Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, discusses the link between healthcare and diet, the dangers of processed foods, the power of the meat industry lobby, the “nutritional-industrial complex,” the impact industrial agriculture has on global warming, and his sixty-four rules for eating. "The markets are full of what I call edible food-like substances that you have to avoid," says Michael Pollan. "So a lot of the rules are to help you, you know, navigate that now very treacherous landscape of the American supermarket." Today we air an excerpt of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. and then spend the rest of the show with Michael Pollan. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The way we eat has changed more in the last fifty years than in the previous 10,000. The modern supermarket has, on average, 47,000 products. The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating, because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: We’ve never had food companies this powerful in our history.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Everything we’ve done in modern agriculture is to grow it faster, fatter, bigger, cheaper.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: If you can grow a chicken in forty-nine days, why would you want one you’ve got to grow in three months?
MICHAEL POLLAN: When you go through the supermarket, there is an illusion of diversity. So much of our industrial food turns out to be rearrangements of corn.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, “OK, well, we can get two hamburgers for the same price.”
MICHAEL POLLAN: They have managed to make it against the law to criticize their products. There is an effort to make it illegal to publish a photo of any industrial food operation.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: I find it incredible that the FDA wants to allow the sale of meat from cloned animals without any labeling.
NEWS REPORT: Peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: E. coli has been found in spinach, apple juice.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Smells like money to me!
GARY HIRSHBERG: The average consumer does not feel very powerful. It’s the exact opposite. When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we’re voting, for local or not, organic or not.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: Look at the tobacco industry. The battle against tobacco is a perfect model of how an industry’s irresponsible behavior can be changed.
JOEL SALATIN: Imagine what it would be if, as a national policy, the idea would be to have such nutritionally dense food that people actually felt better, had more energy, and weren’t sick as much. You know, now, see, that’s a noble goal.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was an excerpt of the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc.
Today we’re going to spend the hour with one of the key voices in that film, journalist and bestselling author Michael Pollan. He’s among the nation’s leading writers and thinkers on food and food policy. He’s the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University [of] California, Berkeley School of Journalism. He’s written several books about food, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. His latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.
Well, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and I sat down with Michael Pollan here in our studio in New York last month.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, welcome to Democracy Now!
MICHAEL POLLAN: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is our rule for you, our food rule: no sound bites; give us the whole meal.
MICHAEL POLLAN: You got it.
AMY GOODMAN: OK? Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. What are the rules?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, there are sixty-four of them, and they’re very simple, and they’re just — I was trying to just — I mean, I’ve been reporting on the food system — on agriculture and health and nutrition and — for ten years now, and people are always asking me, “Well, OK, OK, I get it, but what do I do? What do I eat? What do I buy?” And so, I tried to write a book that really distilled everything I had learned into some very kind of sticky, memorable, you know, rules for eating.
They all come down to the big — what to me is the big main message, which is, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. I mean, the whole edifice of nutritional science, when you really look at it, that’s all you need to know. It’s a little easier said than done. You know, not too much? Well, how do you govern appetite? That’s such a problem for so many people. And eat food? Isn’t that everything? No, the markets are full of what I call edible food-like substances also that you have to avoid. So a lot of the rules are to help you, you know, navigate that now very treacherous landscape of the American supermarket.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, step back for a second. What is it that you mean by the “nutritional-industrial complex”?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, there is a very kind of cozy relationship between nutritional science, as it’s practiced in the universities and in the government, and the kinds of advice that emerges from that research, and the food industry, which does a very good job of taking any shred of new information like, oh, maybe fiber prevents colon cancer, and then go to town with really dubious health claims about it. A lot of the research is very tentative and it’s changing, because people really — I mean, the great open secret about nutritional science is it’s a very young science, to put it charitably. They really don’t know a lot. They still haven’t gotten straight whether we should worry more about fats or carbohydrates with regard to heart disease. So, but whenever they come out with a new finding, the industry uses that to sell more food to people.
And so, the great example in our own time is the low-fat campaign, a big public health campaign, really begun by the government in the 1970s under Senator George McGovern’s leadership at — he was chair of the Select Committee on Nutrition. And they thought they were doing something really good, which was telling people to eat less meat and cut down on saturated fat. But this was seized on by the industry, which took what had been a critique of what they were doing and turned it into a very clever new way to sell new food. So they reengineered the whole food supply to have less fat, but more carbohydrates. And so, people binged on low-fat foods, like Snackwells was the great example. Remember that line of — you know, it was basically no-fat junk food that Nabisco came out with, and it was all over the supermarket for a few years there in the ’80s. And people felt, well, if one of these is better for me, a whole box is even better! And so, people binged on low-fat food.
