IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
Next up, we're going to talk about food. What did you have on your plate today? What did you have for lunch today? I mean, did you eat something out of the refrigerator? And everything we eat, it tells us something about ourselves. Maybe you had a sandwich at your desk or in your car, multitasking your way through your meal. How many of us eat our food at our desks or sitting in our car between traffic lights or you wolf down at some chips or cheeseburger, fries.
Well, whether it's from a drive-thru, the local take out place or your grocery store, my next guest says more and more of our meals are made of not food, not real food, he says, but food-like substances as opposed to the actual stuff. And he says that shift in our diet is taking a toll on our health. How can you fix our national dietary problem? His simple advice, seven words, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. That's the advice that's right on the cover of Michael Pollan's new book, and it's the very first words in the book.
He joins me now to talk about why that simple advice can be so hard to follow. Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His new book is called "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," and he joins us from the Berkeley campus. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Knight Professor of Journalism, University of California-Berkeley; Author, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"): Thanks, Ira. Good to be here. I'm sorry I'm not on a better line.
FLATOW: Well, that's how it works.
Mr. POLLAN: We're having a big storm here and we lost our engineer.
FLATOW: Oh that's - well, I'm sorry to hear that. But you're here and that's what counts.
Mr. POLLAN: Okay.
FLATOW: Tell us why you, tell us why you have to defend food. It says, you know, in defense, an eater's manifesto and in defense of food. Why does food need defending?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, it needs to be defended from two quarters. One is the food industry, which is not contently well enough alone and is always trying to process food as much as possible. And also from nutrition science, which is bent on replacing real food with its obsession with nutrients. And together, they have spawned a very high level of confusion and anxiety around what should be a very simple and pleasurable operation. Something that all creatures do without a whole lot of fuss, which is to say, figure out a healthy diet.
FLATOW: What is food? You talk about that most of the things we eat and most of the stuff you find in the grocery store is not food.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, well, what's happened over the years is, you see, it's very hard to make money in the food industry that's selling real food, selling, you know, bunches of carrots, heads of broccoli, whole grains, because those are very cheap commodities. You make money by processing it as much as possible. So you take that oatmeal which you can buy, you know, for what? 50 cents a pound for raw oatmeal, and you turn them into cheerios. And then you can charge $4 or $5. And then you take the cheerios and you turn it into cheerio bars with fake milk layer in between so that you can eat it in the car.
And then you take that and you turn them into cereal straws, which is the next level, the next generation of complexity in the cereal world. And you're up to charging $6, $7, $8 a pound for the same grain. So the industry really needs to complicate foods. But our bodies don't benefit from those complications. And so what happens is that the real food is not profitable enough, and that's why gradually the supermarket is being taken over by these - what I call these edible food-like substances.
FLATOW: So how will you able then to find the real food that—if you want to eat it?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I propose some kind of rules of thumb. And one is, if you're in the supermarket, avoid the middle of the supermarket. That's where, you know, that's where all of fake food lurks, and stick to the peripheries. The whole foods are still in the produce section. They're still in the meat and fish section. And by and large, in the dairy section. And then I propose a whole lot of rules to help people distinguish between food and these other things. I suggest we should avoid any food that makes a health claim.
Now, that might seem counterintuitive, but if you think about it, in order to make a health claim on your package, you need to have a package. And so that means it's probably a processed food. And you need to have a big marketing budget and a budget to buy the science to justify the health claim. So suddenly, you're in the world of processed foods. Whereas over in produce, you know, the carrots sit there very quietly and, in fact, that's the really healthy food. But it doesn't have the budget or the science to make those kind of claims.
FLATOW: You talk about the age of nutritionism(ph). When we became more concerned about the actual nutrients in the food. People talked about the components of the food and not actually talk much about the food itself. They talk about what was in the green leafy vegetables instead of the vegetables themselves. Why and how did that happen?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, it happened for a few reasons. Nutritionism is not a science, I should mention that - it's an ideology. It's a way of looking at food, although it has been promoted by scientists. Basically, you know, as you all understand, science needs variable that they can isolate and test. So when it comes to food, they've tended to focus on the nutrients rather than the whole food. They looked at the carbohydrates and fats and proteins, then they started looking at the vitamins, now they're looking at other micronutrients because that's how science works.
