Happy Thursday fan-boys and fan-girls! I’m brimming over with excitement because last night I saw one of my personal heroes up-close(ish) and in the flesh!
Yesterday evening I attended a talk by Michael Pollan, as part of the University of Washington School of Public Health’s “Weight and Wellness” lecture series.
The School of Public Health is sponsoring a series of invited speakers to discuss issues at the intersection of food, culture, agriculture, economics, health, and equality. When I saw that one of my favorite authors would be kicking off the conversation I snatched a (five dollar) ticket like a grizzly bear grabbing a salmon.
Pollen’s Talk was titled: “Our National Eating Disorder.” He opened up the evening with the sobering statement that unhealthy diets in America have effectively reversed 100 years of progress in public health. After detailing some unsettling statistics about rates of diet-related pathologies, such as obesity and type II diabetes (which reduces patients’ lifespans by seven years, on average), Pollan posed the questions: How did we get to this point? Why are chronic diseases turning into an American lifestyle? and What can we do to turn our dietary crazy-train around?
Pollan identified three key areas where the American food system is severely broken: agricultural policy, food marketing, and food ideology. In other words the way we produce food, the way food is sold to us and the way we think about food are all severely skewed in this country. To illustrate his point, Pollan held up two products, and asked the audience to identify which represented the “healthy” choice: a fruit-flavored yogurt, or a can of coca-cola?
Soda pretty clearly lacks any redeeming nutritional value. However, despite the presence of protein and calcium, the yogurt contains MORE SUGAR, ounce-for-ounce than the can of coke. Can we genuinely call that yogurt a “healthy” choice? Why are food-companies cramming all of this corn syrup into everything anyway? Do either of those things have gluten in them? What’s a confused consumer to do?
To address the question of how America arrived in our current state of food-confusion, Pollan gave a fascinating overview of policy and food-marketing trends stretching back to the Nixon era. Ever since the 70s the dominant goal of agricultural legislation in this country has been to facilitate the production of PLENTIFUL and CHEAP commodity crops.
Pollen was quick to point out (as I have also noted, when I talked about why I believe in labeling GMO food) that the abundance of corn and soy produced in this country “ARE NOT corn-on the cob and edamame.” These commodity crops are basically inedible, produced purely for processing into high-fructose corn syrup and soy oil. I was surprised to learn that soy oil composes 10% of the calories in the typical modern American diet!
The perverse nature of agricultural policy in America, however, turns economics upside-down and backwards. Political leaders love cheap food, the political turmoil in India and Egypt during 2008’s global rice crisis illustrate how disruptive price increases in food products can be. Therefore, although food prices overall have decreased, the overabundance of supply is heavily subsidized to increase production even further, leading to further price reductions. The average American spends LESS on food today than they did in the 1970s (which has helped cushion the national decline in average wages), even though we are eating WAY more than we ever have before.
In order to deal with the overabundance of food-supply, industry has come up with clever ways to increase American demand. Pollan gave several examples of how food-marketing competes for “stomach-share” and endeavors to “transcend the fixed stomach,” convincing consumers to buy (and eat) more processed food than they could possibly need.
Pollan’s talk wasn’t all doom-and-gloom. After elegantly outlining what’s WRONG with the American food-system, he offered some suggestions for how the country can move forward and put things RIGHT. Pollen repeated his call for a national food policy, designed to ensure that everyone in America has enough and that food should be healthy, rather than our current situation which is engineered to keep commodity prices low and farmers employed. To address the over-abundance of processed crap he suggested a tax on junk-food (a la Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts), with concomitant efforts to encourage good food choices. As he so eloquently stated: “you cannot subsidize broccoli, but you can subsidize demand.” Finally, he offered up some of his own “Food Rules” that he has collected to aid in making personal decisions about what to eat.
I’m a huge fan of Michael Pollan’s entire ethos (I think that my recipes attest to a deep passion for fruits and veggies). It was awesome to hear one of my favorite authors talking about his topic. I haven’t heard of any of the other speakers in this lecture series, but I might decide to check out a few of the talks in the upcoming weeks.
What’s your favorite plant to eat?