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Consumed With Hate: In Defense Of Food

🌱 Feed Me, Seymour...

The Crime: In Defense Of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
The Guilty Party: Michael Pollan
Overview: Read words. Mostly books. Not this one.

Why I Hate It...

There's some good advice in this book. The cover, for instance, has the words "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That's pretty sound advice, if you ask me. And you can pretty much just stop at the cover.

This one angered me more or less from page one. I went into it expecting to like it, and I was immediately repulsed. At least a portion of the blame must go to the narrator Scott Brick, who performs the audiobook with maximum condescending smarm. It's whatever the exact opposite of charming is. But Brick was reading from a terrible script, and the end result was bad enough that I found myself constantly reacting against it--even during the times when I knew Pollan's facts were right. He correctly, for instance, dives into the technical obstacles of doing good food science and some of the inherent problems of industrial food-production. But he mangles the data terribly in furtherance of a transparent agenda: to scare the reader into embracing "whole foods." And when I call his agenda transparent, I'm not trying to be hyperbolic. He name-check's Upton Sinclair's The Jungle at least twice.

The big bad wolf in his thesis is Science, and his arguments are profoundly nonsensical. Throughout, he conflates food scientists with nutritionists with science journalists with food marketers. A shortcoming of any of these is immediately translated into "see how science failed?" He's not even consistent there, though. Science is terrible when it leads to trans fats, but he has no qualms about citing anything vaguely scientific that might support his claims, and he takes this to the most ridiculous extremes imaginable. His sources include--and I'm not exaggerating here--a neurological "condition" that isn't in the DSM, an "unproven" hypothesis, and an untested one as well. The words "The hypothesis hasn't been tested, but I'm convinced..." are in this book. He's effectively saying "No one's bothered to check this out, but it sure sounds good to me!"

Even his own rhetoric shows up on both sides of his arguments. He frequently talks about the value of tradition, which he usually boils down to "Mom." "Mom" is the source of all cultural food wisdom, except in the introduction, where he describes the cooking of his own mother and talks about how both he and she have abandoned her traditional cuisine because it consists almost entirely meat. Similarly, saturated fats are basically harmless when he's talking about how foolish scientists got us addicted to trans fats instead. But saturated fats are to be avoided when he's talking about the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef. Oh, and Pollan lurves that grass-fed beef. He devotes a lot of ink to the folly of "nutritionism," but is perfectly happy to use nutritional information to extol the virtues of grass-fed beef.

He constantly decries food science as "reductionist" without really considering the implications. In a telling example, he talks about how there are health benefits of thyme, but argues that reductionist scientists would foolishly experiment to try and find out which of the chemical components of thyme make it so. But he ignores the fact that reductionist science is the only way to know thyme has health benefits in the first place! What kind of science would he have us do? "You know, it seems like the Italians are pretty healthy. I guess we'll just leave it there." Although that's effectively the argument he ends up making on behalf of the Italians, the Greeks, the French, and the Japanese (although you should avoid fish because of mercury). Tradition good. Science bad.

And food science? Food science real bad. It's as though every misstep that was made in an admittedly complex field over the past sixty years is proof that we should chuck it all and go to the farmer's market. Never mind that those missteps were caught by other scientists, and that often they weren't missteps at all, but the results of aggressive marketing and inept journalism. And I love farmer's markets, but they are not the solution to your dietary problems. They're a luxury for upper-middle class people who live in metropolitan areas. In fact--and perhaps this is what I find to be the most damning--all of his constipated reasoning congeals into food advice that can be summarized like this: Do all the trendy stuff that bougie food-snobs are already doing.

Seriously. This is a pseudo-intellectual pat on the back to the kind of people who buy their groceries from stores that only sell "whole foods" (there's a popular chain, but I can't think of the name of it right now). The book's from 2009, so it includes harsh invectives against high-fructose corn syrup. If it had been written five years later, it would have been against GM foods. Ten years later and it would have been against gluten. It's naked trend-chasing disguised as pop philosophy with a patina of science stuff smattered about for flavor. It's a high-fructose-corn-syrup-infused layer cake of self-congratulatory college-freshman-bong-hit-level discussion that has the gall to disguise itself as health advice.

So yeah, this one clearly pissed me off.

Next week we look at Glen Beck's misplaced metaphors in Addicted to Outrage...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.