It's very hard for science to deal with a complex system like a carrot. It's much more a comfortable feeling with something like beta carotene. The problem with food, though, is that the nutrient - that foods are more than the sum of their nutrients. And for reasons science doesn't fully understand, when you take the beta carotene out of the carrot, it doesn't behave the same way. And whatever benefits are conferred by beta carotene, and there appear to be quite a few on cancer prevention and things like that, it doesn't work in supplement form.
So that leaves - leads us to believe there's something else going on in carrots or there may be some other nutrients working in concert with beta carotene, there are 50 other carotenes. So we're constantly trying to simplify food to its constituent nutrients, but the nutrients are, you know - the food is more than the sum of its parts.
Nutritionism, though, is a very powerful ideology. We love it as journalists, also. We love it as scientists. And best of all, the industry loves it. Because when you reduce food to nutrients, you give an edge to the food scientist because he can always come up with a new formulation that seems even better than nature, you know, with extra omega 3 or extra beta carotene. And it gives the processed foods a way to essentially boast about themselves. It's an ideology that serves a lot of masters, but it doesn't serve us.
FLATOW: So instead of scientists recommending you to eat the kinds of food, the nutrients contained, they tell you just to eat the nutrients. And you say there's a political side to all of this.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, you know, I was looking at the history of nutritionism and when it really got it started, and there was - there are a couple of red letter dates. But one of the big ones is in 1977. George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota, convened the panel to look at the state of American's nutrional health. And at the time, there's a lot of concern about heart disease. And the scientific consensus at the time was that the high fat diet, saturated fat, mostly from red meat was getting us into trouble.
So he issued a report. And it advised in the first draft, Americans to eat less meat, eat less red meat in particular. Now, that's a straightforward recommendation, you can agree with it or not agree with it. But it's just food and everyone understood what he was talking about. But the industry went absolutely crazy and they came down on him like a ton of bricks - the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, all the ranchers, the grocery manufacturers. And the idea that the government would actually be recommending that people eat less of something as sacred as beef was just outrageous.
So they forced him, essentially, to rewrite the recommendation. And this is what he did. He changed them to choose meats that will lower your saturated fat intake. And that's a very different way of saying the same thing. But suddenly, we're talking about this invisible nutrient called saturated fat, which nobody really understand. And we're also saying something affirmative. Choose more meat, but of this kind. And that was, that became the acceptable way to talk about nutrition in America. And the government, henceforth, could never say eat less of anything. They could only say eat more of something that had better nutrients in it.
And that changed the whole conversation. We stopped talking about foods and we started talking about nutrients. An as of that moment, you quickly see nutrients begin to take over from foods in America's supermarkets. And the whole language becomes, you know, cholesterol and saturated fat and fiber, oat bran - you know, in 1988, we had the year of eating oat bran. And suddenly, the food was disappearing and the nutrients were taking over. And that's a very confusing discourse for people to get their heads around.
But it's very useful for industry. And that leaves the impression, of course — and this is the great virtue of nutritionism - that we need a (unintelligible) in order to eat. That we need people who really understand what an antioxidant is before we can make a move. And suddenly, we're in the hands of scientists and experts and food manufacturers. And no longer can we rely on our traditions or our mother or our grandmothers to figure out what to eat.
FLATOW: And you also talked about scientists being complicit in this, and the National Academy of Sciences' report that followed that you say had to be changed also, because they recommended not eating…
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, that was the next red-letter day, 1982. The National Academy of Sciences looked at what do we know about food and cancer, fat and cancer. And there was all these interesting epidemiology that suggested that people who ate a lot of green vegetables and also colored vegetables have lower rates of cancer. But rather than say eat lots of broccoli and carrots, and things like that, they phrased their recommendations in terms of beta carotene and - I forget the name of whatever the antioxidant is in broccoli that's so wonderful.