And since the low-fat campaign started, we have gotten an average of eighteen pounds heavier. So it hasn’t worked. And the reason it didn’t work was —- well, there are two theories. One is, maybe the science about fat was wrong, which is increasingly becoming clear, not certain, but clearer. Or, maybe whenever you demonize one nutrient, you’re giving a free pass to another, and you’re allowing the industry to come up with what it always wants to do, which is another “eat more” message. And they did. They’re really clever.
I mean, I found it in my own work, to the extent I’ve demonized high-fructose corn syrup in the last few years or talked about the importance of simple foods with few ingredients, they now have those things, and they -—
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t ice cream named after you?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Five — well, no. I don’t know if it’s me, but —-
AMY GOODMAN: Michael “Five” Pollan?
MICHAEL POLLAN: You know, I -—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain Five.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I’m not the only person who was saying, you know, if you want to avoid heavily processed foods, choose foods that have five ingredients or less. Häagen-Dazs looked at their ingredients and said, “Hey, we only have five. Let’s advertise this fact.” They didn’t change anything. So they started calling their new line of ice cream “Five.” And —-
AMY GOODMAN: And you get royalties on that?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I wish. And now there are all these products that have been reformulated with real sugar, as if that’s health food. So there’s an implicit health claim suddenly on sugar that was created by the critique of high-fructose corn syrup. So, you see, they’re much smarter than I am or any of the critics are.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain the issue and the problem with high-fructose corn syrup.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I mean, the reason I have suggested that you should avoid products with high-fructose corn syrup is not that we have science proving that it is a worse form of sugar than conventional cane sugar.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, again, it’s made out of corn.
MICHAEL POLLAN: It’s made from corn. It’s a very complex process that was invented by the Japanese in the ’70s, and it really has been a boon to the food industry, because high-fructose corn syrup is very cheap, because we subsidize the corn, and it has various properties of food science that are very valuable. If you put it in a bread product, it gets a nice brown coating. And it actually helps prevent freezer burn in frozen foods. So -— and you make any food sweeter, and we’ll eat more of it, so they’re putting it in everything. So if you can avoid high-fructose corn syrup, you’re probably avoiding a heavily processed food that you should avoid anyway. So that’s why I said don’t eat it.
But is it worse than sugar? Not necessarily. Both of them are about fifty-fifty glucose and fructose. They’re joined in a different way. Some people think that might affect absorption rates. But let’s assume they’re the same.
And so, they’ve come back and reformulated a bunch of products with sugar. And they’ve said “with real sugar now” or “with no high-fructose corn syrup.” And people — you know, how do you read that? You say, “Well, if they’re boasting about it, it must be healthier.” And so, we now are — we’ve created a health claim for sugar, and I feel somewhat responsible, because it’s very deceptive.
So I came up with a rule to avoid all these schemes, which is, don’t buy any food you see advertised on television. That is the only way to avoid their marketing cleverness. And that rule captures most processed food, because two-thirds of ad budgets go to heavily processed food. Only about five percent of ad budgets go to, you know, prunes or walnuts or real foods. So I’m hoping that your common sense will not — you know, will allow you not to tar them with the same brush.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Why this big change in the American diet? I mean, over the past century we’re eating differently. How has the industry changed and affected our eating habits?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, there are a lot of causes. Some are technological. Many are social. Basically, the business model of the food industry, because it’s based on these agricultural commodities, the price of which are always falling — corn and soy and wheat — the way you make money in such an economy is by processing, by adding value. So you take that corn, which is — I don’t — you know, it’s been as low as $1.50 a bushel. And let us remind your readers how much corn that is. It’s a bushel basket. It’s fifty-six pounds of kernels. OK, that’s really cheap for a food or a raw ingredient for foods. You can’t really eat the stuff. And so, you make money the more you trick it up. So, for example, a potato is 69 cents a pound, OK? Not a lot of money. But Terra Yukon Gold French fries — I’m sorry, potato chips, come to $10.37 a pound, OK? A lot of value added simply by slicing and frying in oil and marketing beautifully and having a nice bag. So the tendency is going to be to complicate foods. That’s how you make money.
The problem is, the more you complicate foods, the less healthy they are. In general, the more you process a food, the less nutritional value it has. And so, that’s one problem. But we’re attracted to this because we’re all so busy. And, you know, people — you know, beginning in the ’70s, you have women entering the workforce in huge numbers and wages declining, and so cheap processed food became very irresistible to a lot of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan is the author of, well, his latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s [Manual]. He is a professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to our interview with food expert and author Michael Pollan. His latest book is Food Rules: An Eater’s [Manual]. Sharif Abdel Kouddous and I sat down with him to talk to him about food, and I asked him for his assessment of how unhealthy Americans have become because of the way we eat.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Of the money we spend on healthcare, about $2.3 trillion, three-quarters of that goes to treat chronic diseases that are preventable. Now, they’re not all food-related, but most of them are. You’ve got smoking and alcoholism in there, and I don’t know where you want to count alcoholism. But, you know, upwards of $500 to $750 billion we are spending to deal with the consequences of this diet. It’s remarkable it’s not a more central part of the conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: How could it be?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I think the way it will become more important is — right now there’s no powerful interest in this country that really cares about our health, I’m sorry to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Mom?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, Mom is a powerful interest, but not an organized interest with a lobby in Congress. The moms have not yet done what they should do, I think.
