Cut the Nutri-Hype. Eat Real Food Have that burger, says author Michael Pollan, and honor the importance of pleasure in food. The author slices through the nutri-hype with his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Plus: Pollan reveals his own guilty pleasures.
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Cut the Nutri-Hype. Eat Real Food

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Cut the Nutri-Hype. Eat Real Food

Cut the Nutri-Hype. Eat Real Food

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ALISON STEWART, host:

All right, continuing on the subject of fake food, fake food, no good! Real food, yes! That's the premise of "In Defense of Food," Michael Pollan's latest book. That is number five on The New York Times' Bestselling Non-fiction List. It's a follow-up to his hugely successful "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Pollan came by our studios to answer my questions and those of our guest host, Daniel Holloway.

Now the advice on the book cover is very plain. I applaud you for putting all of the advice - you didn't wait for the last page. It's right on the cover.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "In Defense of Food"): No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: I broke it down to seven words.

STEWART: Well, OK, you tell me what they are.

Mr. POLLAN: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

STEWART: There you go! Segment up now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL HOLLOWAY, host:

Wait, mostly burgers, is that what you said?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I did say "mostly." I didn't say "plants," and in fact, I think you should have your burger. I think you could just...

HOLLOWAY: Thank you.

Mr. POLLAN: You know, see if you can find a grass-fed burger.

HOLLOWAY: Yes.

Mr. POLLAN: Much, much better.

HOLLOWAY: I've had grass-fed beef. I love it.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it tastes better and it's better for you, and it's better for the animals. It's a much less brutal existence for the animal.

STEWART: I have to confess now that it's a burger talk, I wasn't going to say this - I was reading your book at my favorite little joint in Manhattan, Tavern on Jane, and I had - I was eating a burger while I was reading it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: On Sunday, and I thought, am I rebelling? I can't decide if I'm just rebelling about this or if I'm following your advice, because it was a burger on a whole wheat bun with lettuce and tomato, and one of the things you talk about is actually eating real, whole foods.

Mr. POLLAN: Which that is, I mean, I - you know, I do think that is real food. I mean, I'm kind of trying to get people to relax a little bit about it. I think there's a lot of obsessiveness going on around food these days, and there's a new eating disorder that's been diagnosed by some shrinks called "orthorexia," people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

STEWART: Hm.

Mr. POLLAN: And I think that we're getting that way as Americans. We talk about nutrition a lot in our food. We all know what an antioxidant is or we think we do. Cholesterol, fiber, all these nutrients have become lingua franca for us, which is kind of weird, because people ate well for thousands of years without knowing what an antioxidant is or having ever heard the word. And as I looked at all the nutritional literature and the science, I realized it was simpler than I thought and that the science itself is very sketchy, in fact, by and large, and that if you ate food, you'd be OK.

STEWART: One of the things I thought was interesting is though it seems like this focus on nutrients, actually, came from what seemed like an originally a good idea to try to combat malnutrition.

Mr. POLLAN: Very well-intentioned. We started studying nutrients because, yeah, in some cases, there was a shortage of nutrients and people were suffering from deficiencies around the turn of the last century. And then we had this concern about heart disease beginning after World War II. So we started learning about cholesterol and saturated fat, and you know, science needs nutrients because it's very hard to study a whole food. You can't do a study on a carrot.

STEWART: I'm going to ask you to hold that thought. I got so into the conversation that I realized. I looked up at our clock and we only have 28 seconds left. We need to take a quick break. We're going to talk to Michael Pollan for the next ten or 15 minutes or so after the break. We also have a lot of your questions that you posted on our blog. Stay with us here at the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. More of our conversation with Michael Pollan about his new book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Everybody, we're talking to journalist Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," about his new book called "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Let's get back to the three statements on the cover.

Mr. POLLAN: "Eat food."