So the language of food at that point - end even though there were people on that community who protested that and said that, you know, we really don't know it's beta carotene, what we should say is foods contain beta carotene. That's not the way they went. The discourse of nutrients had taken over and we've been stuck with it ever since.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about how to eat correct food with Michael Pollan and his new book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." 1-800-989-8255. If you want to go over to "Second Life," we have a new - SCIENCE FRIDAY has a new island in "Second Life." Yeah, we got a new island called SCIENCE FRIDAY. You can search for it in "Second Life" and ask a question, or you can just go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, and clink - click on the slur(ph), the link there to our new island over there.
So you have come up with some recommendations, some really interesting recommendations about what - how to choose the right kinds of foods that are real foods. And one interesting one that you said is to chew something that your great-grandmother would eat.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. You know, the engineer is here now, so I think we're going to switch over if we can.
FLATOW: Let's continue going until - we'll have a break coming up in a few minutes and then…
Mr. POLLAN: Oh yeah. Let's wait for the break.
FLATOW: …we'll switch over.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, I try to figure out a way - I mean, one of my premises here is that nutrition science has failed us by and large. These are not bad people and their doing heroic work, but food is very complicated. And until they really figure it out - I mean, in my view, nutrition science is really more like surgery lessons 1650, you know, really interesting and promising, but not yet something you want to entrust your life to.
And so I try to figure what would be other sources of wisdom about food - it's not to listen to the nutritionist. And what appears to be the most reliable sources of wisdom is tradition. As traditional as eating, as the culture of food that's been handed down and tested, you know, it's really the distilled wisdom of the tribe. And so I try to come up with some rules that were not scientific, but might still be helpful. And one of them - you know, we've talked about a couple of them - one is, you know, eat on the peripheries of the supermarket, not in the middle.
Mr. POLLAN: Don't eat foods that contain more than five ingredients or that contains lots of ingredients you don't recognize. Try to, you know, think about quantity, too. We tend - Americans tend to eat until the plate is empty or the bowl is empty. You rely on visual cues to know when to stop eating. And, you know, consult your gut is - you know, or as my grandfather used to say, try to leave the table a little bit hungry. It's not an idea…
FLATOW: It's not…
Mr. POLLAN: …that you find in a lot of cultures. It was apparently the advice to Julius Caesar from his doctor. You know, stop eating before you're full. It's a powerful idea.
FLATOW: Let me just jump in here and remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow and this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."
Okay, maybe we've got you back on a better line now.
Mr. POLLAN: Can you hear me?
FLATOW: Oh yes, much better.
Mr. POLLAN: I'm going to put on the headphones.
FLATOW: Go ahead and do that. Can you hear me, Michael?
Mr. POLLAN: Hello?
FLATOW: Hello there.
Mr. POLLAN: Hey.
FLATOW: Hey, much better. I know there are storms out in California…
Mr. POLLAN: You're so much closer now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Live radio is great. So let's go see if we can take a phone call. It's 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Peter(ph) in Berkeley. Hi, Peter.
PETER (Caller): Hi. I want to say thank you to you, Ira, and to Michael Pollan for this very important subject. And I wanted to invoke the great Henry G. Bieler, who in - M.D. - who in 1965 published "Food is Your Best Medicine." And he did exactly that. He invoked tradition all the way back to the fathers in medicine and so on. And he spoke out against hyper dependence on drugs and surgery and unnatural way. And one of his favorite foods was the lowly zucchini, as well as string beans and lettuce and celery. And when you were sick, he said stop eating, but wash your system and provide the liver with lots of nutrients with Bieler's broth, so to speak, which is simply those four ingredients - zucchini, string beans, lettuce and celery.
The first two cooked and the whole thing blended into a puree, which is just so mechanically easy and doesn't have the complexity of proteins and starches to load the work on the liver that needs to, you know, be fighting its bad off to get well and restore body chemistry.
