Why We Shouldn’t Let the Food Industry Dictate Our Diets

Go online to see the PBS documentary based on Michael Pollan's new book

(This article appeared previously on PBS NewsHour. The PBS documentary, In Defense of Food, is available to watch free online through Jan. 28.)

GWEN IFILL: Now: a call to arms for making real, instead of processed food a bigger part of Americans’ diets, a push for more sensible nutritional policies, and the influence of marketing.

That’s the focus of Michael Pollan bestselling book, In Defense of Food and a new film with the same title that premiered December 30 on PBS. Here’s a preview:

MICHAEL POLLAN, author, In Defense of Food: I have been writing about the food system for a very long time, but what I kept hearing from readers was, yes, yes, yes, you have told me where the food comes from and how the animals live and everything, but what I really want to know is, what should I eat?

We make over 200 decisions about food a day, and the majority of these decisions are basically unconscious to us.

The food industry has gotten incredibly food at manipulating the properties of food, so it has just the right texture, just the right color, just the right smell.

The expert message we hear the most is the message of industry, which spends more than $30 billion a year to market food to us.

— Michael Pollan, author of 'In Defense of Food'

But we have been paying a heavy price.

Four of the top 10 things that will kill you are chronic diseases linked to diet.

MAN: We’re dealing with a crisis that’s at an emergency level. Their lives are at stake. I think all of our lives are at stake.

MAN: We are looking for answers. We are looking for dietary salvation.

MICHAEL POLLAN: So I studied the science from Tanzania to Peru, from Paris to the Bronx.

MAN: Let’s walk our way through this.

MICHAEL POLLAN: And what I discovered will surprise you.

WOMAN: You don’t have to be a scientist to know how to eat.

MICHAEL POLLAN: It was just like a light had gone off.

It’s very rare in our lives when the answer to a complicated question is so simple. But when it comes to eating, it is.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Pollan joined Jeffrey Brown recently for a conversation about the book and the documentary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, welcome to you.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s start with the title of the film, In Defense of Food.

You’re arguing that food needs defending, in part because we just don’t — we’re confused about we mean by the term.


The word is up for grabs, because food has changed more in the last 75 years than it has in the previous 10,000. We have learned how to process foods in whole new ways. And I would argue that we’re creating things that don’t deserve to be called by that beautiful word. And so I call them edible food-like substances.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about how we’re all caught up in the grips of something you call nutritionism. Now, define that and explain the problem.


Yes, nutritionism, it’s not a science, although it’s supposedly based on nutrition science. It’s an ideology. It’s a way of thinking about food that I think is at the root of our national eating disorder. It’s why we’re so anxious and confused about food.

Nutritionism basically argues that foods, the important things about foods are the nutrients they contain. It’s not the whole food itself. We don’t look at a piece of meat. We should be thinking about saturated fat and heme iron and things like that.

It also, by extension, argues, if the nutrient is what is important in food, and nutrients are invisible to most people, we need experts to tell us how to eat. And I think that’s a very dangerous idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: And therefore being led by the advertising in some cases, right?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, exactly.

The expert message we hear the most is the message of industry, which spends more than $30 billion a year to market food to us. By comparison, the government’s voice, the doctor’s voice, the voice of sanity gets drowned out. And so we walk into a treacherous landscape in the supermarket, where we’re bombarded with health claims that are very often deceptive.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, these are added nutrients. This is fat, low fat, nonfat. And give me — give us a good example.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I mean, the cereal aisle is a wonderful example.

You walk down there and you find cereals that are going to prevent heart attacks and extend your life span, I mean, just outrageous claims that are made. And the government has been trying to tone them down, but every time they have a new rule, industry comes up with another way to make the same claims.

Yet, keep in mind that, when you’re looking at the really healthy food and you’re over in produce, notice how quiet it is. The broccoli is not screaming about its whole grain goodness or the fact that it has no fat.

So, that’s an important rule of thumb, that the healthiest foods in the supermarket are the quietest.

JEFFREY BROWN: The quieter the food, the better for you, huh?

MICHAEL POLLAN: The silence of the yams, we should listen to.


JEFFREY BROWN: You know, the film looks at different ways of changing behavior. And if there’s a core message that came through to me, is that there really are a lot of things that one can do individually and community-wise. You look at a lot of examples.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, this is a very solvable problem.

It’s true that the food landscape has gotten treacherous. On the other hand, we still know what to do. And a lot of the science in the film ends up being really a confirmation of common sense, that if you eat lots of plants, you’re better off than eating lots of meat. It’s not to say meat is evil or it’s bad for you. It’s not. It’s very nutritious food, but we eat way too much of it, both for our health and for the health of the environment.

There’s a lot of interesting things about how the environment shapes our eating. So, for example, the size of the plates you use at home, merely by reducing the diameter of the plates by an inch or two, you can reduce your food consumption by 20 percent or 30 percent without even thinking about it.

So, we’re being — getting all these messages about that’s — that 16 ounces is the proper size for a soda, or that, you know, a burrito should be two pounds. And we tend to do what we’re told. We have a thing called a unit bias. If that’s how much you pour in the glass, that’s a proper portion.

That’s crazy. So, we need to kind of take back control of our diet from industry, which is really trying to get us at every stage to eat more and drink more than we really even want to.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about at the policy level? Because we are at another moment, right, where the government — new dietary guidelines are in the works, coming out pretty soon.


Every five years, the government endeavors to tell us what to eat. We don’t really listen, but it’s an interesting conversation. And they will be coming out in a few weeks, a new set of dietary guidelines. And, you know, hopefully, they will be more progressive than in the past. [The guidelines were issued on Jan. 7 and can be found here.]

But, in the past, they have really fallen into that nutritionism frame of saying, you know, eat more of this nutrient, eat less of that nutrient, this is evil, this is good.

Need to remember that those guidelines have been wrong in the past. They were telling us for many years to eat less fat, that fat was what was going to make us fat and give us heart disease. Well, in fact, that consensus — this is something we cover in detail in the film — the consensus around the low-fat campaign has completely collapsed, even though your cardiologist probably hasn’t told you.

The links between fat and heart disease or the links between fat and obesity are actually very slender.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I have to ask you, Michael, finally, to the extent that this is sort of a personal quest for you in the film and in your books, where do you break the rules? What’s your worst eating habit? What’s the Michael Pollan bad eating?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, like everybody, I struggle with quantity, when to stop. I love to eat. I love food. I have my junk food favorites. I have kind of a weakness for Cracker Jacks. I will admit that.

But my point in the film is, we shouldn’t stress so much about that, and the issue is not the special occasion food. It’s the everyday default practice. It’s not having a soda. It’s having a soda every day.

And so, if you get the basic default down, you can indulge. I mean, one of my food rules is from — borrowed from Oscar Wilde, all things in moderation, including moderation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, In Defense of Food.

Michael Pollan, thanks so much.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Jeffrey.

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