Michael Pollan's simple secrets to better eating

Best-selling author Michael Pollan talks about real food, his new book, and why grandma was right

Margo True

The myths of eating organic:

I think the myth people have in their heads is that when they're eating organic, it's coming from a small family farm; it's been grown in their pastoral image of what a farm should be like.

I was surprised when I started investigating to find that, at this point, for better and worse, organic agriculture is big and industrial and looks a whole lot like conventional agriculture.

It is a better product because it's grown without synthetic chemicals and there's more care for the land, but these are huge factory farms too, very often.

And so some of the benefits that are in people's minds about supporting family farmers and supporting farm workers are not necessarily there.

And something like free-range organic chicken ― the image you might have about birds wandering around outside ― that's not necessarily what that really means. There's a door on the side where they could go outside for a couple of weeks of their lives if they chose to.

The best chicken I've eaten is chicken that spent most of its life on grass, from a very young age, and ate grass and bugs. It's unparalleled. Completely different. You'll have beautiful orange eggs, and they'll stand up really tall in the pan. 'Eggs with muscle tone,' as a farmer once described them to me.

Read about Sunset's chickens

The dangers of "nutritionism":

Nutritionism is the ideology of food in America today. It's our unexamined assumptions about food, one of which is that nutrients matter more than foods. You reduce a muffin to how many grams of fiber, how much cholesterol, and so forth, and the reason it's a poor way to think about food is that it encourages us to think about food as medicine rather than as pleasure and culture.

Obsessing about food and health doesn't necessarily make us healthier. It's what I call the American Paradox.

Also, as soon as you think about food in terms of nutrients, then you need 'experts' to tell us how to eat. They're invisible and unseen, these nutrients.

Nutritionism mystifies food; it makes it scary and intimidating and confusing.

This vocabulary of nutritionism has insinuated itself into every corner of our lives, and it's just confusing us. We need to turn it off. And how do we know what these words mean? What is cholesterol, anyway? It's Greek, literally … I'd need to double-check that. [Editor's note: It is Greek.]

I have a much broader view of health. Eating socially is healthy too. People who eat with other people tend to eat more slowly, and the longer you have to eat, the more time you have to register that you're full. Also, you're less likely to binge if you're eating with other people.

And nutritionism assumes we know what nutrients are, when in fact we have a history of overlooking one nutrient after another. We thought fat was evil. Then we learned that omega-3s were good for you.

Now omega-6 is maybe not so good for you. Lycopene and resveratrol are on our radar screens now. What will be on the radar screen 20 years from now? To me, nutrients are like the medieval humors ― choleric, phlegmatic, and so on.

We once thought they explained human health. Well, you can eat very well without understanding how nutrients work, just like you can have a baby without needing to know everything about that process.

The true cost of food:

Keep in mind that processed food has so many more steps built into it that it ends up not really being so cheap. If you buy fresh food and get a few meals out of it ― like stews ― you can still do quite well.

It's a matter of priority: Are you willing to put the time in? There's also an access issue: A lot of people don't have access because of where they live. But, increasingly, farmers' markets are coming into the inner city, into places where people are underserved by supermarkets.

And there are farmers' markets that price differently in different markets ― there is a market in West Oakland where they charge wholesale prices.

But there's no question that healthier food costs more, in general, than processed food. But you pay the cost of that cheap food eventually, in health.

One of the most astonishing statistics I came across: The amount of money we spent on food, when I was a kid, in the 1960s, was 18 percent of our income. Now we're down to 9.5 percent, so it's dropped in half.

Over that same period, our spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent. As the amount we spent on food went down, the amount we spent on health went up.

So you either pay by eating good food or you pay with your health. It's a very short-term view to say this food is cheaper. If you calculate the real cost of cheap food, it's exorbitant ― because of all the costs to your health, to the environment, to the workers, to the animals. It's actually very expensive.

The so-called high price of food at the farmers' market ― you have to realize that's the real price. That's the real price of food when you're not borrowing from the future, from your health, from the environment, from the workers.

There are people who can't afford to spend more money on food. Probably 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. But for the rest of us, it's a matter of 'What do we value?' For the same reason people tell you they're too busy to cook.

Well, you know we found time in the last 10, 20 years to put 3 hours a day into the Internet. The day is still 24 hours long. Where do we get that time? We just decided it mattered, so we borrowed the time from other places.

So I'm convinced that, for most of us, the issue is, 'Is food important enough to justify the time and money it takes to do it well?'

I think we've had this experiment in outsourcing our food preparation to corporations for 40 years now, and the quality of the food isn't that good, what it does for our health isn't that good ― and I think people are bored with it.

It's one of the reasons they're going to the farmers' market. They realize that this food really tastes better. It tastes like something more than salt.

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