FLATOW: All right, thanks and…
PETER: And it's really worked very well.
FLATOW: Thanks for the call, Peter.
Mr. POLLAN: Let me add something to that. I actually don't think we should let food be our medicine - maybe when we're sick. But I think, you know, one of the tenets on nutritionism is that food is all about health. And now, that seems like a very normal idea to us Americans. But it's actually a bizarre idea to a lot of other people. You know, eating is about other things besides our health. It's about family, it's about community, it's about pleasure, it's about identity, and it's about ritual very often, and spirituality.
And to limit it to being about health strikes me as a very narrow way to look at it. And oddly enough, the people who look to food to do other things, besides make them healthy or make them live as long as possible, actually have better health outcomes than we do. I mean, the French are the classic example. They don't worry a lot about health and food, they enjoy their meals - and by the way, they, you know, they have less heart disease and live a little longer than we do. So worrying so much about food and health may not be so good for your health. I mean, it's kind of…
FLATOW: But we hear so much about obesity now and overeating and health and things like that.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, we - you know, one of the things we know with some certainty is this Western diet that we're eating, which is this diet characterized by lots of processed food, lots of refined grain, lots of red and processed meats, everything but fruits, vegetables and whole grains. We know this diet makes people sick. Wherever people have adopted this diet, they have gotten the same epidemic of chronic disease that we have.
We don't know exactly what in that diet makes people sick. Some people believe it's the fats, some people believe it's the carbohydrates. Who knows? But you don't really need to know the mechanisms to understand that it is doing this to us. And that we also know that if you don't eat this way, if you return to more traditional diets, those problems tend to go away.
So yeah, I mean, there is a health problem tied to food, there's no question about it. And nutritionism arose to deal with that health problem. It just dealt with it in the wrong way.
FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break and come back and talk more, and get to your questions for Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. We'll talk about that little slogan on the cover, so stay with us we'll be right back after this break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRADAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour with Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." It's says on the first page on the cover, eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Michael, if you live up to those words, you should be a healthier person, right?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.
FLATOW: That's what you're basically saying.
Mr. POLLAN: It was funny I researched this whole book and I realized I could say it on seven words. You know, which I should have published an index card. But, of course, that it becomes - where it becomes complicated is figuring out well, what is food as we've been talking about.
Mr. POLLAN: Distinguishing real food from the edible food-like substances. And I also wanted to tell the story of how we did get so confused in the rise of nutritionism as an ideology that's really, you know, basically cost us our confidence and something we all knew. I mean, we have to remember that people who knew how to eat well and maintain their health perfectly well for thousands of years without knowing what an antioxidant is.
Mr. POLLAN: And we can go - you know, most of us can tune that information out. We don't really need to know what an antioxidant is to eat well. If you eat mostly plants, you'll get plenty of antioxidants without thinking about it.
FLATOW: And you say it's okay to eat meat, but eat meats sort of as a side dish.
Mr. POLLAN: I think, you know, there's - meat is very nutritious food. I know meat is very controversial ideologically and morally and ethically. But it is a nutritious food; humans had been eating for an awfully long time. The difference today is, though, we're eating vast quantities of meat. We're eating over 200 pounds of meat per person per year. We're eating meat three times a day. And probably, meat was a more special occasion food for most of human history. And eating that much meat is probably not good for us; we do have some science that suggests that people who eat a diet with lots of red meat do have higher incidence of colorectal cancer and some other problems.
So probably, we're eating too much meat. But as a matter of environment - of the environment, we're also - I know we're eating too much meat, there's no question. Because of the carbon footprint of the livestock industry is so bad that we would all do well for many reasons to eat less meat. But I'm not prepared to say give it up. Because it is nutritious food and there are very sustainable ways to grow it.
FLATOW: But it's interesting how you phrase some of it in the book. I've learned lots of things on your book. And one of the things I learned but hadn't heard from is in how to know what organic animals are - organic chickens, organic-fed beef. You say to look for the word pastured on the label. I never heard that word before.
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think you're going to see that word a lot more often. It's a word used most often with beef, you know, when you see grass-fed beef or milk that's been - comes from grass-fed cattle. But, you know, as much as it's important that we eat lots of green plants, it's equally important that our - the animals we eat eat lots of green plants. We have to pay attention to the diet of the animals we eat.
And over the past 40, 50 years, we've industrialized the diet. Cattle in this country eat the equivalent of a fast food diet. They eat lots of corn and soy beans and they get, you know, antibiotics in their feed and hormones and all sorts of byproducts. And, you know, you can't expect meat from badly-fed animals to be good for you. And indeed, it is not.
FLATOW: But you also say you can't expect the free-range egg, free-range chicken egg, to actually be a free, you know, eating the grass or eating free-range.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, free-range is a term that I think means remarkably little. I mean, when you're talking about eggs - the story is a little different when you're - whether you're talking about eggs or broilers, meat chickens. But when you're talking about eggs, free-range does mean that the animals did not live in what are called battery cages.
Now, battery cages are one of the most brutal excesses of industrial agriculture where three or five hens are stuffed together in a tiny little cage, smaller than the size of the page of your newspaper. And they spend their entire lives there, cannibalizing one another and producing eggs until they die. It's really brutal. And a free-range chicken or free-running hen is one that doesn't live that way. And that's far superior for the chickens and probably superior for the eggs, as well.
Mr. POLLAN: But the best eggs you're ever going to have are pastured eggs. Those are eggs from chickens that actually go outside, that actually eat grass and bugs and maggots and all the things that chickens like to eat. It's not obviously very good marketing to say, you know, these are maggot-fed eggs, but in fact, those would be very eggs.
FLATOW: But they break up the cow pies that the maggots are living in and their life is soil(ph), too, right?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, they - that's the normal thing they do. Exactly. You put the animal - you put the chickens outside and you put them around cattle and amazing things happen. The chickens fertilize the pasture. They eliminate the pests in the manure of the cattle, because they eat all the fly larvae out of that, and they spread the cow pies around.
So they perform all these ecological services for the cows and for the pasture, and in the process become very healthy chickens who need no drugs of any kind to survive. And they produce eggs that we now know are much higher in omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene and are essentially not equivalent to industrial eggs. They're far superior. They may look the same, but you know, if you were actually shopping for nutrients, much richer and much better for you.
FLATOW: Let's go to Mike(ph) in Centreville, Michigan. Hi, Mike. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you guys? It's a thrill to be on the program of both of you. I'm a big admirer of both of you. I - my wife and daughter and I raise pastured-meat animals here in Michigan. They're all out on grass, 100 percent of the time, doing the pastured thing. And the nomenclature for that gets confusing for folks, as Michael was just explaining. But the key, really, is to raise the animals as the animals would naturally live. And I come to that from my grandparents. They were both country people.
They grew, raised and ate food that they could grow and raise. So it was seasonal eating and eating based on canning and salt-curing and things like that. And they're both 97 years old and extremely vital. I think the key, as you were touching on, is the benefits that the animals - in the meat category - the benefits that the animals received when they're not confined and stressed and what's - you know, we're finding out in humans, what stress does to our bodies, heart attacks and cancers - it's no different, really, for the animals.
And if their diet is allowed to take in the green matter, take in the bugs and whatnot, not only is there a different health profile in that meat, but the, but what we hear from our customers - we sell direct - and what we hear from our customers consistently is that the quality, the taste, and how their body feels eating this meat is radically different than what you get in the supermarket. And that, to me, says a lot because I think we all do have the ability to discern when our body is getting the kind of food it needs.
FLATOW: And your customers are willing to pay more?
MIKE: They - you know, and that's the thing. They are willing to pay more. It's not that it's not a challenge. The product is seasonal. We're in Michigan. I think most folks know what Michigan looks like right now.
MIKE: It's got of two feet of white stuff covering it. So it's a challenge for us, the farmer, because our cash flow and our financial picture's difficult at times. It's a challenge for the customer because we sell directly to the consumer. Our target market is a, for all intents and purposes, a well-educated, whether doing it themselves or through college or whatnot, mother. And these are women who have an inherent interest, obviously, in health. Health of themselves, their family, their children. And they come to us because that product tastes different to them and feels different to them.
FLATOW: Let me get Michael to jump in here because that's one of the things you recommend in your book, "In Defense of Food" is that you should be willing to pay more for real food.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, one of my rules of thumb is pay more and eat less. And I know it's a very un-American idea. But - because our food system has been built on the principle of pay as little as possible for as much as possible. But the fact is, healthy food, food that comes from healthy animals that's grown from healthy soils, is getting to cost more than industrial food. There's just no way around it. Industrial food is artificially cheap because the real costs, in terms of health care and in terms of the damage it does to the environment, are not reflected in the price.
The price of this man's pastured eggs or beef is the real price of growing that food. And we just need to get our head around that. Those of us who can afford to pay more for food need to do it. And if we don't, we'll pay it in health care cost, you know, later.
One of the most interesting statistics I came across when I was doing this research for this book I wrote was that in 1960, when I was a boy, we spent 18 percent of our income on food, the average American family. We spent 5 percent of national income on health care.
Now, spin ahead to today. We are spending under 10 percent of our income on food, 9.5 percent of our income on food, an astonishingly little number, less than anyone on the planet, less than anyone in the history of civilization, okay. And we are spending 16 percent of our income on health care.
So you see that those two graphs have crossed. And the money were saving on food, a lot of it, we are spending on health care. So it's a false economy. In both cases, we were spending about 25 percent on health care and food, so that hasn't changed. I would much rather spend it on food than on health care.
FLATOW: Emmie(ph) in the "Second Life" says homegrown food is great, but who really will spend time to do that? And I guess to expand that in the preparation of it and…
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, not only do we need to spend more money on food, we need to spend more time on food. The other thing that's gone down since 1960 is the amount of time we spend preparing food, cleaning up. It's down around an hour per day. You know, for most of civilization, the gathering and preparation of food was a significant part of the daily ritual. We have outsourced food preparations to corporations, by and large. Now, that gives us plenty of time to do other things, plenty of time to, you know, surf the Internet or watch television or whatever we do with our free time.
But it has come at an enormous cost. The family meal is, you know, on its way to extinction. We are obese and getting fatter. We have an epidemic of diabetes. So, yeah, it's inconvenient to cook food, but look at the price of not doing it. So I basically do argue that there's no way of getting around the fact that for us to be healthy, for us to reclaim the pleasures of food, we need to move food back to the center of a well-lived life. And that means putting more of our resources, both in terms of money and time, into food. Outsourcing the cooking of our meals has, is an experiment that has failed.
FLATOW: You know, people are going to ask me, what is Michael Pollan eating for dinner tonight if he's making his own food? What does he have on a Friday or any other night, typical?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, we do cook most nights of the week. And I have a 15-year-old son who actually likes to cook as well, and we often cook together. And tonight's plan is still kind of inchoate. Actually, the cell phone just rang and it was my wife. And my guess is she was near somewhere and was thinking of buying something and was checking in on the menu. So I don't know what exactly are we going to have tonight. But usually, we cook. We shop at the farmer's market, which you know, lucky for us here in Berkeley is open even this time of year and full of good produce.
And we, you know, we cook, but simple foods. I don't put more than a half hour into cooking dinner. And this idea that we're too busy to cook, I, you know, I really have trouble with that. Where do we find the three hours a day we're giving to the Internet? You know, where do - and that only happened in the last 10 years. The day didn't get any longer. We just decided that was a good use of our time. I think we have the time to cook if we have the desire to cook or we value food enough to realize we need to cook.
FLATOW: Talking with Michael - I want to just get a break in here. Talking with Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" on Science - TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Mr. POLLAN: You know, we could start - I'm sorry.
FLATOW: No, go ahead. That's quite alright.
