The Diet Detective: Interview With Michael Pollan

Photo by Alia Malley

Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley, has struck a chord in this country. His back-to-back best sellers, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006) and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 2008), take a good, hard look at the food we eat and how it's made. What he has to say could change the way you look at food forever ­— so put down that fork and read on for some spectacular insights from top author and quintessential foodie Michael Pollan.

Diet Detective: Should we really be that worried about the foods we eat?

Michael Pollan: I think we're far too worried about food, actually—Americans have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. We need to learn to relax about it, but that doesn't mean eating anything you want. If you eat real food—unprocessed whole foods—you can eat pretty much any of it you want, in moderation. My aim in In Defense of Food was to help people relax about food by simplifying the food landscape for them.

Diet Detective: I've read that you were pretty surprised when you first visited a commercial farm. What stunned you the most?

Michael Pollan: For me the awakening came in a potato field in Idaho. The farmers sprayed fungicides that were so toxic they wouldn't go into the field for five days afterwards because they were so worried about the effects of the chemicals. These potatoes can't be eaten until they have six months to off-gas the systemic pesticides in them. Many of these farmers told me they grew a small patch of organic potatoes by the house for their family. Most Americans have no idea how their food is produced, and the clearer an idea they get, the more interested they become in alternatives like organic.

Diet Detective: We like to think that organic farms are run by caring, environmentally conscientious farmers—is that true?

Michael Pollan: Organic farming has become much more industrialized than people realize. We now have organic feedlots—to my mind, a complete contradiction in terms. Yet even these farms are better than their conventional counterparts. You can be sure if the label says organic that the animals did not receive hormones or routine antibiotics and they ate an organic diet. But you can't assume the animals grew up on Old McDonald's Farm. Some still do, but many don't.

Diet Detective: It's one thing to be certain you're getting organic, locally grown foods when you're eating at home, but how do you do that when you're out to dinner?

Michael Pollan: Eating out is challenging, unless you really know the restaurant or are willing to be a pest. Basically, whenever we give control of our foods to other people, we lose control. How much salt? How much butter? What kind of oil are they frying in? Where do they get their meat? That said, it's not hard to track down the local restaurants that source their ingredients carefully. They're often associated with "slow food" or shop at the farmer's market.

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