But, you know, the healthcare industry profits mightily from the sickness of the population. You know, the food industry is producing lots of patients for the healthcare industry. It’s a very convenient relationship. The health insurers, you would think, would have an interest in your health, but in fact their business model up ’til now is based on keeping you out of the pool if you are likely to get chronic disease. If you have a preexisting condition, for one, you can’t get in. And then, if you develop one, they raise your rates and do everything they can to get you out, or they have a lifetime cap or whatever it is.
Under the healthcare bills, both the House and Senate bills right now, there are rules that should require them to keep — to insure everybody on an equal footing, so that no more preexisting condition, no more underwriting, in effect. Underwriting is the process of deciding who you want, and underwriting is basically used to keep sick people out of that pool. Once the healthcare industry finds that they’re stuck with people with chronic diseases, they will develop, I think, a strong interest in keeping us healthier. And this is a very optimistic view, I realize, and we’ll see if it works out this way. But every new case of type 2 diabetes, which basically is caused by lifestyle, by diet — and exercise, to some extent, but 80 percent of it is diet — costs them an extra $6,600 a year per patient, up to $400,000 over the life of the diabetic. So that is —- for every case they can prevent of type 2 diabetes, which is not that hard to prevent -—
AMY GOODMAN: How do you prevent it?
MICHAEL POLLAN: — that’s $400,000 of profit. So I think the way change comes in this country is if powerful interests have, you know, an interest in dealing with it. And suddenly you might find health insurers supporting a soda tax or supporting a public health education campaign around soda. That is the easiest way to prevent type 2 diabetes, is reduce — our adolescents are getting 15 percent of their calories from soda in America today. That’s a really easy fix: demonize soda, basically. Or educate people about its health effects.
Nobody would support that right now. But if the health insurance industry started supporting it, the way they got on board for anti-smoking eventually, because they had an interest in it, then you could see some change. You could see the health insurance industry taking an interest in the farm bill, buying a few seats on those committees. Forgive my cynicism, but, you know, right now those committees are controlled by agribusiness. Well, what if the health insurance industry controlled a few of those seats?
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how agriculture fits in with the whole issue of food and diet.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the food system we have is in large part a game played according to a set of rules that are encoded, enshrined in the farm bill. That’s the big piece of legislation that organizes the food system. It decides which crops get supported by the government, how they get supported. It also has the Food Stamp Program in there — SNAP, it’s now called. It has a lot of the rules governing everything from, you know, farmers’ markets, support for farmers’ markets, vouchers at farmers’ markets, food safety issues — I mean, everything is in there — how farmers can manage their land, conservation programs. And historically, you know, that bill has been used to produce a certain kind of food supply. For many years, that bill was used to support farm prices, and that was a boon to American farmers and, as it turns out, to Americans eaters, as well, because you didn’t have these oversupplies of corn and soy, which lead to a lot of junk food.
But beginning really in the ’70s under the Nixon administration, when food prices had gotten high and it was a bit of political peril for Nixon, because of the grain deal with Russia — there’s a complicated history to it, but we had food price inflation, and Nixon hired Earl Butz, brilliant agricultural economist from Purdue, and his mission was “Drive down food prices. Do whatever you can.” And the way Butz did it was encouraging farmers to move toward monocultures of corn and soy and changing — getting rid of the — we had something called the “ever-normal granary.” It was a grain reserve. And when you have a grain reserve — and this goes for an African country as much as an American country — it gives the government the ability to keep prices from spiking too high or crashing too low, because you can open the spigot. If there’s not enough grain, you can release it, and if there’s too much, you can buy it. It’s a very powerful tool. We gave that up. And the reason we gave it up is the international traders didn’t like having the government effecting prices. They wanted to effect prices themselves.
And we also moved from a system of supporting the prices of agricultural commodities to — which we did by loaning farmers money, rather — when prices fell, so they didn’t have to sell into a weak market. We changed that to a system of direct payments, where we simply cut them a check for the difference between a target price and the market price. This allowed them to dump commodities into a market that was poor, and that market went down further.
