Nutritionist Michael Pollan Accepts No Imitations

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In his book, In Defense of Food Michael Pollan argues that in last 20 decades, real food has vanished from supermarket shelves only to be replaced by food imitations. Pollan offers pointers on getting back to basic nutrition.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We get a jillion books in the mail every week, and we try to pick the most interesting to talk about. But every once in a while, we mess up and miss a good one. Well, come December, we give ourselves another bite at the apple in a series we call Books We Missed. And today, oh boy did we make a doozy this time.

Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" has become one of the most talked about and most influential books of the year. In essence, he argues that some time in the past 20 years or so, food began to vanish off our supermarket shelves to be replaced by imitations of cereal and bread, cheese and yogurt and, well, just about everything else. We are, he declared, in the age of nutritionism.

Well, we'll explain about that later. We'll also talk about his new project and explain about that when Michael Pollan joins us in just moment. Later in the hour, names to conjure with. Red Barber, Leo Derocher, John Miller, and Johnny Vander Meer, the play-by-play broadcast that never was. But first, Michael Pollan joins us.

If you'd like to talk with him about his new book, "In Defense of Food," give us a call. But we'd also like to focus on his project to collect new culturally based rules for eating, and let's find out what he means by that. Michael Pollan is night professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and joins us from the journalism school at the University of California Berkeley. Better late than never - nice to have you on the program.

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (School of Journalism, University of California Berkeley) Nice to be here, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what are culturally based rules for eating?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, as I worked on this project, "In Defense of Food," I was really trying to answer a pretty straightforward question, which is, what should we eat? We're learning all this about the food supply, we're learning about nutrition, and people are deeply, deeply confused. And so I began this exploration of the science of nutrition.

And I was, to be totally frank, really disappointed in the science of nutrition. There is so much they haven't figured out. There is so much they've gotten wrong over the last 10, 20, 30 years that I began looking for another source of authority on the what to eat question. And I realized at a certain point that culture, as opposed to science, culture still had important things to tell us about how to eat.

So I began trying to come up with some very simple rules of thumb. The simplest is the legend that appears right on the cover of "In Defense of Food," and that is, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Pretty basic. But it's not, you know, what a scientist would tell you, I suppose.

CONAN: Or my grandmother either.

Prof. POLLAN: Right. Well, exactly. And - but our grandmothers were right. They were more right by and large than the whole public health government nutrition information establishment on things like fat. You know, I remember, you know, the move to get us off butter, evil butter, you know. We should all switch to margarine, and that was the more, you know, up-to-date, high-tech, nutritionally-sound food because it was made from vegetable oils rather than the evil animal fats.

Well, we all switched to margarine, and lo and behold, we learn a few years later that we were better off with butter because the margarine was full of trans-fats, a truly lethal fat, much more serious than saturated fats. That was a public health disaster for which we're still owed an apology, I would say.

And along the way, you know, so many grandmothers and mothers were persuaded to doubt their own kind of traditional knowledge that butter is a good wholesome food, and they got on the margarine bandwagon. So, we should have been listening to the mothers, and we shouldn't have undermined their confidence.

CONAN: Well, give us an example of a good culturally based eating tip that you've discovered in your search on your website.

Prof. POLLAN: Well, one is kind of the, you know, the meta rule, which is, don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. You know, imagine she's with you rolling down the aisles of the supermarket, and you pick up that box of Honey Nut Cheerios cereal straws or, you know, which is a straw-shaped - a tube made out of cereal that you're suppose to drink milk from. She wouldn't...

CONAN: Flavored straws, they were, when I was a kid. Yeah, but...

Prof. POLLAN: Right. Well, the flavored straws were just good old-fashioned plain sugar.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. POLLAN: This is much more complex. Or Go-Gurt, portable yogurt tubes. Would your great grandmother know what to do with that or how to administer to her body? I don't think so. So I've been - you know, there are a lot of those rules in "In Defense of Food," and readers and listeners have been feeding me more. I'll give you an example. The whiter the bread, the sooner you'll be dead. That's kind of a blunt one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's, you know - did they come up with that? Is that the warning on a package of Wonder Bread these days?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: Well, it might well be. But, in fact, we do know that one of the earmarks of the Western diet that is responsible for so much chronic disease is the refined white flour. This was a real novelty when it was introduced into the human diet, and it begins in England in the last years of the 19th century. And, you know, it delivers a jolt of glucose to the body that, you know, leads to these spikes of insulin and is one of the things responsible for the epidemic of type 2 diabetes.

