Walking in to the Michael Pollan “show” last Saturday felt more like going to Sasquatch than an author’s book talk. The arena was packed with 4,000 attendees who spent two hours hanging from Pollan’s every word. He began with two bags of groceries purchased from a local Fred Meyer. Bringing out “food products” one-by-one he described the minefield which is the modern American grocery store. Low-fat local Tillamook yogurt—great, right? But, is has more sugar than Ginger Ale.
The main thesis of his talk came down to an idea he calls “nutritionism.” Stemming from overturned legislation in 1977, Pollan described how the national food health conversation turned from food (apples, lettuce, cereal) to nutrients (trans fats, omega 3’s, & antioxidants). He discussed how certain nutrients were held to the highest regard and are now found in places they don’t belong, like calcium in bread (coming from crushed rocks), while other nutrients are vilified (trans fats and omega 6’s, for example).
The problem with nutritionism, Pollan argued, is that no one really understands what nutrients actually do. We defer to the “experts” who design packaging and create labels that urge us to buy low-fat yogurt, Oreo straws, and Eggo fruit pizzas simply because they boast nutritional claims.
Pollan spent the evening detailing the rise and (hopeful) fall of nutritionism, while bombarding the eager audience with factoids and insights from an influential food journalist’s perspective. Other food economy nuggets he dropped on the crowd included:
1) The caloric input/output ratio of American food production has drastically changed over the past decades. Specifically, Pollan claimed that historically 1 calorie of input (i.e. in fossil fuels used for farming & production) yielded 2.5 calories of food produced (i.e. how many calories you eat in a meal) -a net positive gain, to the situation now where up to 10 calories input (mostly oil) yields only 1 calorie of food produced (ouch).
2) A greater percentage of each food dollar now goes toward packaging than the farmer.
3) During the last question of the Q&A, Pollan closed by stating (I’m paraphrasing here): “we now have wealthy people feeding poor people really bad food and struggling farmers feeding wealthy people really good food.”
That is some food for thought.