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Michael Pollan’s Future is Bleak Because You Didn’t Breastfeed

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For food writer and activist Michael Pollan, the future is bleak without breastmilk.

In an interview published in the food journal Lucky Peach, Pollan describes the path to our dystopian future with more than just the usual suspects of cornfed beef, big dairy and processed foods. Infant formula, he writes, is another “great example” of a historically perfect food ruined by the modern industrial food system.

The interview is accompanied by this bizarre photo of nightmarish edibles: Pink “milk” in a plastic jug, raw beef in a grinder stabbed with a syringe, massive sugar cookies decorated to look like cartoon approximations of vegetables (I wonder how that order went. Hello, I’d like to place a cookie order. Do you have anything that looks like dystopia?) and a container of “birthday cake” flavored baby formula made to look like a can of frosting topped with sprinkles.

dystopian food future
original photo by Dark Igloo, published with Lucky Peach interview

Pollan blames the development of formula on corporate greed: “we’ve spent almost two hundred years trying to simulate [breastmilk], because food companies can’t make money when people are nursing their babies.” Here he echoes a common charge from lactivists and breastfeeding advocates but it’s actually false. Mothers were looking for alternatives to breastmilk long before infant formula ever existed. Unfortunately, those early feeding alternatives were often dangerous, so doctors drove the demand for something safer. From Breastfeeding: Was there ever a golden age? “Paediatricians, an emerging class of doctors looking to make their mark, pushed for a medically sound method to feed these children. Formula was manufactured as a result.”

He then goes on to trot out another well-worn magical belief about breastfed babies: “There’s still that mystery X-factor because babies raised on formula simply don’t do as well.” Again, that’s not true, at least not according to the evidence. If there’s any sort of “mystery x-factor,” it’s class. A study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that “[M]others who breast-feed their kids are disproportionately advantaged—they tend to be wealthier and better educated. When children fed differently within the same family were compared—those discordant sibling pairs—there was no statistically significant difference in any of the measures, except for asthma.”

"facts not opinions" carved on doorway
image via flickr user John Lord

Pollan doesn’t have much hope for the future. “I sometimes find myself wondering whether we can posit or imagine a food science that is actually improving food in the way that cooking for most of its history succeeded in doing.” Pollan idealizes the past — he loves home cooking and small family farms — but his vision isn’t always accurate. The first ingredient in good food science (indeed any science) is an honest reporting of the facts. That’s not what we have here.

Infant formula was probably an easy target for Pollan. I’m sure his devotees include many mothers who chose to breastfeed their kids and welcome the validation of their choices. It’s particularly jarring to read a man demonize a decision that’s fraught with guilt, shame and pressure for many women. I’m pretty sure Pollan’s self-worth has never been tied to his ability to produce breastmilk. Perhaps he didn’t think twice about repeating some of the most clichéd yet false claims of the lactivist community, but I wish he had. I wish he’d stuck with the science.

featured image via flickr user nerissa’s ring.

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19 Comments

  1. Drives me crazy when people don’t realize that historically it was women looking to free themselves from breastfeeding that created the formula industry. Whether it was women using wet nurses or homemade recipes or recipes from their doctors… we are fortunate to have many safe choices today. And even more are in the works.

  2. “actually improving food in the way that cooking for most of its history succeeded in doing.”
    Yep, that’s why our forefathers never actually suffered from malnutrition. Or ate things that were actually toxic or carcinogenous.
    Apparently wetnurses are also a modern invention.
    Jesus christ on a pogo-stick, it’s like Republicans talking US-history

  3. I’ve also known women who let either themselves or their babies get dangerously ill because they believed the bad science Pollan is pushing — that formula is *so* inferior to breast milk you will damage your child for life if you use it.

  4. Big bad science created formula for profit? Darn them for wanting babies not to die? And then asking for money for their products. Only free products are without profit motives – like herbal supplements and organic foods – they totally don’t charge for those things…oh wait.

  5. It’s not like there aren’t legitimate issues with companies that produce formula, from melamin in China to unethical practises of giving free samples in poor communities until the women have stopped lactating themselves. But the “foodist” complaints are usually not the discussions we should be having.

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