The aim of this essay is to present you with a review on the book ‘In Defense of Food’ written by Michael Pollan and first published in 2008. The subtitle of the book informs its readers even from its cover that what they hold in their hands is ‘An Eater’s Manifesto’ thus preparing them to indulge themselves in the reading of rules and principles concerning food. Whose principles and rules are to be presented with? The readers are to be presented with the rules and principles of the writer who characterizes himself as an eater.
The illustration on the front cover provides the readers of the book with an extra piece of information ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’
Pollan addresses his reading audience with an issue of great importance. It may sound peculiar though if one thinks how food used to be treated in the past. The context and plot of this manifesto is developed around a thematic core. It is the issue of food, its variety, its cooking, its treatment on behalf of people, the core around which Pollan’s arguments and thoughts are developed.
Pollan attracts his readers very quickly not only due to the fact that his book is on an issue which has gained a great share in people’s hearts nowadays and has become increasingly popular but also due to his writing style and technique.
He talks to his readers in first person, arising questions which are waiting for an immediate answer, ringing the bell for them in themes which may have been perceived wrongly or differently than they should. Pollan awakens his readers’ consciousness or at least he tries to and makes them realize the meanings, notions, attitudes and behaviors which are hidden behind the eating habits of our era.
It seems that what Pollan wishes to do is raise awareness in people’s attitude towards the eating habits they get, they adopt or they imitate and lead them to remembering that anything even human existence herself can fall victim to the need and trend for being merchandised. Pollan first of all reminds his readers that life on earth is a circle. Nature of which humans are active members and parts is a chain whose bonds are strongly attached to each other and dependent on each other.
So, humans and their eating habits are part of the larger food ecosystem existing on earth. Thus the first worrying or at least troubling question meets the readers. How much do people really know about the food ecosystem? How much thought or investment of research has been made in the research and study of this food ecosystem? There seems to have been so much work and emphasis given on what is healthy, what is supposed to give people longer life expectancy, better appearance, beauty and health. But have these thoughts and emphasis been proceeded as part of the larger food ecosystem or have people ended reacting and behaving totally selfishly without taking into consideration the fact that they are part of a larger ecosystem.
The paradox of all this literary research and writing in the field of food in contrast to total indifference or ignorance towards the larger ecosystem is one indisputable truth of nowadays era. But this is not the only paradox existing in the field of food. There is another paradox which is depicted by Pollan. The paradox of nutritionism.
Food – like any element of the human life - is something that has attracted scientists’ attention and has opened new ideas and paths in scientific study and research. As a result, nutritionism is a scientific field of recent development which has entered the field of food. But what is the role of nutritionism? How is it to operate? Nutritionism according to Pollan comes to guide us on what is healthy and what is not healthy. There is lots of rising fear regarding the effect of food on people’s health nowadays. Pollan seems to question how reasonable should that be.
Pollan seems to believe that nutritionism is a mentality which since developed appears to have harmed Americans more than benefit them. He characterizes what Americans eat nowadays as ‘imitations of food’. So, Pollan results in the conclusion that people nowadays should try to eat what their ancestors would recognize as food. There is a distinction that ought to be made between food and ‘edible foodlike substances’ according to Pollan. The writer seems simply willing to give his own personal opinion on what food is meant to be, what kind of food people should eat and how much attention should be given to all these new trends, mentalities and sciences born within the context of food.
It is not of surprise the opinion Pollan expresses about nutritionism. According to Pollan who also appears to raise awareness and questions on who is responsible to motivate this scientific movement of nutritionism, lots of doubts are entailed in the meaning and operation of nutritionism. Nutritionism cannot be seen as a plain scientific movement. It is a science which has gained so much power, probably more than it could be predicted and there are lots of problems which can be caused due to the science’s weakness to deal with these problems.
