I think people are - I mean, look at the gluten-free craze. People get obsessed about particular nutrients. Sugar, you know, is another current - or high fructose corn syrup. And to the extent that we are fixing on the good or evil nutrient at any one time, doesn't contribute to a relaxed attitude toward eating.

YOUNG: Is that part of your concern with something else...

POLLAN: Nutritionism.

YOUNG: Nutritionism, yeah.

POLLAN: Well, nutritionism is kind of the American ideology of food, in, you know, in which we don't actually see foods anymore. We see nutrients; we see calories. You don't need to know what an antioxidant is to eat well.

YOUNG: But let's go back to some of your concerns about people, let's say, cutting a whole part of one thing out of their foods, gluten.

POLLAN: Yeah.

YOUNG: If people cut gluten out, and suddenly they're feeling better, isn't that a good thing? If people realize that as you've said, food becomes sugar delivery systems, you know, someone wants to sell a lot of sugar there, people placing bets on how much sugar is going to be sold...

POLLAN: We're eating way too much sugar. There's a sugar arms race in the supermarket where, you know, the yogurt now has to compete with the soda for which can deliver more sugar per ounce. And the yogurt's ahead right now, believe it or not, yogurts.

YOUNG: Some yogurts, yeah.

POLLAN: Some yogurts, yeah. And, you know, gluten intolerance, it's growing at a rate that probably can't be explained purely by biology. You know, I don't mean to demean people who are really struggling with it, because it has gone up, and that's curious that it has. Why should this be worse? Celiac disease, which the more extreme form of a gluten allergy, basically, that's doubled in the last 50 years.

There are a great many people who think they're gluten intolerant, and some of them are, and some of them would like to be, and the reason is because it's such a nice, simple explanation for whatever problems they're struggling with. So I think people feel better when they get off gluten if they're getting off of carbohydrates.

If people are really careful and say I'm going to avoid gluten, that means they're avoiding bread and pasta, and that means they're avoiding the kind of carbohydrate roller-coaster of mood that you get into. Carbohydrates turn to sugar in your bloodstream, and so you have this roller-coaster of insulin that doesn't feel good. You get high, and then you crash.

YOUNG: Well, remind us how we got on that roller-coaster. At a certain point, suddenly all fats were bad.

POLLAN: That's right.

YOUNG: Well, but we just spoke recently with Fred Kummerow, who led the battle against trans-fats in particular. Trans-fats are the ones that occur a little bit in foods naturally, but most are made through a processing method. It was shown to be bad for your heart and cholesterol. Wasn't he right to lead that fight against fats?

POLLAN: He was absolutely right, but look at how we got there. The reason we got onto trans-fats is that we demonized saturated fats. These are the fats found in animal products like milk and beef. And we went overboard, really, in demonizing those fats beginning in the '70s with the low-fat campaign. And so we moved off of butter, and we got onto margarine.

Well, margarine was full of trans-fats, these hydrogenated oils. Basically to make a vegetable oil solid at room temperature, you need to shoot hydrogen into it and stabilize it. And so the public health authorities, our government, basically says get off butter, it's lethal, and get onto these trans-fats. They're fine because they're made from vegetables.

Well, it turns out that the saturated fats are actually not bad for you. I mean, they're not great for you, but they're very important. You brain needs saturated fat. There are only two studies out of hundreds that have actually linked saturated fat to heart disease, believe it or not. Everybody assumes. Their cardiologist is telling them, you know, stay off of eggs and things like that.

So we moved people off of those fats and onto a fat that in fact is demonstrably lethal, trans-fats. Trans-fats do - have created hundreds of thousands of heart attacks. So that's an example where our demonizing of a nutrient and an industrial solution as an alternative actually was worse than the problem.

YOUNG: Well, you and others also point out not only did we move on to trans-fats, but we moved...

