Summary and book reviews of In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food

An Eater's Manifesto

By Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2008,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2009,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." These simple words go to the heart of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, the well-considered answers he provides to the questions posed in the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Humans used to know how to eat well, Pollan argues. But the balanced dietary lessons that were once passed down through generations have been confused, complicated, and distorted by food industry marketers, nutritional scientists, and journalists-all of whom have much to gain from our dietary confusion. As a result, we face today a complex culinary landscape dense with bad advice and foods that are not "real." These "edible foodlike substances" are often packaged with labels bearing health claims that are typically false or misleading. Indeed, real food is fast disappearing from the marketplace, to be replaced by "nutrients," and plain old eating by an obsession with nutrition that is, paradoxically, ruining our health, not to mention our meals. Michael Pollan's sensible and decidedly counterintuitive advice is: "Don't eat anything that your great-great grandmother would not recognize as food."

Writing In Defense of Food, and affirming the joy of eating, Pollan suggests that if we would pay more for better, well-grown food, but buy less of it, we'll benefit ourselves, our communities, and the environment at large. Taking a clear-eyed look at what science does and does not know about the links between diet and health, he proposes a new way to think about the question of what to eat that is informed by ecology and tradition rather than by the prevailing nutrient-by-nutrient approach.

In Defense of Food reminds us that, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the modern supermarket, the solutions to the current omnivore's dilemma can be found all around us.

In looking toward traditional diets the world over, as well as the foods our families-and regions-historically enjoyed, we can recover a more balanced, reasonable, and pleasurable approach to food. Michael Pollan's bracing and eloquent manifesto shows us how we might start making thoughtful food choices that will enrich our lives and enlarge our sense of what it means to be healthy.

In the years following the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1982 National Academy of Sciences report on diet and cancer, the food industry, armed with its regulatory absolution, set about reengineering thousands of popular food products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and fewer of the bad. A golden age for food science dawned. Hyphens sprouted like dandelions in the supermarket aisles: low-fat, no-cholesterol, high-fiber. Ingredients labels on formerly two- or three-ingredient foods such as mayonnaise and bread and yogurt ballooned with lengthy lists of new additives — what in a more benighted age would have been called adulterants. The Year of Eating Oat Bran — also known as 1988 — served as a kind of coming-out party for the food scientists, who succeeded in getting the material into nearly every processed food sold in America. Oat bran's moment on the dietary stage didn't last long, but the ...

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BookBrowse

Rather than presenting a faddish list of do's and don'ts that might change next year, Pollan presents a concept of food and eating that shakes out as remarkably sound and sustainable – not just for ourselves, but also for our environment and fellow man. With a small but impassioned return to whole foods, free-range meats, and fair, local farming brewing among foodies, Pollan will inevitably preach to the choir, but some of his research is sure to get even the most thoughtful eaters scratching their heads and changing the way they shop, cook, and think about one of their most basic needs and pleasures.   (Reviewed by Lucia Silva).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A writer of great subtlety, Pollan doesn't preach to the choir; in fact, rarely does he preach at all, preferring to lets the facts speak for themselves.

Slate - Laura Shapiro

His politics are fine. What's keeping him from being a genuine populist are his cultural antennae, which have a tendency to collapse without his noticing. Pollan is a believer, there's a pew with his name on it at Chez Panisse; and though he writes for the rest of us, he can't quite bring himself to take us seriously unless we can prove we've been born again.

New York Entertainment

Pollan takes on the food industry’s idea of “nutrition” (they’re just trying to make money, y’all!), but mercifully clues us in on what foods aren’t made of mutant ingredients. He’ll tell you what you already know (eat mostly plants, eat less, eat local), but his doggedly researched, entertaining manifesto will also help you to eat a real vegetable and feel empowered by it.

The Portland Mercury - Alison Hallett

Okay, I'll say it: If you read one book about food this year, it should be Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. It's not a diet book in the traditional sense—Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, doesn't concern himself with calorie counting, nor does he take a narrowly prescriptive approach to eating. He does, however, set out to determine why the so-called Western diet is the unhealthiest in the world; how, despite a full-fledged societal obsession with food and nutrition, Americans have gotten to the perverse point where we are both overweight and undernourished.

New York Times - Janet Maslin

In this lively, invaluable book he assails some of the most fundamental tenets of nutritionism: that food is simply the sum of its parts, that the effects of individual nutrients can be scientifically measured, that the primary purpose of eating is to maintain health, and that eating requires expert advice…Some of this reasoning turned up in Mr. Pollan's best-selling Omnivore's Dilemma. But In Defense of Food is a simpler, blunter and more pragmatic book, one that really lives up to the "manifesto" in its subtitle.

St Petersburg Times - Colette Bancroft

It's a smart, refreshing take on the traditional January topic: diet advice from a man who clearly loves to eat. Great-Grandma would be proud.

USA Today - Elizabeth Weise

Food companies twist the single-nutrient research papers (Vitamin C cures the common cold! Resveratrol in grapes protects the heart!) to make their processed products seem more nutritious than the real thing, Pollan says.

This has led to companies spending a fortune to get us to eat more highly processed foods touted as healthier because the nutrients present in whole foods have been added back in at the factory, he contends. None of which is necessary or good for us, Pollan says.

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The Slow Food Movement
The Slow Food movement began in Italy as a thoughtful protest against the arrival of American fast food in Rome in the 1980's. Seeking to promote an alternative to the Western diet and way of eating, eating slowly in the Slow Food sense means to eat with a full understanding and appreciation of every single step involved in bringing food from seed to table. This means a respect for the land and the labor, as well as for cooking and dining, that values quality over quantity and seeks to rebuild our connection to food that has been erased by modern production practices. The Slow Food movement promotes local, organic farming, local food cultures, and helps preserve heirloom varieties of produce and ...

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