So we basically redesigned subsidies in a way that forced prices down. And that leads to this overproduction of corn and soy and, I think, is one of the causes of the obesity epidemic. You know, I mean, we’re eating 500 more calories per person per day since this period. And that’s because they’re really cheap, and attractively packaged.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What about the issue of the American diet and industrial agriculture on global warming? We were recently in Copenhagen for the UN climate summit, and we spoke with the head of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. And he said — he was encouraging people to be vegetarian and not eat meat, because it reduced carbon emissions by such an extent. Talk about the effect on global warming.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, meat production — the food system, in general, is basically the largest, or just about the largest, producer of greenhouse gases. And it happens — it’s important to understand it happens at every level. It’s not just the transportation. It’s not food miles, which we hear a lot about. It begins on the farm. Are you using synthetic fertilizers? Those are made from fossil fuels. Those are made from natural gas, take a lot of energy to produce. Are you — you know, what kind of equipment are you using? Are you then drying your corn or soy using natural gas? The pesticides are all made from petroleum products. You know, all through the system, it is just — we have essentially taken this sun-driven process called photosynthesis, and we’ve put it on a diet of fossil fuel to make it more productive and, basically, to replace labor on the farm. I mean, you know, only one percent of Americans are feeding the rest of us. It’s astounding. How do they do it? Well, lots of fossil fuel. We used to have 40 percent of the country involved in agriculture. So there’s no question that the food system and its reliance on fossil fuel is driving climate change.
The worst culprit in this complex is animal agriculture, basically because — let’s take beef as an example. That’s the worst offender. It takes ten pounds of grain, all of which — each of which takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow —- ten pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. So it’s a very inefficient use of resources. I mean, you know, Frances Moore Lappé was telling us this in 1971. This isn’t news. But the concern then was less about the fossil fuel than the equity of the issue, because those ten pounds of grain could be feeding people. And beef is just -— so, you know, you’re —-
AMY GOODMAN: And you have the power of the lobby. I mean, we saw it with Oprah.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The most powerful woman in America dares to take on the industry -—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Can’t cross the —- that’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and they sue her. The Cattlemen’s Association or the —- I don’t know the official title.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, they’re deeply embedded in the government.
AMY GOODMAN: Because she says she doesn’t want to eat a hamburger.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, she learned about mad cow disease and said, “That’s the last cheeseburger I’m going to eat.” And the cattle futures market tanked ten percent in a day. And they came after her, because we have these things called veggie libel laws. Very few people know about them, because they don’t exist on the coasts, perhaps. But there are laws on the books in thirteen or fourteen states, mostly agricultural states, that if you impugn a food crop and damage its market, you are libel. So, in other words, the protections -—
AMY GOODMAN: Why do they call it “veggie libel,” not “meat libel,” because isn’t it mainly used for meat, when you disparage meat?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, doesn’t “veggie libel” sound better? It’s funnier. It should be “meat.” It’s mostly used about meat, but it could be used — you could say something negative about corn. And I’ve thought about this, as someone who’s said many negative things about corn, but I don’t think I’ve damaged the market yet.
They’re absurd laws. They would never survive, I don’t think, a Supreme Court test. You know, there are clear First Amendment issues involved. But it’s very intimidating. And, you know, has Oprah really delved into a controversial food issue since then? I don’t think so. And I have — you know, I think you see local papers terrified to write about feedlots because of these laws. And I think it does have a chilling effect. And it would be great if they were challenged. It would be great if the Times were sued, for example, because I think that they would spend the money to take it to the Supreme Court. And Oprah would have, too, but she won. It cost her over a million dollars to win, but she did win. And in a way, that’s too bad, because had she lost, we might have gotten the test that these laws will need.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Are you vegetarian?
MICHAEL POLLAN: No, I’m not. I eat meat. I eat much less meat than I used to. And I don’t think the answer is necessarily, you know, giving up meat. There are kinds of meat that have much less of a carbon footprint. I mean, we’ve been describing grain-fed beef. But what if you feed cattle on grass? When you feed cattle on grass, they’re not competing with humans for food, because we can’t digest grass. They’re geniuses; they can digest grass, because they have a rumen. And that — and well run, rotationally grazed cattle, on grass, actually build carbon in the soil. They can be used to sequester carbon. So there is a way to organize meat production that would reduce its carbon footprint dramatically. Now, it must be said, that meat is much more expensive and harder to find, with the result that I eat very little of it. But that’s the kind of meat I eat.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan, tell us what happened in San Luis Obispo in October.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, over the last six months or so, I have gotten a lot of pushback from the industry on my own work. And I speak a lot on college campuses, and it’s never been an issue. But beginning, I think, with this administration and with the way that Michelle Obama’s been talking about food, which I think has gotten their attention and worried them about the — and the coming out of Food, Inc., the movie, too, there were a couple things that happened this year that brought the food movement to a level of visibility and potential power, I think, that has really frightened the industry.