So, you know, people understood that, that there was something about white bread that wasn't as wholesome as whole grain bread. And the scientists eventually caught up, and they understand now that whole grain breads have all sorts of beneficial effects that white bread doesn't. But the moms and the grand moms were there first.

CONAN: If you think you know a culturally based rule for eating that we might all benefit from, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Michael Pollan, would the five-second rule be a culturally based rule for eating?

Prof. POLLAN: What's the five-second rule?

CONAN: If you drop the cookie on the floor, you've got five seconds to pick it up.

Prof. POLLAN: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: I'd say I think that's a pretty good one.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Again, it's 800-989-8255. This is Sarah(ph), Sarah with us from Corvallis in Oregon.

SARAH (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead please.

SARAH: Thank you for taking my call. I love the show. The first hour was great.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

SARAH: I grew up on a farm in Minnesota before the transition to fast foods and convenient foods, so I remember my mother and my grandmother in the late '40s, early '50s. They had certain rules about what to eat, and now that we're all poor, we're all thinking about eating leftovers, et cetera. And one of my mother's cardinal rules that she learned from my grandmother was that you never reheated a food more than once. If you had a leftover, and you reheated it, and it still did not get eaten, you should throw the remainder out. So what she would do was make sure that we only reheat it as much as we thought we would eat and kept the rest in the refrigerator...

CONAN: Uh huh.

SARAH: She was very insistent on that.

CONAN: That seems to be a fairly wise idea, Michael Pollan, because if you don't finish it, it's going to gather bacteria while it may.

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, there may be some food safety justification for that, and also, you know, but if it doesn't go after the first three heatings, maybe it's not that good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: So, I think it's time to let it go and cut your losses. I think that's a good one.

CONAN: Sarah, thank...

SARAH: Into decompose pile.

CONAN: Into decompose pile, indeed.

Prof. POLLAN: Exactly.

CONAN: So it can get recycled. Merry Christmas, Sarah.

SARAH: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get another caller, and this is Benjamin, Benjamin with us from Alameda in California.

BENJAMIN (Caller): Hi. I'm a vegetarian, and I'm wondering about Tempeh. It's not part of the culture I grew up in. But I certainly do like the taste, and people rave about its health.

CONAN: I assumed you're not talking about the suburb of Phoenix.

BENJAMIN: No, no, no, no. This is mycelium-impregnated soybeans.

CONAN: Would my grandmother recognize that, do you think, Michael Pollan?

Prof. POLLAN: Now, here's the thing. It doesn't have to be your grandmother. If any grandmother recognized it, it's probably OK.

CONAN: Any grandmother. OK.

Prof. POLLAN: Because there are a lot of traditional foods that, you know, belong to other traditions that your grandmother may not be familiar with. Tempeh is a fermented soy product, and it's been eaten, you know, not here, but in Asia for a very, very long time.

And, you know, I'm kind of a reactionary when it comes to food. If something's been eaten by people for a really long time, it increases my confidence that it's a healthy thing to eat. And so, by and large, you know, and I do think traditions in food are more than old wives' tales. I mean, I do think that there is a kind of wisdom of the tribe. What works gets passed down, and that, I think, is the source of a lot of the value of traditions.

There is also, you know, the relations of foods in a cuisine that are traditional, and we're always surprised to discover just how wise they were. There was a study that came out recently that serving tomatoes with olive oil increased the absorption of lycopen,e which is an important antioxidant in tomatoes. Now, there is a great case of science catching up with what Italians have known for several hundred years, that olive oil just is really good with tomatoes.

CONAN: Yeah. Salads, spaghetti sauce, lots of things. Yeah. Benjamin, thanks very much. What are you making for Christmas dinner there? Oh, I think he's already left us. Anyway - I'm sorry, you're there, Benjamin?

BENJAMIN: Yes. As a vegetarian, it'll be soy tofurkey and homemade tempeh.