STEWART: We talked about "eat food." Basically, eat something that your grandmother would recognize?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, the problem is it's gotten harder to recognize what's the food and what are the edible food-like substances that are coming to substitute for food, and that's where it gets confusing. So I tried to develop a few rules of thumb, and one is don't eat anything your grandmother or great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food, which is kind of a mental exercise, you know? You're wheeling down the aisles with your grandmother in your mind and you know, she...

STEWART: What was your grandmother's name?

Mr. POLLAN: Harriet.

STEWART: Harriet. With Harriet and Edna.

Mr. POLLAN: Edna, OK.

HOLLOWAY: Leonie.

Mr. POLLAN: Leonie.

STEWART: OK.

Mr. POLLAN: And you get to the yogurt, the Go-GURT Portable Yogurt Tubes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And she picks up a box of those. Is she going to know what that is? Is she even going to know how to administer those tubes to her body? You know? No. I mean that's not - it's not food, and then you look at the ingredients and you find it's got, you know, ten ingredients that have nothing to do with cows or bacteria, which is all you should find in yogurt, and so that's one rule of thumb. Another is if you want to eat food in the supermarket and avoid the edible food-like substances, just cruise the perimeter and stay out of the middle.

STEWART: I love that. I was going to ask you about that. Explain that to me.

Mr. POLLAN: Every - well, every supermarket is designed the same way, almost every one, and such that the real foods, the whole foods, the produce, the meat, the fish, the dairy products, are arranged around the periphery for reasons having to do with refrigeration and access, this is where the biggest turnover is. And all the processed junk is in the middle, in those canyons of packaged goods, you know, the cereal bars and the sodas and the mixes and the home-meal replacements, the TV dinners, all that stuff is in the middle. And if you stay along the edge, you're not going to get into much trouble eating overly complicated foods.

STEWART: Now the difficulty comes - the whole foods on the outside can be more expensive.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, that's right.

STEWART: Can take longer to prepare.

Mr. POLLAN: Mm hm.

STEWART: So if you're a mom, a single mom with three kids on a fixed budget, is this advice really even feasible for you?

Mr. POLLAN: It takes - there's no question. It takes more resources, both time and money, to eat well. We have made a tradeoff in this society, between cheap food and convenient food and our health, and if, you know, processed food doesn't take much time. And it's true, the average American is spending only about an hour and a few minutes every day on all food preparation, all food eating, and all food cleanup, but this deal, this outsourcing of our food preparation to corporations, has failed us. I mean, we're very sick because of the way we eat. We're dying because of the way we eat. Of all the chronic diseases...

STEWART: So the health tradeoff, maybe all the money you're going to have to spend on your health...

Mr. POLLAN: Well, exactly. We're spending less on food. We're down to about nine percent of our income we spend on food, which is less than any people on Earth anywhere and anytime in history. It was - when I was a boy in 1960, it was 18 percent, so it has fallen in half, but in that same period, the amount we spent on healthcare, as a percentage of national income, has gone from five percent to 16 percent. So cheap food isn't really so cheap.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. POLLAN: You're really just kind of pushing the ball down the road. It'll catch up with you in some ways then - you know? In terms of price, the fact is we have to address our agricultural policies, if we want to deal with that. We're subsidizing the cheap, junk food, fast food calories with the agricultural subsidies for corn and soy and wheat. These are the building blocks of the "Fast Food Nation." We subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country. We don't subsidize carrots and broccoli. So we need some policy changes to make healthy food more accessible.

STEWART: It is interesting you are talking about the policy changes. I was going to ask you for an example of something that I could pick up from the supermarket that I would see the hard work of a lobbyist.

Mr. POLLAN: Anything with high-fructose corn syrup. You know, breakfast cereal, sodas, anything with sugar, basically. They fiercely defend sugar. When the WHO, the World Health Organization, tried to issue some guidelines on what's the proper amount of sugar in the diet, they came out with ten percent of calories. And the sugar lobby in America, which includes the corn lobby, went crazy and they enlisted the Bush State Department to threaten funding for the WHO if they would not up these recommendations to 25 percent of daily calories.