POLLAN: We moved on to sugar and carbohydrates, that's right. What do you do when you take the fat out of a cookie or ice cream or some product? Well, you've got to replace it with something else because it tastes like garbage at that point. And so you add back in lots of sugar or lots of carbohydrates in other ways. And you see, as soon as you demonize one nutrient, you give a free pass to the other nutrient, its doppelganger, right.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLAN: So you will find that we cut our consumption of fat a little bit, and we started binging on carbohydrates because they were good. Well, they're not good, I mean not in great quantity. They're sugar, basically.

YOUNG: Well, and it's funny, too, because the original campaign was not only to protect the heart but to avoid diabetes, and everybody moving over to these carbs has increased diabetes.

POLLAN: Has created - yeah, and do you know how many cases of diabetes in children there was in 1980? Virtually zero. And now it's rampant among our kids. And the reason is that as a culture, we're binging on refined carbohydrates. I mean, there are other reasons, too. We're not exercising as much as we should.

But so our lurching from one good nutrient to another good nutrient, our demonizing of one, our celebration of another, this is a crazy way to eat. And so my argument is just eat real food. Don't eat food that's being cooked by large industrial corporations.

YOUNG: And stay away, if you can, from cycles, no fat to high carb to now gluten-free. Food writer Michael Pollan, his latest book is "Cooked." You are listening to HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and if you've just joined us, we're catching up with food writer Michael Pollan. His latest book, "Cooked," is out in paperback. And we're hitting on as many aspects of the sustainable, non-industrial food movement as we can while we have him. And Michael, in 2008 when a new secretary of agriculture was sworn in, you said we should have a secretary of food.

Now we have a first lady of food, but listener Joanie McFee(ph) tweeted us: Whatever happened to your secretary of food idea. So why do you think we need one?

POLLAN: Basically, we have an agricultural policy in this country, we don't have a food policy, and they're not the same thing. An agricultural policy is designed to keep agriculture healthy, ostensibly, although it doesn't work very well to do that. But a food policy would force us to align our health objectives with our agricultural policies, our agricultural policies with our environmental policies because, you know, agriculture is a tremendous contributor to climate change.

YOUNG: Could you talk a little bit about that, agriculture?

POLLAN: Sure.

YOUNG: How does farming - you say agriculture is the only industry that actually pulls carbon out of the atmosphere.

POLLAN: It has enormous potential to help with climate change. About a third of the carbon in the atmosphere right now was originally in the soil. I don't mean in oil, I mean it was locked in healthy soils before we began to till. I mean, climate change, in a way, goes back to the invention of the plow because as soon as you plow, you release lots of carbon.

We also, then, now redouble these effects with modern agriculture because we use - nitrous oxide is a very serious greenhouse gas, released by the fertilizers that we use. And then we have these cattle feedlots that produce huge amounts of methane. So all told, agriculture is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases.

The great thing about agriculture, though, compared to, you know, coal, say, which you just kind of have to - you have to mitigate the problem with energy generation. With agriculture you can actually get that carbon back in the soil by farming properly. A great amount of the corn and soybeans we grow go to feed cattle.

If you put the cattle on grass instead and take some of that land and return it to perennial polycultures of grass, a meadow does amazing things. Basically as the cattle graze the grasses, the grasses stimulate the root system. The root system excretes sugars to feed the microbes, and those sugars go into the soil food web and become carbon sequestered in the ground.

And there is a lot of research that suggests that we could put a significant amount of the carbon back in the soil with proper agricultural techniques.

YOUNG: You mentioned cattle. Where are we on cattle? You came out and said you know what, I think I'm going to be one of those people that is going to have to have - eat a little bit of meat. And since I do, then my campaign is going to be about making the raising of cattle more humane for the animals and healthier for humans.

POLLAN: Well, avoiding feed-lot meat, that is the key. When you raise cattle in feed lots, which most of the cattle that you get to eat is - that's where it comes from, they're fed corn, a diet of corn, which is bad for them, it's bad for the quality of meat, and it's bad for the environment because it's produced using so much fossil fuel.

YOUNG: But has there been any big shift?

POLLAN: Yeah, there's been - since 2002, the growth of the basically grass-fed cattle, beef, and milk, the recognition of the importance of grass in the diet of these animals has grown exponentially. There is - you can find grass-fed meat at Whole Foods. You can find grass-fed meat at your farmer's market.