So, anyway, at a couple of my speaking engagements, there were protests and, in one case, a cancellation. I was doing — at Washington State University, they were using Omnivore’s Dilemma as a community read, and they — you know, they bought 4,000 copies to give out, and they were inviting me up to speak about the book. And suddenly, it was canceled. And they claimed it was budget cuts last spring. But Bill Marler, who is a very —- a well known food safety lawyer, who really is the guy who, when your kid, you know, has E. coli poisoning, he sues the companies for you, he was an alum of the school, and he said, “Well, if it’s really about money, I will pick up all the expenses.” So he kind of called their bluff, and now I’m going.
In San Luis Obispo, I was giving a speech, invited by students, initially, and then a sustainable ag group on campus.
AMY GOODMAN: At California -—
MICHAEL POLLAN: At Cal Poly, California Polytechnic Institute, State University in San Luis Obispo. One of their big donors, Harris Ranch, protested that I was going to be speaking and threatened to withdraw $500,000 in funding they had given the university, if my speech wasn’t countered by a debate and that the industry be allowed to speak. Now, the industry gets plenty of opportunities to speak at this university. I mean, it’s basically an agribusiness vocational school. And so, they insisted that what had been a speech be turned into a debate, which I participated in. And, you know, it was fine, but the students wanted to hear a speech. And, you know, so I didn’t get the full meal.
And the correspondence came out, and it’s stunning just to watch how baldly a giver can talk to a president of a university about, “Look, you do this.” And he also talked about a tenured member of the faculty who was teaching a course, and they didn’t like the content of that course because he was preaching the virtues of grass, rather than grain, for animals. And they wanted him removed from teaching that course, a required course. And, in fact, they succeeded. So, you know, the ag schools, where we train our farmers, are heavily dominated by agribusiness, and they’re not really tolerating diverse views. And so, I speak at all these places whenever I have the chance, and there are a lot of students who want to hear the message. But it’s upsetting to a lot of people.
And there was a third case, at Madison, where I spoke.
AMY GOODMAN: University of Wisconsin?
MICHAEL POLLAN: University of Wisconsin. It was actually an amazing experience. I was invited because they were doing a community read of In Defense of Food. And the Farm Bureau, which is the putative representative of the farming interests — it really represents agribusiness. It’s sort of like AARP. If you’re a farmer, you must be a member of the Farm Bureau, because they have a monopoly on crop insurance. So they supposedly speak for all farmers, but not really. And so, they were protesting. And they were — they had pieces in the op-ed, and they demanded a meeting with the chancellor and asked for a debate and organized a protest of farmers to come protest my speech.
The net effect was the speech was moved to the Kohl Center, the basketball arena, because it generated so much interest, and 8,000 people came out to hear me, which doesn’t normally happen. And the farmers came. They were bused in. Some feed company organized buses. And they all wore t-shirts that said “In Defense of Farmers,” “Eat food...thank a farmer” on the back. And they were, you know, sitting in the bleachers.
And, you know, it was a very interesting event, because I talked to them directly and talked a little bit about — you know, what they had heard about my work was that I was anti-farmer, and nothing could be further from the truth. And what I’m really talking about is creating new markets for farmers and getting them out of this trap they’re in selling commodity crops to single buyers. You know, I mean, they’re really trapped in a very difficult system. And it wasn’t very hard to reach them and explain why there might be a better system for them and a better set of agricultural policies, because our policies — one of the — the genius of Earl Butz was he told farmers, “You know, you hear about agribusiness, but you’re agribusiness. You’re businessmen who are farmers. That’s agribusiness.” And a lot of farmers accepted that, that their interests were identical with ADMs and Cargills, and ADM and Cargill were going to sell their stuff overseas and process it. And it’s not very hard to explain, I think, to a farmer why, in fact, their interests are very different than those companies and all the companies who are buying their products. And so, it was a great opportunity for me to address that kind of audience. And I’m interested in doing more of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His books — well, his latest is Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Before that, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. We’ll continue with Michael Pollan in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to journalist and bestselling author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan. His latest is called Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Sharif Abdel Kouddous and I interviewed Michael Pollan. We asked him about a piece of legislation that Congress is considering whether to reauthorize, the Child Nutrition Act.
MICHAEL POLLAN: The Child Nutrition Act governs WIC payments and the School Lunch Program.
AMY GOODMAN: Women Infant Care?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Women and Infant Care, which is essentially a basket of groceries available to poor women, that is a highly politicized basket. In other words, it has — it’s not designed with health in mind. It has far too many dairy products and not enough produce, although it’s been modified a little bit.