PASHMAN: Whoa.

Mr. POLLAN: So they are pushing sugar in a big way and - because we produce too much corn and the corn turns into this high-fructose corn syrup.

STEWART: What about those things on labels that don't necessarily seem like they are? I mean, you can look at corn syrup and sugar and think, well, yeah, I know this is bad for me to eat this, anyway. Versus you look at something that tells me now that I've got omega-3s here now and there is flaxseed oil and all these things which I think I am supposed to eat to be a healthier person.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.

STEWART: Like, I'm trying to make a good choice here!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, we've - it is about this, what I call "nutritionism," this kind of ideology, this obsession with knowing all these words and you know, if you eat whole foods, you will get plenty of omega-3s. You will get plenty of antioxidants, without having to think about it. So, yes, omega-3s, we think, the current scientific wisdom is that they are very important fats and it's now - there is always a "blessed" nutrient and a "satanic" nutrient.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And right now, omega-3 is the blessed nutrient. And now the satanic nutrient is the trans fats. The new satanic nutrients, mark my words, will be omega-6. We will soon see a rush of omega-6-free products, because this is thought to be a negative...

STEWART: What is that? I am sorry. I have no idea.

Mr. POLLAN: You know what? You don't need to know.

STEWART: All right.

MARTINEZ: Just put your money on it.

Mr. POLLAN: It is another fatty acid that competes with omega-3 for the attention of your enzymes.

STEWART: Ah.

Mr. POLLAN: And you want the omega-3s for your mental health and your anti-inflammatory properties - you don't even need to know this. All you need to know is if you eat food, as we have been doing for thousands of years, you will get whatever you need, whatever your body needs. You don't need to take supplements and you don't need to know what an anti-oxidant is to live a long and healthy life. You just need to eat fruits and vegetables.

STEWART: The next thing on the title of your book - you eat food and not too much. Everybody knows that when you go to certain restaurants, you get a meal, you know, a dinner plate that is the size of your head.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. It's amazing.

STEWART: We all know this, right? It makes sense. If you put too much fuel in, it stores in your body as fat.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.

STEWART: But how do you decide what is too much? I mean, it seems subjective.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it is. You know, cultures - one of the things I did in this book was try to put the science over here and look at other forms of wisdom we have had over time on how to eat, because, you know, historically, people have figured out these questions without the scientist. And culture has a lot of guidance about this. And I look at how other cultures dealt with the not-too-much problem. And before, you know - after scarcity was over.

And they have a couple interesting ideas. The French do it with portion control. They don't buy those big plates. They only own small plates. They have a social taboo against seconds. You know, you serve your first plate and you never go back for more. We just, you know, pass the dish around again. They will - they don't snack. I mean, snacking, I think, is - if you look at the additional calories we are eating since 1980, we are all eating about 300 more calories since then, per person per day, which is enough to make you pretty fat.

Most of those calories come in the form of snacks. The industry has done a good job of colonizing every part of the day. We used to have these three meals. Now, we are up to four eating occasions, 20 percent of which takes place in the car. So they've gotten us while we are driving, they've got us while we are watching television and the only time they haven't gotten us is when we are asleep, because they are marketing to every - and if you take Ambien...

STEWART: Well, there's somebody is working on it right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: No. If you think about - remember those Ambien takers who woke up...

STEWART: Oh, people who eat...

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. So, they have figured that out, too.

STEWART: Yeah. People who are sleepwalking...

Mr. POLLAN: Sleepwalking.

STEWART: To the refrigerator.

Mr. POLLAN: That's right.

MARTINEZ: Oh, man.

Mr. POLLAN: And binging and not even knowing it when they got up, except they saw there was no food left.

MARTINEZ: Except they had, you know, killed their lunch meat.

