Michael Pollan, the Knight professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has struck a chord in this country with his back-to-back, best-selling books about the foods we eat. Both books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (Penguin, 2006) and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (Penguin, 2008), take a good, hard look at the food we eat and how it's made.
"The Omnivore's Dilemma" was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Pollan's take on food is not that of a food zealot or fanatic, but the informed and passionate view of someone who cares about the foods we eat. And his thirst for knowledge about how and what we eat will change the way you look at food forever — so put down that fork for a minute and read on for some spectacular insights from the best-selling author and quintessential foodie. For the first time, I've decided to make the column a single interview.
Q. Food is sexy, and the media love topics that can capture the attention of readers and viewers. I'm wondering if, as a result, we've blown the extent of the problem out of proportion. Meaning, should we really be that worried about the foods we eat?
A. I think we're far too worried about food, actually. Americans have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. We need to learn to relax about it, but that doesn't mean eating anything you want. If you eat real food — unprocessed whole foods — you can eat pretty much any of it you want, in moderation. My aim in "In Defense of Food" was to help people relax about food by simplifying the food landscape for them.
Q. Watching the PBS documentary "King Corn," I was surprised by the soaking of the soil with ammonia and the spraying of crops with pesticides. It's not that I hadn't known what was going on, it's just that the visual image was really scary. I've read that you were pretty surprised when you first visited a commercial farm, and I was wondering: What stunned you the most?
A. For me, the awakening came in a potato field in Idaho. The farmers sprayed fungicides that were so toxic they wouldn't go into the field for five days afterward because they were so worried about the effects of the chemicals. These potatoes can't be eaten until they have six months to off-gas the systemic pesticides in them. Many of these farmers told me they grew a small patch of organic potatoes by the house for their family. Most Americans have no idea how their food is produced, and the clearer an idea they get, the more interested they become in alternatives like organic.
Q. We like to think that organic farms are being run by caring, environmentally conscientious farmers — is that really the case? What are the major differences between industrial and organic farms and the farmers who run them? Can you really trust any of today's farmers, or anyone in the food industry for that matter? Basically, is American agriculture pervasively tainted by big business?
A. It's true that organic farming has become much more industrialized than people realize. We now have organic feedlots — to my mind, a complete contradiction in terms. Yet even these farms are better than their conventional counterparts. You can be sure if the label says organic that the animals did not receive hormones or routine antibiotics and they ate an organic diet. But you can't assume the animals grew up on Old McDonald's Farm. Some still do, but many don't.
Q. What's wrong with nutrition research today? Is it tainted by corporate research dollars and National Institutes of Health mandates? Why can't we trust what we read in the media?
A. There are several problems with nutrition research. The first and biggest is that it's very hard to do well — hard to figure out what people are really eating, and hard to analyze and test something as complex as a whole food. Then you have the problem with corporate influence: Many nutrition studies are corporate-funded, and these studies are remarkably reliable in their ability to find a benefit for whatever food is being studied.
Q. Are processed foods a better option for eating more healthfully?
A. Most of the time we're better off eating fresher, less-processed foods. You could build a food pyramid based on degree of processing that would be much more useful than the food pyramid we have.
Q. What do you think about eating out? It's one thing to be certain you're getting organic, locally grown foods when you're eating at home but quite another to attempt to eat "safely" when you're out to lunch or dinner.
A. Eating out is challenging, unless you really know the restaurant or are willing to be a pest. Basically, whenever we give control of our foods to other people, we lose control. How much salt? How much butter? What kind of oil are they frying in? Where do they get their meat? That said, it's not hard to track down the local restaurants that source their ingredients carefully. They're often associated with "slow food" or shop at the farmers market.
Q. Is there something about nutrition you've learned in the past few years that you haven't discussed in a book or an interview and that would surprise us?
A. Perhaps it is the prevalence of hormones in milk — even in organic milk and from cows not treated with hormones. We've been breeding for high yield, and in the process we selected for cows that produce high levels of growth hormones. This is a concern to many nutritionists. Skim milk avoids the problem, since the hormones are in the milk fat, but then, skim milk often has powdered milk in it, which some people worry contains too much oxidized cholesterol. So pick your poison. I didn't call it The Omnivore's Dilemma for nothing.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public-health advocate, and author of "Breaking the FAT Pattern" (Plume, 2006). Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.dietdetective.com.