The School Lunch Program, I think, is one of the most important programs we have and tools we have to basically change American health and change the food system. Right now, that program is, in effect, a dispose-all system for surplus agricultural commodities. For example, during the swine flu epidemic, pork prices plummeted, because a lot of people thought you should avoid pork, and you could get — in fact, none of us are calling it “swine flu” anymore at the behest of the pork producers, who said, “Please call it H1N1.” And that’s why — and the media has gone along with this.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, one thing on that. You were the one who came onto Democracy Now!
and said you think you could trace it back to a —-
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yes, you can, but it doesn’t have to do with eating it. It appears that swine flu originated in a big pork plant south of the border in Mexico. The first cases were found in this town. But our pork confinement operations are kind of, you know, Petri dishes for disease. And this was all predicted. The Pew Commission on animal agriculture, which came out two years ago, a brilliant report on the state of animal agriculture with many, many stakeholders involved, predicted, said the way we’re growing pork is a perfect Petri dish for new flu viruses and new bacterial diseases. Well, MRSA, the community-acquired staph, has been traced to pork production in Canada and the United States and Denmark. And swine flu, tentatively, has been traced to this particular place.
So, anyway -— but the reason I was talking about swine flu was that it crashed the pork prices, and the industry went to the government and got a bailout, $300 million. The government bought pork to support prices. And what did the government do with that pork? They pushed it through the School Lunch Program. So this is what we’re doing, you know, with our children.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I want to ask you about one rule here that I find startling: Rule 39. This is in your book. You say, “Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” What do you mean?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, I like French fries. You know, I like all sorts of foods and potato chips. But I also know that you shouldn’t eat too much of this kind of food, because it has a lot of fat and, you know, many calories and very few nutrients. But one of our problems, I think, with the modern food system, and why we’ve gotten so much heavier, is that food that used to be very labor-intensive no longer is and that the labor cost of food, the work cost involved, has gone down so far, because corporations can cook this food very efficiently.
So my approach is, if you want to eat this stuff, great. But if you cook it yourself, you’re not going to make it that often. I mean, if you’ve made French fries yourself, which I’ve done, you know, you’ve got to wash the potatoes, you’ve got to cut the potatoes, you’ve got to fry the potatoes, you’re going to make a huge mess in your kitchen, and then you’ve got to figure out what to do with all the oil. And you’re not going to do it that often. You’re going to do it like once a month maybe, maybe every two or three weeks if you really like them. And that’s about how often you should eat them. So I think if we kind of take a more personal stake in making those kind of special occasion foods, we’ll eat the proper amount.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: How about Rule number 36: Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I got that from a reader. I mean, a lot of these, you know, people submitted to me, and I kind of curated this book as much as wrote it. Well, you know, we’ve read a lot about the additives in cereal and the colors that are used and the preservatives. And there are real issues about it, especially when you combine them with learning disabilities and things like that. So I could have had a rule that, you know, said study this, and learn the name of this color, and don’t — you know, if it’s in the ingredients — you know, a kind of complex mnemonic to deal with it. But I thought, let’s make it really simple. You know, you’re standing in the cereal aisle. You know that those Lucky Charms are going to change the color of the milk, because those — you know, they’re dyed bits of marshmallow. And that will help you without even having to read the label to avoid that kind of food.
AMY GOODMAN: Froot Loops?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Same problem. Froot Loops —-
AMY GOODMAN: Don’t they have a special certification on the box, Froot Loops?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, yeah, now they’ve got -— well, actually, that —-
AMY GOODMAN: Not that I would know this.
MICHAEL POLLAN: No, well, there was the Smart Choices. You’re referring to the Smart Choices label program, which is already defunct. I’m so glad that it didn’t last. But basically, the food industry, this is -— here’s a great example of the nutritional-industrial complex. The food industry and Tufts School of Nutrition, one of the preeminent schools of nutrition in this country, got together to develop a label system to supposedly help consumers distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. They came up with this thing called Smart Choices. You would get a checkmark on your package if you met certain standards, which were negotiated with the industry. They were not very intense.
By adding a single gram of fiber to its cereal, Froot Loops was able to get this checkmark. This is a food that is 40 percent, by weight, sugar, OK? This is not a health food by any stretch. Having three grams of fiber, and is that really much better than two grams of fiber? Is that significant at all? Not really. But, in fact, when asked how to justify this, the people at Tufts said, “Well, it’s better for you than donuts.” Now, my answer to that is, “Well, then make that the label: ‘Better for you than donuts.’”
