The Omnivore’s Dilemma: What to Eat

April 1, 2012 | One Comment

Three out of every five Americans are overweight, one out of every five is obese, and the current generation of children may grow up to be the first in decades with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. According to Michael Pollan, in his excellent best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), we could attribute our national eating disorder to over-affluence and more sedentary lifestyles, or to greater poverty or diet faddishness, but, really, it all boils down to a fatal combination of economics and politics: our food supply is unhealthily subsided, overabundant, and too cheap. The food industry adheres to the classic capitalist model of supply and demand even though the demand side is, essentially, static. The average healthy adult only needs around 2000 calories per day, yet with the aid of government subsidization the industry produces around 3800 calories. Therefore in order for companies to increase sales, they need each of us to buy and consume more food and given their objective is profitability not health, they want us to consume foods with higher margins of return, which usually equates to deeply-processed, lower quality ingredients, engineered to produce that sweet or savory “bliss point.” Buying more stuff may bankrupt us whereas eating more could kill us because a good chunk of those excess calories is sugar. An American scoffs an average of 158 pounds of sugar annually, of which 66 pounds are high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a corn-byproduct, corn being the poster-grain for the disastrous marriage of lobbying and politics, the parasitical zombie-child of the military-industrial complex. Pollan calls us “corn man walking.” He illustrates by calculating the percentage of corn in the first of the four meals described in his book, eaten by his family at McDonald’s: “soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%),  and French fries (23%).” Then he moves on to the grocery store: “There are forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket, and over a quarter of them now contain corn…. corn is what feeds the steer which becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon… Read the ingredients label of any processed food…For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols: read corn… the margarines, the shortenings, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins… the toothpaste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, matches and batteries, the shine on the cover of the magazine… the vegetable wax on the cucumbers, the supermarket itself – the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass…” are all corn.

I used to be one of those people who could eat pretty much whatever she liked without (too) many unfortunate side effects. Not any more. Since reaching – well, a certain age – my innards have come a cropper (I’ll spare you the details), and although I’ve been blase about feeding myself junk, I baulk at doing the same with my children, which is why I picked up An Omnivore’s Dilemma in the first place and now risk sounding like a conspiracy theorist. I trolled through my pantry checking ingredients, and, yep, thar’s corn on them there shelves, lots of. Pollan’s investigation of the private and cagey beef and poultry industries also has me running, screaming, toward the organic and free-range alternatives, no longer comfortable consuming produce from animals who have spent most of their foreshortened lives standing in their own feces. (You all know this already but I’m Scottish and we discover healthy food twenty years after everyone else…). He also gives a sensible assessment of the nutritional effects of red meat (a breath of fresh air given the current scares) while reiterating the need to dodge pink slime. I also gained such an appreciation for the miraculous properties of grass, I’m tempted to use the term awesome. The American food industry is less regulated than its European equivalent, so overall I felt better informed after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (and unbearably smug when I pick up packets of this and that in the grocery and shake my head – “tsk tsk…”) but also scared witless: what the heck do I feed the weans now? Given that fast food such as McNuggets must be the rare exception and I don’t have the time or the stomach to hunt, slaughter, skin, and gut Bambi before dinner every day, I need to find a third way.

Which is where, thankfully, Marion Nestle’s excellent What to Eat (2006) comes in. Nestle, a renowned nutritionist has written a guide to the modern supermarket, taking the reader on a tour beginning at the produce section, through dairy, dairy substitutes, meats, fish, beverage, frozen and processed aisles, while decoding such jargon as “natural,” “trans-fat,” “fresh-squeezed.” or “cold-pressed.” What’s the difference between grass fed and corn fed? Is bottled water a scam? What are the benefits of supplements? Are margarine or soy spreads really healthier than butter? How do they put Omega-3 into an egg? Is it even legal to make that much money peddling tap water plus HFCS and calling it Coke? And regarding meats and fish, how critical is it to know not only what you are eating, but what you are eating had ate?  Mostly, but not always, choosing organic makes sense though it may be a compromise between our desire to eat what we want when we want and the environmental costs of transporting a strawberry from the west coast to the east. In some places Nestle can be too detailed, and you are left in no doubt when reading her blow-by-blow accounts of the farcical legislative debacles between the food lobbyists, the USDA and the FDA, of her political and nutritional views. Also, her sparse coverage of a supermarket’s central sections which offer cookies, cereals, sodas, candy, dressings, sauces etc, tells you that she shares Pollan’s view of processed foods overall, and would echo his advice: when in a grocery store, shop the periphery and don’t, whatever you do, enter that pit of iniquity in the middle, because the stuff there could, literally, kill you…. (I admit I still take my life in my hands and plunge in after chocolate and goldfish.)

Both books bring you back – full circle – to the best and most concise diet advice already given by Pollan many times (and reiterated in the lovely new edition of his Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, with illustrations by Maira Kalman). “Eat food, eat less, mostly plants,” because what we are eating “is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”