CONAN: And homemade tempeh. What are you going to put on the tempeh?

BENJAMIN: I like the amino acid - Bragg's amino acid soy sauce served with brown rice.

CONAN: All right. Well, hearty eating.

Prof. POLLAN: I like that, a side of amino acids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to - this is Linda, Linda with us from Buffalo, New York.

LINDA (Caller): Hi. I'm the last of the baby boomer generation, I guess you could say, because I'm 47, and my mom is 87. So she lived through the Depression. And we are of Italian descent, and it was interesting because, first of all, we had to be concerned about - always concerned about cost. So, when we went into a grocery store - and I still do it - it was like taboo to go and shop in the center part because there was not, quote unquote, "real food," unless you needed to buy rice or something of that fashion. So we consistently always - and I have been taught to shop just around the perimeter, where the fresh food and meats are.

CONAN: I've never heard it put that way, Linda. That's a great guide.

LINDA: Because everything in there, it was - for me to - the only way I ever received, for example, a Hostess cupcake was if I was good, a good cook, you know, a good child throughout the store. Those things were not - a hotdog is not considered a meal. Potato chips were not food. Those were treats. Those are expensive items. So, we always shopped around the perimeter.

Then, when I traveled overseas to Greece, I was shocked to realize that all the food there was extremely more familiar to me than I had ever previously anticipated because of what you just said. We always ate tomatoes with, you know, olive oil and mozzarella cheese. That's just what you do primarily because, A, it's inexpensive, and you didn't have money, based on my mother's heritage and the fact that she is, you know, from the Depression era. So I've been very fortunate to, you know, I guess I've been living the right way.

Prof. POLLAN: I think the perimeter rule is a great one. I talk about that in "In Defense of Food," that it's the case in most supermarkets anywhere you go that the fresh real food, the stuff, you know, the meat, the fish, the dairy products, the fresh produce, all the things that have been least fiddled with in the last 75 years tend to be arrayed around the side of the store, and the reason for that is, of course, is that they're perishable so need to be restocked a lot.

CONAN: Linda, thanks very much for the call and merry Christmas to you.

LINDA: You, too.

CONAN: And the only way I ever got a Twinkie was to get it out of my brother's cold dead hand. We'll have more with Michael Pollan in just a moment, "In Defense of Food." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If you've been making your cheese grits with Velveeta, we've got some news for you. It may be delicious, but with all that whey protein concentrate and sodium phosphate, well, it's not quite food. And, of course, that's just the stuff I can pronounce. Author Michael Pollan joins us this hour. He says, when it comes to nutrition, a good rule of thumb is, if you can't say it, don't eat it.

You can find an excerpt from his book, "In Defense of Food," and tips from Pollan about how to find food you can pronounce on our website at npr.org/talk. And we're discussing culturally based rules for eating. If you'd like to contribute, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's npr.org. Just click on Talk of the Nation.

Here's an email from Sarah(ph) in Iowa City. A good rule to follow - a snack is not the same thing as a treat. Don't confuse them. A snack is something we eat regularly between meals to tide us over - an apple, cheese and crackers, some carrot sticks - these are snacks. A treat is something meant to be eaten occasionally, something special as a prize, a reward, a celebration, a cookie, a piece of cake, a bag of chips, a donut. Good distinction there, Michael?

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, I think it is, actually. I never heard that one. I like that a lot. I mean, a lot of the trouble we've gotten into with food is that we've confused special occasion food - what you would call treats - with everyday food. And, you know, special occasion food is a great institution, I mean, having a soda every now and then or the Twinkie or whatever your passion is. But I think what's happened because of food marketing, because food has gotten so cheap is that a lot of these special-occasion foods have bled into everyday life. And that really is what gets you into trouble.

I want to offer a quick corollary to that last caller about the perimeter, which is this. You know, all that food in the middle of the store tends to be the most processed food. It's the stuff that never dies basically and, you know, has an endless shelf life.

And another corollary rule is, don't eat anything that won't eventually rot. And there are one or two exceptions, like honey will never rot. Beef jerky, I suppose, will go on forever. But by and large, if a - you know, food should be alive, and therefore, it's going to die.