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, where is government regulation on all of this? I mean, shouldn’t there be a government-approved kind of check on nutritional value?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you know, they have that in England. They have a kind of a stop-go system, and packaged foods have, you know, a red, green or yellow light on them. And some people think that that’s an effective system. I don’t know. What it tends to do is make fine distinctions between heavily processed foods. You know, the really healthy food is in the produce aisle. The really healthy food is in the bulk food bins, and there’s no label there. So, if you want to determine that Froot Loops are marginally better for you than Lucky Charms, you know, you’re playing a fool’s game there. It really doesn’t matter. But again, we play fool’s games all the time with food. We’re looking for excuses to eat badly, and the industry is very good at providing them.
AMY GOODMAN: Forty-seven is eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored. Old wives tale: if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, I find that one really useful.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s very interesting.
MICHAEL POLLAN: When I think, “God, I’m really hungry,” am I really hungry? Would I eat an apple now? Then I’m not hungry.
AMY GOODMAN: You say, “Drink the spinach water.”
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But I have a question about that. What about the pesticides? I mean, that whole issue —-
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, should I have said, “Drink the organic spinach water”? Perhaps I should have. I mean, if you’re going to be eating -—
AMY GOODMAN: No, is that a concern, though? The very places in food, like the peel of an apple —-
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- where it is most healthy to eat —- it gives you roughage, it’s got the concentration of the nutrients -—
MICHAEL POLLAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — is also the concentration of the heavy metals.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Often it is, or the pesticides. I mean, the heavy metals are sometimes internal, depending on what’s in the soil, to the food. And yeah, I mean, any kind of chemical residues you’re going to get in food, you’re probably going to get in the water, too. You know, hopefully you’ve cleaned the food thoroughly, and a lot of pesticides are superficial and can be washed off.
The other thing to understand about pesticides is that they don’t afflict all foods equally. And, you know, there’s a wonderful list called the Dirty Dozen online that lists the ones that have the most pesticide residue. I don’t think spinach is one of them. I might be wrong. I would urge you to check it. But like broccoli isn’t that bad. Strawberries are really bad. Apples are really bad. So it helps you know when it’s worth the money to buy organic to know that, because sometimes it’s not — you know, if you’re spreading a limited budget over, you know, organic food, there’s better places to spend than others.
But a lot of the nutrients are also in that water. And so, I advise, put it in — some people drink it. I don’t drink it, but I save it for soup stock. And if I’m not going to make a soup or a sauce, I put it on my garden, because it’s good for the plants.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Where do you see the direction of the American diet going? I mean, you’ve talked about a lot of these negative aspects. Is there any positive change that’s happening right now?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Oh, yeah.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And do you think that we can ultimately revolutionize the American diet?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, reform it. Revolutionize, we’ll see. There are a lot of very positive things happening in this country around food. There is an awareness that didn’t exist five years ago about what we’re eating and the impact it’s having on our health. There is a feedback loop going on, and type 2 diabetes is a big part of it. The number of families that are having meetings with their pediatrician, where their pediatrician is saying, “Look, this is the path your child is on” — they have metabolic syndrome, or they’re pre-diabetic — “and they can either change their diet now, or they’re going to be on drugs for the rest of their lives and, you know, 80 percent chance of heart disease, seven years off their lifespan, all these” — you know, it’s just a terrible sentence, and it’s preventable. And so, you know, I see a kind of feedback loop happening, that people are understanding the impact of a fast-food diet in a way they didn’t.
You see the growth of farmers’ markets, which has been stunning. I mean, it’s doubled twice in ten years. We don’t know how much money is spent at farmers’ markets, but it’s big right now. I mean, it’s not being reported to the government. I think that’s why we don’t know. It’s a kind of hidden food economy. It’s sort of what was happening in the Soviet Union at the end. You know, half the food in the Soviet Union was coming through unofficial channels at the end, because people didn’t trust the mainstream food system, and it wasn’t providing enough. And we are building our own, you know, samizdat food system in this country right now.
And then you have, you know, the more mainstream aspects. Organic is still, even in this recession, is still growing. People are looking for alternatives. People are gardening in much greater numbers than they ever have before in this country, largely due to Michelle Obama’s influence, I think, although it had started before that. You know, try to order seeds this year. You know, they’re in short supply.
So I think that we are — you know, I wouldn’t say we’ve reached a point where we’ve turned the corner and we know the battle is won, by any means. And the industry is doing everything it can to co-opt this movement. I mean, they’re selling Frito-Lay potato chips as “local” in Maine and Idaho now, OK? Because every food is local somewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Your recommendation to Congress on the Child Nutrition Act?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Money. I mean, it needs a few things, but it needs money. It needs a significant increase in funding. It needs — they need to follow these Institute of Medicine standards that have been created. They’ve finally gotten the writing of the nutritional standards out of the government, with an independent body that has come up with much stronger standards. If they apply those, that will get a lot of junk food out of the system. I mean, right now we’re feeding, you know, way too much fat. We have minimums of calories in the School Lunch, not maximums. We need maximums, too, because, you know, good School Lunch staff get dinged for inadequate calories, and the easiest ways to get a lot of calories in that lunch is serve them tater tots, fried potatoes. And they do it, just to fulfill this. So change the standards, fund it more adequately.