Besides, Pollan highlights an undeniable truth of the modern era within which we all share our lives. The science of nutrition is applied by those who call themselves nutritionists, most of whom need to come a long way before they can scientifically speaking claim that they have acquired all the academic knowledge required in order to consider themselves well specialized in their field. Pollan argues that ‘the more focused Americans become on nutrition, the less healthy they seem to become’.
This is a statement which although causes heated debate between those who are fans of nutritionism and those who reject it, cannot be overlooked. I myself have also witnessed this paradox of our era. Nutritionism seems to have been born as a result from the misunderstandings, the stress and the puzzling knowledge people are provided with in the field of food. As a result, nutritionism would be expected to provide people with clear opinions and beliefs concerning their eating habits. There seems to be the paradox of exactly the opposite in power.
Nutritionists today have been seen by people like me to disagree even on matters on which there should be some kind of agreement.
Nutritionism has an effect of economic and financial nature since it motivates people towards the adoption of particular eating habits. Have societies developed the right, necessary structures to deal with this?
Pollan certainly addresses his readers with lots of questions on their food system and their eating habits. But he does not seem to reject any of the new trends or behaviors towards the food system of nowadays.
On the contrary reading his book, his manifesto is a way of approaching this whole issue of nowadays’ food systems under a new, innovated, refreshed perspective.
Pollan actually provides his readers with the justification of his title. Life has changed, ways of living have changed, and technological advances have influenced everything. Food like any other element of human life has followed the common fate of being affected by all this progress and rapid advancement.
Therefore a manifesto is required. Pollan tries to state and share with his readers his beliefs in what people seem to do wrong as far as their eating habits are concerned. He seems to highlight the exaggerations performed by modern, recent eaters.
Pollan manages to draw a profile of an increasingly anxious, stressed society with people who seem to have forgotten even the basic enjoyments of life. If eating is to be treated like a problematic issue, Pollan really wonders how his grandfathers and grandmothers would feel if they lived today and they saw people having lost the enjoyment of eating.
This book expresses values which are probably facing the danger of becoming extinct. Eating is not just a basic need of the human organism. Eating is an activity which can operate as a social bond. Foremost though eating and the food system is an active bond of what science has concluded in naming the chain of the ecosystem.
This is why Pollan has written this book. He has become witness of all these paradoxes existing in the field of food that he seems to feel that a voice raising questions which they demand their being answered ought to be raised.
This is what this manifesto works like. It is the voice of a person of nowadays who seems to be experiencing the weirdest thing of all. He knows nothing on what is right or wrong in the field of food. He does not have the slightest idea on what kind of products he should choose to buy or what kinds of food he ought to support.
Nevertheless there is so much scientific and technological progress in the field of food. New products, new explorations and discoveries in various kinds of foods and their vitamins, new ways of cultivating earth and the fields, new ways of production, new ways of fighting against the disaster of the ecosystem and working towards the environment being saved from it being totally vanished, that people are not expected but be fully aware and have concrete knowledge of what is good for them and their ecosystem in which they belong and / or what is wrong.
Pollan surprisingly enough does not give strict guidelines on how people are expected to react in order to find their orientation. But he raises the questions. He seems to believe that once his readers start looking for the answers to these questions and comparing their answers to the ones given by him himself or their other neighbors of their ecosystem, then the real meaning and function of food is to be achieved.
The phrases which encapsulates Pollan’s belief in food is what he says about grandmothers and the food chain. If one’s grandmother finds what he / she eats healthy then it probably is and no one should forget that ‘Our personal health cannot be divorced from the health of the food chains of which we are part.’
Reading this manifesto by Pollan makes it clear that food policies are in need to be implemented upon the results of research done in the field of food always in combination with the appropriate environmental policies. No food policy can be implemented or designed without taking into consideration the need to keep and maintain harmony in the environment. The solution as always lies in the middle, which is nothing else but the harmonic cooperation and collaboration of all factors and policies involved.
Pollan, Michael, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Penguin Books, (2008)