And you should - that's a good argument for a food, something that will rot because what it tells you is that other species that are still in touch with their instincts like bacteria and things like that and fungi are interested in that food. The reason a Twinkie has a shelf life that can be counted in years is that none of the microorganisms we share this planet with have any interest whatsoever in a Twinkie.

CONAN: We got an email just on that point from Jane in Sacramento. She quotes the late T. Berry Brazelton, noted pediatrician, with regards to processed grains. If a bug won't eat it, why would you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: She also adds, thank you, Michael Pollan. You changed my daughter's life when she took your graduate class at UCB three years ago.

Prof. POLLAN: That's very kind.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go with Eric(ph). Eric is calling us from Tucson.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. How are you guys doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ERIC: I love the show, and I guess my comment is, I know you guys are talking about what to eat and what not to eat, but I'm actually headed over to my grandma's right now, and she's from Germany. And she puts a lot of emphasis on what time you eat. I know you're not suppose to eat too late in the evening, and also, as with many other cultures, the big meal of the day is in the middle of the day, not so much dinner.

CONAN: And those are pretty good rules. I know for weight loss, if you want to put on weight, eat after eight o'clock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ERIC: Yeah. That's what she says. It's not too healthy.

CONAN: Does it affect your digestion, too, Michael Pollan?

Prof. POLLAN: Ah, I'll be perfectly honest. I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Nice to hear you say that.

Prof. POLLAN: I know I've heard that wisdom, that you shouldn't eat too late in the day, and it kind of makes sense that you don't have time to burn the calories that you eat later in the day. But whether that's really how it works or not, I don't know. But I will definitely check it out.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Eric.

ERIC: Thank you, guys.

CONAN: And that refreshing answer leads me to ask you a question. You a professor of journalism and make your living doing that. You also write some books. Is what you're doing in books like "In Defense of Food," is that journalism?

Prof. POLLAN: Yes. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I have a pretty broad definition of journalism that might be broader than some people's. But, that book - it is a quest to answer a question, which is what all journalism is. And the question there is, what should we eat if we're concerned about our health. And so I answer that question by conducting a lot of journalism, a lot of interviews with nutrition experts, a huge amount of reading, and that counts to me as journalism.

And the conclusions - I mean, the process is dramatized in the book of learning all this stuff, and the conclusions, even though it's rather opinionated, I think the obligation of journalists is to be accurate and fair, not to check their opinions at the door.

CONAN: But you don't think that it slides into advocacy at certain points?

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. It does. I mean, I think that, you know, many journalists, like myself, are interested in changing the world in some ways. Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing it. But that doesn't mean that you abandon professional principles in terms of accuracy and - but yeah, you do - sometimes you get into in awkward space where your interest as an activist collides with your interest as a journalist.

For example, in responding to the Obama's pick for agriculture secretary, there is a tactical answer and there's an honest answer about how I feel about that. So, I have to lean with the honest answer there, even though an activist, it might be smart to offer a tactical answer full of hope and optimism and all the good things that will happen.

CONAN: And your gut reaction was less positive?

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. It was - you know, I was disappointed. I think there's some grounds for hope, but it doesn't signal a powerful interest in reform, at least coming from the Department of Agriculture.

CONAN: Let's get back to culturally based rules for eating. An email from Richard in Tokyo in Japan. How about peanut butter? Real food or not?

Prof. POLLAN: Real food. Sure. I mean, it's pretty simple. I mean, well, I should qualify that by saying, does it pass the five ingredient rule or not? I mean, you can find peanut butters out there that have lots of ingredients that aren't peanuts. I mean, peanuts essentially should be, you know, crushed nuts, and sometimes they add a lot of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

And that brings in another rule, which is, if it has high-fructose corn syrup, it's not food. Now, that's a kind of controversial point, and there's advertising all over television and newspapers telling you that high-fructose corn syrup is a wholesome plant-based food coming from the Corn Refiners Association.