And long term, I think a very important thing to do is make it free to everybody. Right now it’s only subsidized for the poor. And what that means is you have a two-class system in every lunch room in America. Kids know who’s getting the subsidized lunch and who’s not, and there’s a huge stigma attached to it. You know, what kind of message is that to send? Our most democratic institution, the public schools, break into two classes at lunchtime every day.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you afford it?
MICHAEL POLLAN: You determine it’s important. I mean, there’s — what is more important than the health of our children? And, you know, you will save on healthcare. And this is another issue where the health insurance industry and the government, which is now going to be on the hook for a lot more of our healthcare bill, will now have an interest in the health of our children in a way they haven’t. And spending, you know, another $40 billion on School Lunch will suddenly look like a deal.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What about Rule 58, do all your eating at a table, and 59, try not to eat alone?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, we’re doing a lot of eating on the run. We’re eating in the car. Something like a fifth of food eaten by people, young people, is eaten in the car right now. The cup holders — you’ve seen what’s happened with the cup holders. They’re huge. And they’re designing food. Campbell’s makes a soup designed to be microwaved and eaten in the car. So, eating at tables is a very civilizing act, and you eat more mindfully at a table. I mean, if you’re — I mean, you know, you sit in front of the television, and you kind of mindlessly go from bowl to mouth. And I know, because I can — when my son was young and he wouldn’t eat any vegetables, I would put a pile of, like, peas or green beans in front of him while he was watching television, and he would eat them without even knowing he’d done it. So it could be put to good use.
But basically, restoring food to its social dimension, I think, is really, really important. When we eat alone, we tend to eat more. Eating at a table, you eat a little more slowly, because you’re talking, and you’re putting down your fork to engage in conversation. And you realize at the table that food is not just fuel. It’s communion, too. And those — you know, those meanings of food, I mean, they’re important, not just in terms of appetite, but, you know, eating together, eating a home-cooked meal is really, really important to our families, to our societies and, I think, to our political culture. And there’s a lot of political skills that are learned at the dinner table. And kids eating alone or families eating in front of a television set, they’re not learning. You know, this is one of the seedbeds of civil society, is table manners. You learn generosity. You learn sharing. You learn manners.
And there’s a story told when Newt Gingrich brought in the class of ’94. He said to them, all these, you know, young firebrands coming into Congress, he said, “Don’t live in Washington. Keep your home. Keep your family out in wherever your districts are to stay in touch with your voters.” And a social dimension was lost in Congress of families, you know, finding themselves together. They would eat together. There were picnics. There were apparently all sorts of eating occasions. And this happened during this healthcare bill, too. There was a little article in the paper saying that the Senate dining room, where the parties came together, was empty. People were so pissed off at one another. They weren’t eating together. You get people to eat together, and a lot of things happen.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, cook.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, cook. Very important. Very hard, too, for a lot of people. Look, if you want to take back control of your diet from this nutritional-industrial complex, from the corporations who want to cook for you and don’t cook very well, because they use cheap raw ingredients, too much salt, sugar and fat to cover that up, you’re going to have to cook yourself. I mean, food you cook yourself is healthier food. People who cook eat healthier diets. We know this. So the challenge is finding the time in the day to do it.
And that means we have to make cooking a shared responsibility in the home. I mean, one of the reasons that the feminist movement turned against home cooking to an extent during the ’70s or ’80s is it was women’s work, and they were stuck with it. And for most of history that’s been the case. So the challenge is to rebuild a non-sexist culture of cooking and share it, either by the day or, you know, parts — in my house, you know, we take turns. Someone’s going to do the main, and someone’s going to do the side dishes every night. But in some houses, you know, the husband cooks, you know, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and the woman cooks — the wife cooks Tuesday and Thursday. There are ways to do it, and it’s really important we figure out how to do this. More men are cooking now than were. The percentage is up, which is encouraging. Younger women are not tolerating being in households with men who don’t cook at all.
And so, there’s some encouraging — but the trend is away from cooking, in general. And when we don’t cook, we are victims of this food complex, you know, because they’re not going to cook very well. And it’s — another rule in the book is, you know, don’t eat food that — only eat food that’s been cooked by human beings. Very, very important.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Pollan, thank you very much for spending this time with us.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, thank you both very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Pollan is the author of Food Rules: An Eater’s [Manual]. He is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His earlier books, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat.