In Praise of Michael Pollan, and a Criticism

Joseph E. Scherger, MD, MPH

August 7, 2017

Michael Pollan is a journalist who has focused on food and nutrition for two decades.  His work is so scholarly that he became a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.  His groundbreaking book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), explored how the food industry mass produces our food in ways far removed from just eating the foods of nature.  Even the large organic food producers are guilty of alliterating our food for a mass market.  Pollan calls for getting as much of our food as possible from local farmers who produce real food in time honored natural ways. Since this book was published, the number of Farmer’s Markets has increased greatly and “eating local” became a movement.

His second book, In Defense of Food (2008) goes into specifics as to what a person should eat.  Here he distinguishes real food from what he calls “food like substances”.  This book goes into great detail based on his summary recommendation, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

Other Michael Pollan books I have read and enjoyed are Food Rules (2009) and Cooked (2013).  His “rules” begin with “Eat Food” and “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognize as food”.  After laying out in simple but specific rules what we should eat, Pollan finishes with the rule, “It’s okay to break the rules once in a while”.

In Cooked Pollan explores the ways we transform the food of nature through cooking, with both good and bad consequences.  He divides this analysis by breaking down cooking into four core elements of nature: fire, air, water and earth.  He praises traditional methods with their wisdom handed down through generations and is critical of mass produced processed foods.  The book gives remarkable insights through his travels to the source of the best of cooking methods.

My only criticism of Michael Pollan is that he loves bread.  He honors the making of bread through traditional means of using yeast and carefully pressing the dough.  He visits a bread maker in San Francisco who makes only 250 loaves a day and sells these out quickly. He also visits pasta makers who use traditional methods, and points how these are better than most commercially available products.  However Pollan seems unaware of our evolutionary biology of not eating bread until recently in our existence, and the problems caused by excess carbohydrates and inflammatory proteins.  Bread causes us to have an unhealthy microbiome with the problems of acid reflux and inflammatory bowel disease, only to name the local bodily impacts of eating and other flour based foods from grains. 

To use Michael Pollan’s own expression here, bread and other flour foods from grains are “food like substances” in our human diet.  Hence they are not eating the foods of nature that we thrive on and are to be avoided.  Otherwise, read Michael Pollan and learn much about food.