Mr. POLLAN: Exactly. Exactly. So, snacking - you know, there used to be - when I was a kid, there was a taboo on "between meal snacks." It was a phrase you heard. Now it is gone. So, one of the things is to eat meals at tables, don't take seconds, avoid snacking, and you will suddenly find you are not eating too much.

STEWART: We are talking to Michael Pollan. His new book is called "In Defense Of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." And I am sure you recognize this. NPR listeners? Pretty smart group. So we put on our blog - we have a very active blog and website - that you were going to be on our show. And we received many questions. Can I give you a couple? Run a couple by you?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, please.

STEWART: Will G. wrote, "Why do many Americans think that organic foods are superior to non-organic foods? Is there anything to the greenzo(ph) argument..."

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: "That organic foods are more nutritious?"

Mr. POLLAN: Actually, there is. There's been some interesting studies in the last couple of years comparing organic and conventionally grown foods, same species, same varieties, grown side by side. And they have found higher levels of many nutrients in the organic. The thinking is that the soils are healthier, and if you have a healthy soil, you are going to have a more complex - chemically complex plant that will have more of these defensive compounds.

The other theory, which was very interesting, is that most of these good things in plants are defensive chemicals to help the plant wore off disease and bugs. And if you are not spraying insecticide, the plant has to defend itself. So it produces more of these good chemicals. That's the other theory. But yeah, there is some evidence. Whether it's significant enough difference to justify the cost difference is another question.

STEWART: People are very interested in you personally as well.

Mr. POLLAN: OK.

STEWART: From Andrea, "Does Michael Pollan have a junk food guilty pleasure?"

Mr. POLLAN: Uh, well, I have a weakness for Cracker Jacks...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And corn chips. And now - given I have railed about corn publicly for years, that may sound a little perverse.

MARTINEZ: There is an executive of Frito-Lay right now rubbing his hands together maniacally...

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Somebody wanted to know what you're going to have for lunch.

Mr. POLLAN: I am going to an Italian restaurant and I was thinking I might have pasta.

STEWART: Is it - are people frightened to ask you over for dinner?

Mr. POLLAN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: I am convinced that since I have started writing about this, I get less dinner invitations and - because people feel that they have to serve me with this ethically-correct food. But you know, there are many values in life. And the value - the social values and hospitality, which is to say you don't reject something that people serve you at dinner, is also powerful as much as you want to look out for the welfare of the animals that you are eating. So, I am actually a very eager eater. And people should have me over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: And also about the socialization of eating.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, yeah.

STEWART: That's a big part of your book as well, that we have lost the pleasure of eating. You are always striving to eat a certain way to accomplish a certain goal.

Mr. POLLAN: And there is an - this obsession with getting it just right, whether you're a vegetarian or an ethical carnivore or a flexitarian. Whatever you are, it becomes a very antisocial thing, because you are - you know, you go to someone's house and say, "I am sorry, don't eat that" or the host has to say, "Can I make you something special?" And suddenly, the communal pleasure of everyone eating out of the same, you know, serving dish, sharing a meal, is lost. And eating is not just about health. Eating is about pleasure. It's about family. It's about community. It is about identity. It is about ritual.

There are many, many reasons to eat besides advance - you know, living longer. And that really should be a byproduct of eating well and eating happily. And stressing out about food is not very good for your health. And I know the whole dark side of the American food system, but I enjoy eating more than I ever had before because when I eat something you know, that grass-fed hamburger and the full knowledge of how that animal lived and the food chain that produced it, the sun feeding the grass, the grass feeding the cow, the cow feeding me, that is a very pleasurable thing to me. And we shouldn't lose track of that.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: That was our interview with Michael Pollan. As we finish out the week with the Best of the BPP, of the battle over who created the everything bagel and we'll have a battle of our own. It is another BPP Bake-off, complete with controversy. News headline, as well, with Laura Conaway, stay with us. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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