But the reason I single out foods with high-fructose corn syrup as not foods is because only corporations cook with high-fructose corn syrup, which is to say, even if it is no worse for you than sugar, which may well be the case - we don't yet for sure - it is something that is only found in highly processed foods. I mean, who do you know who cooks with high-fructose corn syrup at home? Is it on your grandmother's - in your grandmother's pantry? I don't think so. So, peanut butter in its simplest form is a food. But you can find versions of peanut butter that I would call more like edible food-like substance rather than food.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sean(ph) in Hawaii. My grandmother used to say, you need just a little bit of dirt in your life to keep your immunity strong. Of course, she didn't mean you don't need to wash your hands, or you that you don't wash your fruit and vegetables, but not everything has to be sterilized and washed in anti-bacterial soap. We need some of those bacteria. What do you think about that?

Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. That's absolutely true. I mean, for two reasons, actually. It's not just the bacteria, and the fact that you want to expose your immune system to all sorts of bugs, especially as a child. And there's a theory that all the allergies you hear about now are the results of the fact we live in such a sanitized environment, and we don't get that exposure as children to dirt.

But the dirt also contains some important vitamins. Vegetarians in particular should eat a little bit of dirt and not over wash their vegetables because you get B12, which is a critical vitamin that's only produced by animals, including bacteria. Now, you do get it in fermented food. I'm not saying you must eat dirt if you're a vegetarian.

CONAN: I was going to say it, that glass of Guinness will do that for you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: Well, fermented foods will help you out. But, you know, it's - having a little dirt in the diet is not a bad thing.

CONAN: Let's go to a caller. This is Paloma(ph). Paloma with us from Salt Lake City.

PALOMA (Caller): Hi. Happy to be here.

CONAN: Happy to have you.

PALOMA: Thank you. Two comments. Thank you so much for doing this program because NPR generally guides my reading list, and so, this is definitely a book I need to get. The last book by Michael Pollan, "Omnivore's Dilemma," I have given as a Christmas to just about everyone I know.

CONAN: Well, here, you get a whole new round of Christmas gifts.

PALOMA: Particularly to my cattle-feeding in-laws in Wyoming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: You know, that'll upset them a little bit.

PALOMA: Well, your book literally changed my life and how I view, you know, the world around us and how we interact with it, what's important. It changed how I feed my children. So, I'm hoping it'll change, you know, certain individuals I know, and, of course, my next book to purchase is going to be "In Defense of Food." Thank you so much. Really, it's just such an honor and pleasure to be speaking with you.

CONAN: And do you have any culturally based rules for eating, Paloma?

PALOMA: I did grow up on the border of Mexico - El Paso, Texas. And I assume that much of the world eats beans and rice, just as I did. And I love it. It's a comfort food. I crave it still.

CONAN: Beans and rice.

PALOMA: Yeah. ..TEXT: CONAN: Well, they both come from plants. Michael Pollan, there are some things they don't contain, though.

Prof. POLLAN: They do. Yeah, no. I mean, I think that, you know, there's a great traditional combination that works very well together. And even if the rice is white, the fact that you're having it with lots of fiber in the beans is slowing the absorption of the glucose that the white rice gets turned into. So it's another one of those combinations.

One of the things that's really striking, Neal, about traditional foods around the world is how varied they are. I mean, you have Central Americans and Mexicans living on beans and rice. You have, you know, the Inuit in Greenland subsisting on whale blubber and hardly anything else. You have the Maasai warriors, some of the healthiest people on earth, you know, eating cattle blood and nothing else.

The human body is adapted to a great many different kinds of foods, which is a wonderful thing. It's the reason we've been able to survive on six of the seven continents. The striking thing is that the one diet that we appear to be very badly adapted to, this Western diet of highly-refined, highly-processed food, is becoming so universal, and that we're giving up diets all around the world that kept us healthy in exchange for the one diet very reliably makes us sick.

CONAN: Paloma...

Prof. POLLAN: That's quite an achievement for a civilization.

CONAN: It is. It's not easy, either. Paloma, thanks very much for the call.

PALOMA: My pleasure.

CONAN: And merry Christmas.

Prof. POLLAN: Thank you, Paloma.

PALOMA: Thank you.

CONAN: And just to follow up that point, Michael Pollan, why don't you explain the French paradox to us?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, the French paradox is this anomaly that the French, who, from our vantage point, eat all sorts of supposedly lethal food, you know, triple cream cheeses and (unintelligible) and lots of red wine, are somewhat healthier than we are. The difference is less pronounced than it used to be because they are now struggling with obesity. But in general, they are less obese. They have less heart disease. They live a little bit longer.

