I watched Michael Pollan’s new fantasy “In Defense of Food” so you don’t have to.
When I first spotted the January issue of Bon Appetit peeking out of my mailbox, I steadied myself for endless smoothie recipes and new ways to amuse myself with kale. But this year, the magazine took a different approach called “Healthy-ish,” described as “delicious, comforting home cooking that happens to be kinda good for you.” Sophie Gilbert, writing in The Atlantic, was pleasantly surprised by “healthy-ish” too. Actually, Gilbert sees similarities between“Healthy-ish” and the approach Michael Pollan argues for in the new documentary In Defense of Food, based on Pollan’s book of the same title.
Gilbert sees Pollan as a moderate in a world filled with food extremists. We need moderation because food has become overly complicated. The moderation Gilbert describes sounds pretty good: eat healthy but don’t deny yourself the occasional indulgence. But that’s not really Pollan’s philosophy. According to Pollan, in order to be healthier we need to return to a simpler way of eating.
Are simplicity and good health really located in the good old days? I don’t think so. The way Pollan idealizes nature and the past is pure fantasy. He thinks life would be better if we ate food cooked entirely from scratch. Better for whom?
I agree with Defense when it argues that Americans have fallen prey to complicated diets requiring an almost religious-like devotion. Whether it’s wheat belly or clean eating, these diets can lead to an unhealthy obsession with eliminating whole categories of otherwise healthy food. Absent a condition like celiac disease or a food allergy, there isn’t a reason to completely eliminate ingredients like gluten or even sugar.
If Pollan’s approach were really as simple as his own words –“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — I might be on board. But Pollan is far from a moderate. He’s an anti-GMO wingnut and a primitive food movement ideologue. In the teaser for Defense, we’re told that the “struggle over what to eat” is “one of the most urgent battles” facing the world. Really? Not hunger or malnutrition? How about demonizing biotech solutions that treat vitamin A deficiency, protect wild fish populations, reduce food waste and allow a kid with a peanut allergy to eat safely? No, apparently our most urgent battle is that we’re not making enough food from scratch. Cue lengthy scene of Pollan making bread from scratch in his home in Berkeley.
Defense is typical Pollan-fantasy fare. The film spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the many ways in which breastmilk is nature’s perfect food (barring any impediments to breastfeeding) and how a tribe in Tanzania is healthier than most westerners (so long as you don’t die in childhood). Best not to spoil a perfect fantasy with troubling facts like infant mortality.
I enjoyed the “Healthy-ish” issue of Bon Appetit a heck of a lot more than Defense. The recipes looked delicious and healthful without the typical austerity of January diet plans. Then I came across the magazine’s interview with Sam Kass, former White House chef and food policy advisor. The interview is titled “How to be a healthy, politically savvy, environmentally friendly eater” and it’s filled with not so healthy-ish mythology about food. Kass is a crusader for organic. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he argues that it’s better for the environment and grown without pesticides. He even goes so far as to suggest we interrogate local farmers on pesticide practices. But be nice, he cautions. Farming is hard! Yes, it is, so perhaps we shouldn’t be perpetuating the myths that make life more difficult for them.
For some reason, food crusaders like Pollan and Kass continue to cling to the mythology of an idealized past. What’s moderate about valorizing organic produce, when we know that organic is less efficient, more expensive, not any more nutritious or pesticide-free? What’s simple about idealizing breastfeeding and food cooked entirely from scratch, particularly for mothers? Why cling to fantasies about the past without embracing the technologies that might make for a healthier future?
Further reading: Food Insight’s Review of In Defense of Food