Those concerned about what they eat face a menu of two events on Thursday, January 17: either Michael Pollan’s talk about his new book, In Defense of Food, or Patricia Bisch’s talk about her new book, Freedom from Food. And while this seems to be a pro/con food fight, it turns out the authors actually take two different tacks on the same issue and thereby prove that the food world is, as Pollan wrote in his previous bestseller, caught in an omnivorous dilemma. Pollan’s new book, for instance, is subtitled An Eater’s Manifesto and features the tagline/summary, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” while Bisch’s book is subtitled A Quantum Weight Loss Approach and kicks off with testimonials about her program and an opening quote from Deepak Chopra.
During a recent phone interview I asked Pollan how we got to the point where common sense is no longer common sense anymore. “Yeah, how did we get to a point where you could write a book for people with information that their grandmother and mother already knew?” he replied. “What a treacherous food landscape we confront now,” he continued. “We face nearly daily nutritional studies on the front page of newspapers and a cacophony of health claims in supermarkets. How could you not be confused when there are whole-grain Cocoa Puffs? Kids can buy a figure from TV on the cereal box and moms can feel they’re at least getting something healthy.”
Of course they’re not really getting something healthy, and the latter part of Pollan’s book helps us eat food, not foodstuff, which is everything highly processed, modified, fructosed, hormoned, and antibioticized. Many of his suggestions are the information that culture would teach us if it could, and if the food industry’s “interests weren’t fundamentally at odds with our health interests,” Pollan pointed out. “We’re much better off with foods [companies in the industry] haven’t touched. There’s really nothing Archer Daniels Midland [ADM] and Cargill can do to corn that makes it better for us to eat than corn,” Pollan said. “We must shop the peripheries of the supermarket. ADM and Cargill control the center of the supermarket.”
The first part of Pollan’s book delves into how science set the stage for industrial food. The problems begin with reductionism and thinking of elements of nutrition in isolation. Pollan said, “What’s going on in the soul of a carrot and in our digestive systems we don’t know,” and he referred to the passage in the book where he writes, “The human digestive tract has roughly as many neurons as the spinal column. We don’t yet know exactly what they’re up to, but their existence suggests that much more is going on in digestion than simply the breakdown of food into chemicals.”
Instead we tend to bow down to the science of nutrition, which somehow escapes the distrust that other scientific issues like evolution and global warming seem to attract. “It doesn’t fly in the face of fundamentalist religious beliefs,” Pollan said, “and it’s a very practical science supported by big industry. We need to be a whole lot more skeptical of nutrition science. It’s well-intentioned, but they haven’t figured out that very basic question: What are people eating? If you have controlled studies, that’s one thing, but you can’t do that on a large scale.”
Pollan’s book offers a personal guide to better eating (and a big plug for farmers markets everywhere) but tends to be a bit slim on the larger scale issues. “It’s not enough,” he admitted, “but it’s not insubstantial either. We have to vote with our forks, but also with our votes for better agricultural policy.” Doing that, however, isn’t easy, especially when, as Pollan insisted, presidential candidates “have to bow down in Iowa for ethanol and subsidies. But the more we move toward national healthcare, the more the government will take interest in keeping people healthy. Cheap food isn’t so cheap-one of the costs is costs to the public.”
Luckily, there’s little cost for reading, Pollan said. “I don’t write homework. I really want to entertain people while educating them.” That desire leads to wonderful passages, such as the one revealing that the American Heart Association currently sells its seal of approval to foods. It concludes, “Meanwhile the genuinely heart-healthy whole foods in the produce section, lacking the financial and political clout of the packaged goods a few aisles over, are mute. But don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing to say about health.”
Patricia Bisch, on the other hand, decided that quantum physics has a lot to say about eating, especially as a way of thinking about food as energy and not matter. After years of struggling with her weight, she studied the mind/body relationship for eight years and now sides with Max Planck, who she quotes as saying, “Mind is the matrix of all matter.”
In many ways Bisch’s program isn’t about weight loss, it’s about gaining consciousness. “I don’t want to imply you just think thin and that’s enough, because often we have an intellectual understanding but we know things only intellectually,” she said during a brief phone interview. “You don’t become a black belt until you’ve trained yourself, and that’s what this program is like. This is not a quick fix.”
Michael Pollan discusses In Defense of Food on Thursday, January 17, at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu. Patricia Bisch discusses Freedom from Food on Thursday, January 17, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books & Music (900 State St.). Visit patriciabisch.com.