Mr. POLLAN: I'm excited. We could start by taking the time we spend watching cooking shows on television and actually cook during that time. I mean, that would - there's a chunk of time right there. Why is it that Americans are watching so much cooking on television but not cooking themselves? I'm baffled by that.
FLATOW: Are they cooking healthy - are they healthy cooking shows? Or do we need a show that shows us how to cook real food?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, they - you know, some of them show real food. They tend to be heroic, you know, Olympian cooking, I mean, very fancy restaurant, special-occasion food. It's not the kind of food that you would cook every day. And I think that's part of the problem. I think these shows intimidate people from cooking. They make it look really hard. You know, it's like watching too much pornography. You think that that's how sex is done, and it's kind of intimidating. We should be doing more of the stuff ourselves and watching it on television a lot less.
FLATOW: How much - how easy is it to find the ingredients? The whole foods, the organic foods that, you know, you're advocating here?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I'm not saying it's absolutely necessary to eat organic food or pastured meat. I mean, I think we have to take this in steps. I think, you know, if we can start with eating whole foods of any kind - whether it's feedlot meat or, you know, much better than it be pastured meat, or vegetables of any kind, whether they're organic or not - it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. And the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, you know, are there when you're eating conventional fruits and vegetables as well. So I wouldn't hold back until you can, you know, find organic. But…
FLATOW: But we're seeing a lot of these in the grocery stores now.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. What a great…
FLATOW: I was shopping for apples yesterday and they had the apple section and they had the organic food right next to it. Usually, it was on the other side of the store. Now, they're making it…
Mr. POLLAN: Well, organic is growing really quickly. There is now organic food in Wal-Mart. Every supermarket has it. So a lot of the kinds of alternative whole foods that I advocate in this book are more available than they've ever become. It occurred to me at some point when I was writing that that this would have been the manifesto of a crackpot 40 or 50 years ago, because these options did not exist. You were kind of stuck with industrial food.
But in fact, today, the produce section is growing by leaps and bounds in terms of variety and quality. Organic produce is showing up everywhere. And even, you know, you will soon see grass-fed beef even in the supermarket. And these are all - you know, we live in very exciting times. There is a revolution going on in American food. And it is now possible, in the way it wasn't 40 years ago, to escape the Western diet without having to leave civilization. That's very good news, indeed.
FLATOW: And stay away from the middle of the supermarket, you say, where all that processed stuff is.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, the canyons of processed food. That's where you really get into trouble.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Any future interest in following a book - a book following up this one? Is this sort of an extension of your last book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"?
Mr. POLLAN: In a way, it is. I mean, that book dealt with the environmental implications of our food choices, by and large, and the ethical implications. And this one is dealing, to a much greater extent, with the health implications. What really struck me, though, is that what - the best choices for your health turn out to be the best choices for the environment. And that's very good news, indeed, too. Eating well-grown food that comes from healthy soils, you know, is - that is very good for the quality of the water. It's very good for the welfare of the farmers. It's really a win-win situation.
You know, back when Sir Albert Howard, the great English agronomist, was founding organic agriculture - although he didn't know that's what he was doing at the time - he said something kind of amazing. He said, you know, we really need to look at the whole question of health in the soil, in the plant, in the animal and in humans as one great subject. They're all linked together. Where - that was a kind of wild statement back there in the '30s. But now, science is coming to the conclusion that, wow, this is true.
FLATOW: All right, Michael…
Mr. POLLAN: The health of the soil and the health of the people are intimately linked.
FLATOW: Thank you very much and good luck to you, Michael Pollan.
Mr. POLLAN: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," a great read. I highly recommend it. That's about all the time we have for today. We have to say goodbye to you.
If you want to surf over to our Web site, it's sciencefriday.com. We have podcasting and blogging there. Also, we have a link to "Second Life" and folks in "Second Life" over there. And also, we have - our videos are up now, some new videos. We're looking for your videos. Send us science videos. We're interested in putting them up on our Web site and also including them with our other videos in iTunes and on YouTube.
Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week.
I'm Ira Flatow in New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.