Democracy Soup

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Michael Pollan Reminds Us That We Need to Take on More Responsibility for Wise Food Choices

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Originally published on on Fri, 05/22/2009 – 2:24pm

Michael Pollan at the book signing Monday night in Chicago. Picture from me.

For those in the colder regions of the world who struggle to eat local because, well, it’s been cold out there, this is your season to rejoice. After all, if you can’t enjoy the literal fruits of the harvest now, this just won’t work out for you.

If you haven’t been paying attention, eating local is one of the newest food trends, reducing your carbon footprint. It’s about finding a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement to get locally grown fruits and vegetables or hitting the farmers market so often they start to know you by name.

You could do worse than follow Michael Pollan’s advice to “avoid any foods that you’ve seen advertised.” Pollan was in Chicago earlier this week on a book signing tour for “In Defense of Food,” his follow-up to the highly acclaimed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Pollan spoke out about the need to re-regionalize food, to have fresher, less processed food that is also more climate friendly.

“You can’t make money with simple foods,” Pollan said. Marketers aren’t giving up so fast, being on the offensive so quickly you might not remember they were on the defensive.

After Pollan had suggested to not buy food with more than 5 ingredients, you started to see products limiting themselves to 5 ingredients. Pollan cited Haagen-Dazs’ five as an example of how marketers try to squeeze in to new expectations, even though it’s not a health food since it’s still ice cream.

Eating better in the summertime is easier no matter where you live, but there is burgeoning hope for the colder climates to have more options come wintertime. Pollan said there is progress in growing food in unheated greenhouses, citing one in Milwaukee, WI that uses hot compost and another in Maine where plastic is used to protect the crops.

He also suggests canning and freezing to supplement foods in places where winter makes an impact. But greenhouses will only go so far. “We feel entitled to have foods year-round,” said Pollan. “Certain foods should be seasonal.”

Pollan did observe that meat is the exception, given that the cost and carbon footprint savings just aren’t there, noting that grass-fed beef could be gathered from different parts of the country, depending on where grass is best for that time of year.

What government can do

Government plays a role in the quality of our food supply. We subsidize corn to the max while keeping sugar prices artificially high. Moderator Bill Kurtis, owner of a grass-fed beef company in his native Kansas, pointed out that the system is set up against the small farmer, and how while corn farmers get lots of subsidies, grass farmers don’t get subsidies.

Pollan did praise President Obama as a great dot-connector, noting that reforming food can help both the health care crisis and the climate crisis. Pollan noted that of the $2 trillion spent on health care, $1.5 trillion of that is spent on chronic diseases.

Another place where the Obama influence might be felt is the upcoming 2010 nutrition guidelines issued by the government. The 5-year checkup is required, and 2010 is the next time, the first under the Obama Administration.

Nutrient adequacy was a key issue in the last update in 2005, how we are moving from a nutrient-based science to a food-based recommendation, according to Dr. Eric J. Hentges, former executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion for developing the launch of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. Instead of focusing on calcium or Vitamin D, recommendations will gear more toward specific foods.

Pollan pointed out how the food industry loves talks in terms of Vitamin D and calcium, so the processed food can be re-engineered. So a shift toward foods instead of nutrients will do wonders to promote eating whole foods instead of processed, fortified foods.

Dr. Hentges noted that there would likely be a study on the independent metabolic activity of sugars, comparing glucose, fructose, sucrose, and the infamous high-fructose corn syrup.

Pollan said to avoid products that contain high-fructose corn syrup because it’s a sign in processed foods that there’s sweetness than otherwise might not be there, bread for example.

When asked whether politics or the importance of science placed by an administration had influenced the standards of science, Dr. Hentges said they never felt shorted, but pointed out that the results “should be what the science says.” The process “will be open and transparent.”

Ultimately it’s up to us

While the governmental attitude toward food has turned significantly under President Obama (see Obama, Michelle re: organic garden on the White House grounds), we do control our destiny to eat in a way that takes the world and our own health into account.

Kurtis suggested consumers should vote with your pocketbook. Pollan said vote with your fork. Waiting for government to turn around huge issues concerning our food supply will be a long time in coming, especially with the latest e-coli problem. We do need to push the government, but ultimately, we need to push ourselves.

Amy Goodman’s recent interview with Michael Pollan


Written by democracysoup

May 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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