Interview with Michael Pollan

by Charles Platkin, PhD

This is a real break from tradition. For the first time, I’ve decided to make the column a single . , the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley, has struck a chord in this country with his back-to-back best- selling books about the foods we eat. Both books, : 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. After reading his books, I realized that his take on food was 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 best-selling author and quintessential foodie Michael Pollan.

Diet Detective: 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?

Michael Pollan: 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.

Diet Detective: 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?

Michael Pollan: 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.

Diet Detective: 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?

Michael Pollan: 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.

Diet Detective: 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?

Michael Pollan: 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

Diet Detective: Are processed foods a better option for eating more healthfully?

Michael Pollan: 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.

Diet Detective: 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.

Michael Pollan: 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 farmer’s market.

Diet Detective: In In Defense of Food (and in many of your interviews, articles, etc.) there seems to be a lack of discussion about fish. What do you think of the fish industry, mercury concerns, getting enough omega-3s, etc.?

Michael Pollan: The fish issue is complicated by concerns about mercury and sustainability. Fish is one area where the best choice for your health is not necessarily the best choice for the environment, because although we all need to be eating more fish (in part to get more omega-3s) there aren’t enough fish in the seas for us to do it, which is tragic. Mercury is an issue in some fish, and these we should eat in moderation, but from what I’ve read, the benefits of omega-3s outweigh the risks of mercury. Also, there are lots of fish where mercury is not a problem. You’re better off with the little oily ones rather than the big, top-of-the-food chain predators like tuna and swordfish.

Diet Detective: 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?

Michael Pollan: 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.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite breakfast?

Michael Pollan: Fried eggs and bacon. Ideally, from pastured eggs and pigs.

Diet Detective: Who are your nutrition heroes and why?

Michael Pollan: Joan Gussow [former nutrition professor at Columbia] and Marion Nestle [nutrition professor at New York University] — both are brilliant teachers, eminently sane, and generous with their knowledge.

Diet Detective: What in your life have you changed based on the research you conducted for your most recent book?

Michael Pollan: I don’t eat conventional industrial meat any more. I cook more of my own food. And I opt for quality over quantity whenever I can.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthful ingredient? What’s the one ingredient you’d suggest people always have on hand if they want to cook healthful meals?

Michael Pollan: Olive oil. Reduced chicken stock. Garlic. Can’t go wrong.

Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Michael Pollan: The egg is right up there, when it comes from a chicken that lived on grass and got to eat bugs.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthful recipe?

Michael Pollan: Very simply: a sturdy fish — halibut or salmon — marinated (in olive oil and lemon juice, with garlic and fresh herbs; or in soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil) and grilled outside.

Diet Detective: I’ve read that your favorite junk food is Cracker Jack — is that still the case?

Michael Pollan: I like Cracker Jacks but don’t get them very often.

Diet Detective: Any others?

Michael Pollan: I really like corn chips, which surprises people since I’ve become known for being a critic of corn. But corn as food is another matter entirely.

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