And how can this be if they're eating all the foods that our government has been telling us not to eat for so long? Well, there are a lot of theories about why it is. Some point to specific elements in their diet, like the red wine. But, you know, it also could be something not content-based. It could be their cultural rules for eating, the fact that they don't snack as much as we do. They think eating in your car, which we do with, you know, alarming frequencies, is really disgusting. They eat on smaller plates, smaller portions. They eat together. Food for them is something eaten over long communal meals.

And it may be all those kind of habits of eating that contribute to their health just as much as the content. They're eating less calories because of all those rules. And a whole lot of cultural rules really unfamiliar to Americans govern the amount of food people eat. And, you know, we often overlook at the - we overlook that when we focus on the blessed or the evil nutrient, which is our tendency in America.

But how much you eat in the end is probably the key factor, and we - you know, if you - one of the things that really struck me is, you go around the world, and you find cultural rules to govern quantity of food. The Japanese have a rule called harahachibu(ph), which means you should only eat until you're - you should stop eating when you're 80 percent full, which is an interesting idea because how do you know when you're at 80 percent. So you've gotten to 100, you know, and double back a little bit. But you can learn over time.

And the Arab traditions have a rule that the Prophet Mohammad said you should - the stomach should be filled with one third food, one third drink, one third air, so you shouldn't be filling up. And stopping eating before you're full is a very radical idea, but it's enshrined in a great many cultures. ..TEXT: CONAN: The only way I'd ever heard that was never eat anything bigger than your head, but I'm not sure if that really helps that much.

Prof. POLLAN: I like that one.

CONAN: Yeah. Michael Pollan...

Prof. POLLAN: I'm writing that one down.

CONAN: Michael Pollan is our guest. His book is "In Defense of Food." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Email from Derrick(ph) in Bishop, California. I've heard that a good rule is only to eat what's in season in your area, also good for the environment since the shipping in of out-of-season food creates tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas.

Prof. POLLAN: Well, there is a lot of wisdom to eating in season. Not only does it diminish the carbon footprint of your eating, but it supports local agriculture. And, you know, there probably is some biological attunement between our bodies and what is fresh where we live, and that there is a season when you want to eat red meat, and there's a season when you probably don't.

And the spring vegetables and the spring leaves that come out just when we're starved for those nutrients, you know, reflect a cycle. I mean, look, we have been adapted to local foods for thousands and thousands of years, and there is much more than we probably know or have studied about the suitability of seasonal foods to our needs.

CONAN: And this one from Monica in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Reading Michael Pollan's books have had a marked effect on my health. Eating according to the way he and Barbara Kingsolver recommend has so improved my blood work, numbers that my doctor said he had not seen anyone make that kind of improvement without having bariatric surgery. I bought several copies of "In Defense of Food," and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" for friends and for, she adds, my doctor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, that's very gratifying to hear. And I didn't write this book as a weight loss book, certainly. But, you know, eating real food does seem to have a dramatic effect on people's health and simply getting out, you know, the soda, all the refined white flour, all the heavily-processed food is, for many people, enough. And the whole food story just may be a whole lot simpler than we've been led to believe.

CONAN: And what are you having for Christmas dinner tomorrow, Michael Pollan?

Prof. POLLAN: I don't celebrate Christmas, which is one of the reasons I'm on the show today, I guess.

CONAN: Well, we thank you for that.

Prof. POLLAN: So, it's a night of Hanukkah, though, and I'm going to a Hanukkah party, and with luck, there will be something like potato latkes, a special occasion food, and a pot roast, a brisket, is what I'm hoping for.

CONAN: Good luck to you. Michael Pollan joined us from the University of California at Berkeley Journalism School, where he is a night professor of journalism, and his latest book is called "In Defense of Food."

Coming up, an old cassette found in a dresser drawer uncovers a bit of play-by-play magic, Red Barber's vivid recreation of the last inning of a game that he missed. John Miller of ESPN will join us, plus the voice of Red Barber. Stay with us. It's a treat. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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Michael Pollan: If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It

Michael Pollan in his garden i i

Michael Pollan stands in his garden. Growing his own food is not only healthful, he says, but it's also cheap. Alex Cohen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Cohen, NPR
Michael Pollan in his garden

Michael Pollan stands in his garden. Growing his own food is not only healthful, he says, but it's also cheap.

