Throughout the years, Michael Pollan has been following the food chain, writing about agriculture, the origin of food, nutrition science, and the impact food has on health and the human body.
Contrary to the traditional society where everybody was to a certain extent involved in agriculture, in the modern times, people lost track of where the food comes from.
1:45: According to Pollan, the type of agriculture that is practiced today is a reflection of the cooking people are doing. By eating vast amounts of processed foods, consumers are reinforcing an agriculture based on monocultures (e.g., corn, soy, etc.) and intensive animal farming.
2:42: The story of McDonald's Russet potatoes: in order to obtain the long, thin, and perfectly golden French fries, McDonald's uses a particular species of potatoes (Russet Burbank). These are not only difficult to grow, but they also require a substantial use of pesticides. To prevent blemishes and dark spots, producers must use Methamidophos, a chemical traded under the name Monitor. Not only makes this substance the vegetables unedible for six weeks, preventing the farmers from going into the fields for a couple of days, but it also raises serious health concerns.
4:17: In Polland's opinion, calorie count and food nutrient content are less important compared to whether the food is industrially processed or cooked at home. In their quest for "cravability" and "snackability," companies use higher amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, increasing this way the addictive potential of certain products. For more details on the manipulative strategies used by the food industry, check out our book review "Salt, sugar, fat" by Michael Moss.
6:00: Polland associates the increase in obesity with the decline in home cooking, blaming the food industry for brainwashing the consumer and tricking people into considering cooking either a drudgery or an inferior activity. According to Polland, a lot of preservation and food processing technologies were developed during World War II in order to provide adequate supply for the troops. After the end of the war, the industry had to find a new use for these technologies. Taking advantage of the increased participation of women in the workforce, the food companies marketed their processed products as progressive thinking, a way to support women's emancipation and liberation.
11:45: Another way the industry is tricking people into consuming more is by providing the types of foods that are difficult to prepare at home. Cooking French fries would typically require a relatively vast amount of work, which would prevent people from cooking them too often. On the other hand, making them available everywhere and at any time stimulates consumption and along with that, the increase in unhealthy dietary habits.
14:22: According to Harry Blazer, a marketing professional, companies will take advantage of clients' "cheapness" and laziness, making cooking an outdated and dead tradition. Nevertheless, everybody seems to recognize the negative public health impact such initiatives have.
15:50: In the O&A session, Polland talks about governmental intervention and how Mayor Bloomberg tried to reduce the public health crisis by banning the sale of big sized sugary drinks. An interesting discussion followed, pointing out that people are reluctant to government social engineering initiatives, but relentlessly accept those initiated by corporations and the food industry. In the end, Polland stresses the importance of microbiota and its role in human health.
Michael Pollan is an American author and Professor of Journalism at UC Berkely Graduate School of Journalism. He published several books in which he explores the social and cultural aspects of food and their impact on human health: "The Botany of Desire," "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "In Defense of Food," "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual," and "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."