The programmers at PBS picked the right date—December 30—for the premiere of In Defense of Food, a documentary directed by Michael Schwarz that has food author and journalist Michael Pollan answering the question: “What should I eat to be healthy?”
Really, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. We are emerging from the food comas we slipped into after pigging out over the holidays, and “Eat healthier” is likely topping most everyone’s list of New Year’s resolutions right about now. So we’re primed and ready to receive some guidance, and Pollan—The New York Times best-selling author of books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Rules, Cooked and In Defense of Food on which this film is based—has a way of telling us what’s best for us without being obnoxious about it. While he wants us to eat better and is certainly an activist, Pollan approaches the subject of food from the point-of-view of a journalist who gathers and shares facts, ultimately leaving it up to us to decide what to put in our mouths.
Here, Pollan goes in-depth with Co.Create about his approach to writing about food and how he has succeeded in feeding us information that we tend to resist when it comes from our moms, our spouses and our doctors.
Pollan is a food writer with no scientific background. In fact, he was an English major, and early on in his career, he realized that was an advantage. “It gave me some perspective on the science,” he says. “The science has led us astray very often on food and nutrition in general—not because scientists have been deliberately misleading or anything but because some very partial and sometimes sketchy science has been over-promoted by the food industry and has been used to justify health claims and food fads and food scares.”
Pollan isn’t saying there is no value in nutritional science. It’s just that he isn’t convinced we eaters need to be so closely tuned into the discussion. “We walk around with heads full of biochemistry, and we really think you have to know what an antioxidant is to eat healthfully, but you don’t,” he says. “People have eaten well for thousands and thousands of years without knowing what any nutrient is.”
So rather than flood eaters with an abundance of nutritional information and rules, Pollan famously sums up his recommended approach to eating this way: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
“Nobody wants to be lectured, especially about food. Food is a very sensitive, personal issue. So much of the discussion about food is very dour. Eating should be about pleasure, and we’ve turned it into this high anxiety pursuit. One of the things I’m trying to do is get people to relax a little bit about food and realize that there’s so many other ways to look at it,” he says.
“It’s a uniquely American thing to look at food through this lens of health and science and that every time you eat, you’re either ruining your health or saving your soul,” he continues. “You go around the world, and you realize people eat for other reasons, including pleasure and community—what happens at the table when people get together—and identity. These are all wonderful ways to think about food, but we’ve limited ourselves, I think, to scientific eating, and that’s a mistake.”
In all of Pollan’s work, you see that he is out to educate himself as much as he is out to teach us. “I don’t write as ‘an expert.’ I write as an ordinary person learning something. I’m the reader’s designated inquirer, and I go out and try to learn things and answer questions that are in the reader’s head because they are in my head, too. I always start as something of a naif or even an idiot about something,” he says, “and I tell stories of my education so the reader comes along with me and is educated alongside me rather than me standing on a stage, wagging my finger and telling people ‘the truth.’ “
People don’t relate to experts, according to Pollan. “And I don’t think we like the voice of the omniscient, the all-knowing journalist. I think we like much better the quester, somebody who is on a quest, and we want to know how it turns out.”
As a quester, Pollan has done some unique, out there things to advance his education in food. When he wanted to learn about the meat industry and how beef is raised, he famously bought a six-month-old steer from ranchers in Vale, South Dakota, and he followed him through the process of leaving the ranch, going to the feed lot and then the slaughterhouse.
“It was kind of a stunt, but it also allowed me to transcend the journalist’s usual cynical take on a story like that,” he says. “I like to do that kind of immersion journalism. To my mind, it was really pioneered by George Plimpton when he decided a better way to write about football would be to actually go through a summer training camp and play in a scrimmage and see what it’s like from the inside. You get a perspective you just can’t get any other way. I’m always alert to those opportunities in a story. Can I become a part of it? It is a part of my journalism, and it’s fun. You end up coming out of it with a story to tell and often some comic possibilities because you’re a fish out of water.”
When Pollan began writing about food, he realized that most people didn’t know where their food came from, “which is quite remarkable in the history of our species,” he says. “We’ve always known where our food comes from. We were directly involved in growing it, or hunting it, or gathering it. Then we moved into a world where it was just a shrink-wrapped package in the supermarket.”
It is important to know where your food comes from because the means of production has enormous effects on the healthfulness of food, the environmental impact and the welfare of the animals involved. “I think we’ve been, as a culture, undergoing this re-education about the food system,” Pollan says. “It’s really an effort to recover food not just as an end product at the supermarket but a whole chain of relationships between you and the farmer, you and the land, you and these other species.”
“Like a lot of writers, I became a writer because I liked the solitude of writing and working alone and not needing a lot of infrastructure,” Pollan says.
But he knew he would have to present his ideas in media like film, television and radio if he was going to reach a wider audience. “I feel strongly that you have to reach people where they are, and not everybody’s reading books. Some people, you reach them better through television. Some people, you reach them better through standing on a stage and giving a lecture,” he says.
Pollan also uses social media outlets like Twitter to share knowledge. “I find Twitter is a very good way to quickly broadcast information and ideas,” he says. “I don’t send out my own little fortune cookie messages. I mostly tweet links to articles, books, studies, images that I think are going to be interesting to people who are following these issues. I use it in a very specific way. My Facebook, I basically use the same way. It’s the same information. I’ve found it’s a terrific way to reach a large audience.”