Alex Cohen, NPR

If your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, then neither should you, award-winning writer Michael Pollan is wont to say. He shares additional tips on how to eat for a healthier body and planet, the focus of his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.

1.) Shop at the Fringes

Stay away from the middle aisles of the supermarket, which tend to be filled with ultra-processed food with labels like "trans fat-free," "low cholesterol" and "heart healthy."

2.) If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It

Don't buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce.

3.) Cultivate a Garden

Producing your own food not only saves money and reduces carbon emissions, but it also helps you stay in shape.

4.) Buy Local

Shop at farmers markets.

Excerpt: 'In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto'

'In Defense of Food' Cover

Food Science's Golden Age

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 pattern now was set, and every few years since then, a new oat bran has taken its star turn under the marketing lights. (Here come omega-3s!)

You would not think that common food animals could themselves be rejiggered to fit nutritionist fashion, but in fact some of them could be, and were, in response to the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines as animal scientists figured out how to breed leaner pigs and select for leaner beef. With widespread lipophobia taking hold of the human population, countless cattle lost their marbling and lean pork was repositioned as "the new white meat" — tasteless and tough as running shoes, perhaps, but now even a pork chop could compete with chicken as a way for eaters to "reduce saturated fat intake." In the years since then, egg producers figured out a clever way to redeem even the disreputable egg: By feeding flaxseed to hens, they could elevate levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the yolks.

Aiming to do the same thing for pork and beef fat, the animal scientists are now at work genetically engineering omega-3 fatty acids into pigs and persuading cattle to lunch on flaxseed in the hope of introducing the blessed fish fat where it had never gone before: into hot dogs and hamburgers.

But these whole foods are the exceptions. The typical whole food has much more trouble competing under the rules of nutritionism, if only because something like a banana or an avocado can't quite as readily change its nutritional stripes. (Though rest assured the genetic engineers are hard at work on the problem.) To date, at least, they can't put oat bran in a banana or omega-3s in a peach. So depending on the reigning nutritional orthodoxy, the avocado might either be a high-fat food to be assiduously avoided (Old Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (New Think). The fate and supermarket sales of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather while the processed foods simply get reformulated and differently supplemented. That's why when the Atkins diet storm hit the food industry in 2003, bread and pasta got a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the proteins) while poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the carbohydrate cold. (The low-carb indignities visited on bread and pasta, two formerly "traditional foods that everyone knows," would never have been possible had the imitation rule not been tossed out in 1973. Who would ever buy imitation spaghetti? But of course that is precisely what low-carb pasta is.)

A handful of lucky whole foods have recently gotten the "good nutrient" marketing treatment: The antioxidants in the pomegranate (a fruit formerly more trouble to eat than it was worth) now protect against cancer and erectile dysfunction, apparently, and the omega-3 fatty acids in the (formerly just fattening) walnut ward off heart disease. A whole subcategory of nutritional science — funded by industry and, according to one recent analysis,* remarkably reliable in its ability to find a health benefit in whatever food it has been commissioned to study — has sprung up to give a nutritionist sheen (and FDA-approved health claim) to all sorts of foods, including some not ordinarily thought of as healthy. The Mars Corporation recently endowed a chair in chocolate science at the University of California at Davis, where research on the antioxidant properties of cacao is making breakthroughs, so it shouldn't be long before we see chocolate bars bearing FDA-approved health claims. (When we do, nutritionism will surely have entered its baroque phase.) Fortunately for everyone playing this game, scientists can find an antioxidant in just about any plant-based food they choose to study.

Yet as a general rule it's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound "whole-grain goodness" to the rafters. Watch out for those health claims.

*L. I. Lesser, C. B. Ebbeling, M. Goozner, D. Wypij, and D. S. Ludwig, "Relationship Between Funding Source and Conclusion Among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles," PLoS Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 1, e5 doi:10.1371/journal. pmed.0040005.

Excerpted from IN DEFENSE OF FOOD by Michael Pollan. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Michael Pollan, 2008.

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