YOUNG: Ah, but see that's - there's the key right there, Whole Foods. I mean, as some people refer to it - it's expensive.

POLLAN: It's expensive, without question, but cheap beef is, I would argue, it dishonestly priced because the real cost of that meat is being charged to the environment and to public health. Yes, to grow meat in the proper way will cost more, without question, and that is a problem for people who can't afford it. But I think we have to re-examine this whole idea that everyone in the country, as they currently now are, are eating nine ounces of meat a day for every person.

The world cannot sustain that kind of meat eating.

YOUNG: Well, but we should address people who think we shouldn't be eating meat at all, but you're addressing the reality that people do. And you point to a big success with Chipotle.

POLLAN: They've succeeded astonishingly well in pork. Their pork does not come from these confinement hog operations, which if you've ever been in one of these buildings are one of the most hellish visions you will ever have. And their pork comes either from local farmers near their restaurants, or it comes from Niman Ranch, which grows pork sustainably in Iowa.

They've having more trouble doing the same thing in chicken, although they're trying, and in beef they're moving toward grass-fed. They're not all there yet by any means. So you do see big companies that are changing. Chipotle was originally driven by taste. I mean, confinement pork just doesn't taste very good. These animals are very stressed. They're too lean to taste good because of the low-fat craze.

And they found that sustainable pork tasted better. It added about a dollar to the price of a burrito, and they found millions of people willing to pay it. Look, I think we will have to pay more for sustainable food, and what that means is, you know, we'll eat less of better quality food, which would be good for us in many, many ways.

YOUNG: Well, but there are still people who aren't eating food at all. So do we have to accept things like genetically modified foods so that more people can eat?

POLLAN: Well, there's an assumption or a presumption built into that question, that genetically engineered food is more productive or has higher yield.

YOUNG: Right, that's the claim.

POLLAN: That's the claim, but there's no evidence of that. If you look at yields since we introduced genetically modified food, the products themselves, the GMO crops, do not yield more, on balance. What has GM given us? That's what we have to look at over the last 15 years. It's given the consumer nothing. It's given convenience to farmers. It's allowed them to get bigger. But they're failing now.

Weeds resistant to Roundup are - have been found now on 50 percent of American farms. So I think we should do the research. I think maybe they will come up with some applications that actually help people, and I'll look forward to that day.

YOUNG: Yeah, show me. Well, we've talked about things like gluten-free, the sugar craze, fats in and out. What's a trend that you are seeing in the future?

POLLAN: Well, you know, I'm very encouraged by what I see. I mean, you know, we talk a lot about industrial agriculture, and it's a big part of the story, but if you look at the growth of organic, and you look at the growth of local, and you look at the growing interest in real food and returning craft to food-making, I'm very encouraged by that.

There are picklers and local fermenters all over the country. There's American cheese, you know, which was really American cheese for a very long time, it's now some of the best cheese in the world. So there is a renaissance of artisanal food going on that's very, very exciting.

YOUNG: But do you worry, though, that we are two Americas that eat...?

POLLAN: Yeah, and there is a danger that we will move toward, and to some extent we have moved toward, a system where some people can afford good food, and some people can't. But I think it's important not to confuse organic and local food with healthy food. You can eat really healthy, leaving meat aside, with just simply eating the real stuff.

Fruits and vegetables, however they're grown, organic or conventional, are really good for you. We know that. We know that people that eat lots of fruits and vegetables have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease and obesity. So the idea that we have for everyone to have access to organic to improve our diets is wrong.

We also know that poor people who cook actually have healthier diets than rich people who don't. And cooking is available to everyone. Yes, we have enormous amount of time pressure, but you don't have to be rich to cook. All you need is a pan and some olive oil.

YOUNG: Michael Pollan, his most recent book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," it's now out in paperback. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

POLLAN: Thank you, Robin.

YOUNG: And it's a terrific book. It's his personal quest to practice what he preaches and learn to simply cook. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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