Takeaways from "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

It took way too long, but I finally finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I now know why Michael Pollan is so well-respected for his work on food and food culture. This was a great read that was altogether educational, entertaining, subversive, and morally relevant. I won’t do the book nearly as much justice as it deserves in this post, but hopefully it will be enough to inspire you to seek it out for yourself. (You’re welcome to borrow my paperback copy if you like!)

Pollan opens the book by outlining its purpose in a supremely non-word-mincing manner:

What should we have for dinner? This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question. Along the way, it also tries to figure out how such a simple question could ever have gotten so complicated.

The complications posed by such a seemingly simple question are evidenced in a number of phenomena in our American food culture, not the least of which are the massive shifts in our country’s fixations on specific macronutrients: from the low-fat craze of the 80’s and 90’s to the carbo-phobia incited by Dr. Robert Atkins in the early 2000’s. As the author so aptly observes:

So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder.

This disorder, says Pollan, is in large part culpable for the rise of many of our country’s chronic physical afflictions such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Pollan’s main thesis is that our “national eating disorder” is largely the result of the distance that exists in our modern, industrialized society between what food fundamentally is–the basic fruits of the earth (plants and animals)–and what actually shows up on our dinner plates at chow time. To closely examine this modern food “separation,” Pollan explores what he deems to be the three principal food chains that we have access to today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. His mission is to attempt to track, step-by-step, how a meal produced by each of these respective food chains actually makes it from mother earth to dinner plate.

First and most familiar, the industrial food chain is what overwhelmingly sustains a significant majority of Americans today. (By sustain I mean supply us with caloric energy and nutrients essential for survival.) It’s what most of us probably partook of this past holiday weekend at the family get together: your run-of-the-mill barbecue fare such as hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, ketchup, barbecue sauce, cole slaw, pie, etc. (assuming for the time being that none of the ingredients were USDA Organic). The vast majority of grocery store items, fast food, and restaurant food all fall into this category as well. So what did I learn about the industrial food chain?: It’s all about corn (and to a slightly lesser extent, soybeans).

Mostly for economic and other reasons relating to the efficiency with which industrial corn can be produced, corn has become the predominant source of calories for our nation. I’m not really talking about canned corn, corn-on-the-cob, or bags of mixed vegetables here. Industrial corn has made its way into EVERYTHING. Every heard of high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), maltodextrin, corn starch and xantham gum?  I dare you to pick three items that come either in a plastic bag, plastic or glass bottle, box, or can, at random from your fridge or pantry right now and read the nutrition label. Pollan even does a thorough analysis of a McDonald’s Happy Meal and finds that of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a Chicken McNugget, thirteen are derived from corn. Why is this a problem? Corn is one of the most calorie-dense food sources available, and having supplanted myriad other food sources in our diets, it has simultaneously increased our caloric intake. Enter diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.

Next up was the organic food chain. I learned a lot from Pollan about the origins of the organic phenomenon, but what was most enlightening was just how many similarities exist between the organic (what Pollan calls “Big Organic”–ahem, Whole Foods, ahem) and industrial food chains. The brilliant marketing behind organic products has led the average consumer to conflate organic with pastoral. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Organic milk and meats originate from factory farms just like their industrial cousins, not lush grass-filled pastures as many of us envision thanks to the marketers. What’s more, the USDA definition of organic allows for a growing list of food additives and synthetic chemicals to be used in processed organic food. Don’t get me wrong, organic is still arguably better than industrial from the standpoint of the effects on our environment and our bodies, but for the above-mentioned reasons and many more I don’t want to bore you with, it may not be the panacea many of us believe it to be.

Despite its shortcomings, there lies within the organic food chain a glimmer of hope, a movement Pollan calls “beyond organic.” This refers to small-scale grass-based farms scattered throughout the country. Many of these small, family farms can’t afford to pay for organic certification, yet come as close as we can get to perfectly sustainable sources of food. These farms are self-sustaining ecosystems, from the sun-fed grass that feeds the free-grazing cows to the cow dung that feeds the insects that are in turn consumed by chickens that become our meat and eggs. (More on this in a subsequent post, but my family has found a local farm cooperative that purchases food from such farms in Central Illinois.) The problem these idyllic farms face is fierce economic competition with the industrial and organic giants.

Lastly, Pollan turns to the hunter-gatherer food chain. Here he challenges himself to hunt and gather his own meal comprised of meat that he himself kills and vegetables he himself grows or finds in nature (he lives in Northern California). I have to give it to Pollan: he’s clearly a pretty yuppie, urban guy, and here he forces himself to learn how to hunt and shoot his own wild pig and forage for wild mushrooms in the forest. This was a genuinely entertaining and thoughtful section of the book, and Pollan even devotes a portion to the ethics of eating meat. (He concludes that while eating animals in and of itself isn’t unethical, eating animals that are farmed in the industrial food chain just might be.)

In the end Pollan challenges us to consider a closer examination of what the food is that actually winds up in our pantries and fridges and on our dinner plates, and how it got there, which I believe is a good thing. Perhaps by shortening the distance between ourselves and our food we can start to turn the tide on our national eating disorder.

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2 comments on “Takeaways from "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

  1. JT
    June 4, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Thanks for the summary! It is nothing short of maddeningly frustrating to live in a system that makes it so difficult 1) to find authentic non-processed food and 2) once such food is found, to afford it. Contributing to the problem are the zoning regulations most of us urban and suburbanites must contend with, which prohibit us from practicing our own husbandry. For instance, Downers Grove would ticket us repeatedly if we set up a chicken coop in our backyard. I understand the health concerns involved, but I can’t help but wonder if those concerns might not pale in comparison with the health pandemic that industrial farming has perpetrated. Government often responds to economic and lobbying interests, but what if instead of massively subsidizing corn and soybeans, those billions of tax dollars were instead used to subsidize the grass-based family farms (which I believe was the intent of farm subsidies in the first place!). This definitely won’t happen anytime soon, but it is something to dream about as the industrial farm machine runs its course and ultimately self-destructs due to its inability to provide genuine nutrition, the dramatic inverse relationship its low-cost product has on healthcare costs, and the growing overall public disgust with its methods. I hope the sustainability movement will be equipped and prepared to move into the vacuum once the industrial system comes crashing down.

  2. Maria Diaz Schmitt
    June 5, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Great summary but I am really depressed over this food stuff. Even when you try your best, a la Whole Foods, you genreally miss the mark. Given our hectic lifestyles it is nearly impossible to eat healthy. Oh well, hopefully, a more global effort will take root in the US to help us along. I do recall that food definitely tasted better in other countries and now I guess I somewhat know why. That salad in Argentina was unlike any other that I have had and the meat was to die for! …

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