The enemy in this manifesto is “nutritionism,” which Mr. Pollan regards as an ideology—an ideology that aims to atomize delicious, sensuous foods into their component nutrient contents. Which can’t help but smell ridiculous. Sure, the nutritionist culture of food pyramids and Atkins and omega-6 fetishism is unfortunate, but is the scientific investigation into the metabolic actions of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals really to blame for our food troubles? At its shrillest, Mr. Pollan’s alarmism regarding additives or “supplementation” of any sort uncomfortably recall those superstitious third-world leaders who deny their populations iodized salt.
But don’t get the wrong idea; for the most part, this “eater’s manifesto” is blithely unconcerned with the means of production–not when there’s preparation to talk about. Indeed, when he turns his attention to the Nixon-era policy changes that led to our current flood of cheap, empty, subsidized calories, Mr. Pollan seems less inclined to call for collective action than unilateral disarmament: “My guess … is that paying more for food will reduce the amount of it we eat.” He’s probably right that in a population that has recently discovered the money and time for cell phones and Internet use, many of us could spend more on food each week. But any bottom-up structural change would hinge on millions of individuals deciding, against all basic economic and biological rationale, that taste trumps industrial affordability and convenience. Which gets at the central problem: Few human beings share Mr. Pollan’s existential reverence for food.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be eating better; and it doesn’t mean that the global food supply isn’t scandalously broken. Forgetting, for a moment, Mr. Pollan’s intended audience of heirloom gardeners and cuisinistas, if everyone on the planet suddenly decided to eat the way he does, no small number would starve within weeks. Which is another way of saying we won’t ever all eat the way Michael Pollan does, that industrialization can’t be undone, that sustained sustenance is not just a matter of reawakening the culinary “aborigine in all of us” and “escaping from the Western diet.”
If The Omnivore’s Dilemma suggested a synthesis of head and gut, In Defense of Food leaves you with the taste of numb truth: The vanguard in any food revolution won’t be the ones with cultivated palates.
Jonathan Liu is a writer living in Queens.