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Two Cheers for Michael Pollan

February 3, 2010 (slightly revised Feb. 5)

Michael Pollan is the hero of the moment for a lot of intelligent people. Pollanís book In Defense of Food makes three points: "eat food, not too much, mostly plants." We can certainly cheer about "mostly plants"! And we can also cheer for his appearance in the DVD "Food, Inc.," which exposes to the general public some of the reality of factory farms as well as corporate complicity for much of what's wrong with the food system.  

Thereís a catch here: Pollan seems to think that "natural meat" (possibly, even lots of it) is fine. On Oprah on January 24, Pollan made the statement: "The Inuit in Greenland you were referring to [have a] 75% fat diet ó no type II diabetes, no heart disease." 

Since Pollan is right on so many critical issues, a lot of us would be inclined not to make a big deal over this one small point.  But where, exactly, is Pollan coming from with this statement?  That's a good question that's worth exploring.

The implication that the Inuit have a healthy diet is almost certainly wrong.  They may have lower levels of heart disease, but they have a reduced life expectancy and similar indigenous people in Alaska suffer from rampant osteoporosis worse than the "white" population (who probably aren't that healthy themselves).  

Moreover, an "Inuit" diet, consisting in huge amounts of animal products, seems to contradict Pollan's  principle of "mostly plants."  What's going on here?  I have come up with three possible reasons why Pollan admires the Inuit diet. 

1. Objections to Industrialized agriculture

Pollan is against industrialized agriculture.  While favoring plants, he's generally all right with animal food as long as the animal products are "natural."  When he discusses his rule on "mostly plants," he says: 

"What exactly it is in meat we need to worry about (the saturated fat? the type of iron? the carcinogens produced in curing and cooking it?) is unclear; the problem could be simply that eating lots of it pushes plants out of the diet.  . . . Meat has both the advantages and disadvantages of being at the top of the food chain: It accumulates and concentrates many of the nutrients in the environment but also many of the toxins. . . . the healthfulness of food cannot be divorced from the health of the food chain that produced it." (In Defense of Food, p. 166-167)

This is an interesting but equivocal statement.  He acknowledges that there are a lot of things that might be wrong with meat, but the only certainty he finds is that the concentrated environmental toxins are bad.  This gives the proponents of meat some wiggle room: it's not the meat that's the problem, but the industrialization of meat which has introduced all these toxins.  The Inuit conform to this expectation: lots of meat, but not industrialized, and therefore healthy.

2. Tradition versus Science

Pollan likes "traditional" diets, and since the Inuit diet is traditional (at least, until they introduced junk food under the influence of "civilization"), he thinks it must be all right.  Pollan seems bent on denigrating science in favor of tradition ó whatever it was that your great-grandmother recognized as food, evidently counts for just as much as some study on diet and foods. Culture and tradition teaches us "just as much, if not more" about eating than nutrition science (p. 12).  He's not quite ready to junk nutrition science, but culture and tradition have the upper hand here.

Now there's a lot I don't like about modern nutrition science, but this approach to science leaves me really uneasy.  Since Pollan seems to be bent on invoking the tradition of our ancestors, I'll mention my grandmother, Naomi Chapman Woodroof, who was a pioneering food scientist.  My grandparents did some of the original research that lead to modern frozen-foods technology and knowledge about growing peanuts.  

I wonder what my grandmother would say about Pollan's approach to science. I think she would find it insulting.  You don't just give up on science because it doesn't produce the results that you want, because there are some scientific studies that are wrong, or even because the science doesn't produce any results at all.  You get back in there and figure out what the problem is and fix it.  Pollan may have given up on science; I haven't.  I don't expect Pollan to become a scientist, but he could at least read The China Study.  Which brings me to my final point:

3. The China Study

Pollan doesn't seem to take T. Colin Campbellís book The China Study seriously at all.  In fact, it's not clear that he's even read it.

One of the three points in In Defense of Food is "not too much," meaning that we take in too many calories. But those of you whoíve read The China Study may recall a key finding: even the least active Chinese (the equivalent of office workers) eat about 30% more calories (mostly plant based) than the average American, yet they weigh less and are generally healthier. Uh, doesnít this have direct bearing on the "not too much" idea?  Wouldn't it be better to chastise Americans for eating animal foods, than for just "too much"?

If I were writing a book in which one of the three points I was going to make was that Americans eat too much food, and then I read The China Study, Iíd have to at least mention it and explain why I disagreed with the conclusions. I donít see how anyone could read The China Study and miss this basic point.  Why and how Pollan came to ignore it is a mystery. (Campbell's book came out two years before Pollan's.) 

Did Pollan read The China Study but decide that this contrary opinion from a distinguished nutritional biochemist did not merit a response?  Did he just glance at the book, or fail to read it entirely?  There are two off-hand references to The China Study in his book, so I presume that at least his fact-checker has the book.

This is doubly puzzling because Campbell's book offers a direct rebuttal to Pollan's view of science as well.  Pollan wants to, in effect, sideline science in favor of tradition.  Campbell agrees with Pollan about much of what is wrong with science.  He sees the problems of scientific reductionism; he sees the evils of corporate manipulation of science.  But instead of trashing science, Campbell wants to redeem science.  Let science be science, and let the chips fall where they may.  

Pollan's careless statement about the Inuit, which (alas) seems to be consistent with a number of other things in his books, does not leave me with a good feeling.  In fact, as I explore this problem in greater detail, my uneasiness increases rather than decreases. 

Michael Pollan is a smart guy who has a lot of things absolutely right. So by all means, let us make as much hay as possible out of Pollan's advice to eat "mostly plants," and he has really done a service by promoting better knowledge of food issues in the general public.  But I never thought I'd have to admonish Pollan, of all people, about the dangers of mindless adherence to tradition.  Unless we're headed back to the Middle Ages, I hope that Pollan can be persuaded to rethink his ideas about nutrition and science.