Food Innovation Made Simple: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

Has success spoiled Michael Pollan? Remarkably, no. Even though he’s an icon to foodies everywhere, and can fill a 4,000 seat stadium with a talk revolving around two bags of groceries, he’s still the same charming, straight-forward, self-effacing guy who has been investigating and writing about food with the same humble curiosity and amusement he brought to his first book “Second Nature.”

One trade-off that has come with Pollan’s success, however, is that he (or his agent, more likely) must manage his digital output more carefully than ever.  So if you missed his talk at University of Portland, you won’t find it anywhere the web, or archived on a DVD, but you can find a similar talk by Pollan on

The main difference between this video and his April 16th talk in Portland was that he pulled out a couple of bags of groceries to show us all the weird stuff in Fruit Loops, and Gatorade “Fuel,” and Eggo “Fruit Pizza,” and Canada Dry Ginger Ale (Now with Anti-Oxidants!). And he focused quite a bit on sugar, which has been put into so many “heart – healthy” foods to make up for the flavor lost when you remove natural fats. He cited an excellent article from the Sunday 17 April New York Times Magazine to back up a lot of what he said about corn versus cane sugar versus starch (which is just linked sugars).

The main message in his talk, as in his most recent book, “Food Rules” was all about nutrition. In a nutshell, Pollan makes a solid case that “nutritional science” is a very young discipline, and has led us down some dubious diet pathways. Soon after World War II we were told to reduce our fat intake in order to reduce heart disease. But low-fat diets taste lousy (fat carries flavor), so our food industry has created “healthy food” by adding favor ingredients, especially sugar and salt. And as long as you’re adding stuff to “healthy food,” why not add healthy stuff, like anti-oxidants, and micro-nutrients, even if the end result is a high-calorie junk-food diet, made of multi-ingredient “edible food-like products.”

Pollan’s says we should eat food, as versus these edible food-like products. Eat stuff that rots, as versus Twinkies. Avoid lite and low-fat products, which make up for the fat by adding a witch’s brew of flavor additives. Don’t eat foods you’ve seen advertised on television. Don’t eat stuff you can’t picture in its natural state. Don’t eat stuff your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car (we now consume 20% of our meals in the car).

Speaking of eating in the car, how we eat affects how much we eat. Don’t eat while driving, watching TV, and reading. Instead, eat while talking. That will help you slow down, and reach a “satisfied” state, instead of a “stuffed” state. In fact many cultures have rules about moderation in eating. In Japan, the rule is eat until you’re 4/5ths full. In other languages a host will ask, “are you satisfied?” Not, “are you full?” The prophet Mohamed posits that the ideal meal is 1/3 solid, 1/3 liquid, 1/3 air. In other words, eat until you’ve filled about 2/3 of your tank. The French say “I have hunger.” When they’re done eating they say, “I no longer have hunger.” Which is many bites short of being stuffed. Another rule: Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored. And perhaps the most important rule: Cook your own food.

What about the third big rule, “eat mostly plants?” Pollan is refreshingly non-dogmatic about this. Eat meat if you like, but we don’t need to eat two hundred pounds of meat per person per year. Instead treat meat like a condiment. It’s a great food, but we don’t need to eat so much of it. Like a lot of other things we eat too much of, (corn and sugar and soy) our meat intake is influenced by national agricultural policies, in particular subsidies. So as much as we may want healthy food, and can drive the market in that direction with our food buying and preparation habits, we need to reform our food system at the federal level through a re-purposed federal farm bill that supports healthy food rather than “edible food-like substance” production. So as with most important issues, we need to work on healthy food from the top down and the bottom up.


One response to “Food Innovation Made Simple: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants

  1. You may or may not have missed the Pollan’s point about the NY Times sugar article. He left it ambiguous, intentionally perhaps, but he mentioned it as an aside when he was talking about “nutritionism”, and how we always need an enemy nutritient so food manufacturers can target something to add or remove to “create” new products. Before it was fat, then it was cholesterol, then carbs, etc. Pollan was musing maybe the next one was sugar. Or omega-6 (whether that is).

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