Sign up to get Notable Nonfiction updates
The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed how I think about food.
Until reading the now classic 2006 tome by Michael Pollan, I never noticed the extreme lack of diversity in the modern North American diet due to its evolution since World War II. Events have since conspired to show me the extent that corn, dairy and wheat join salt and sugar to form a significant part of a Canadian diet too. Often we think we are eating one thing and it turns out that we are actually eating something else.
The industrialization of our food system has separated us from natural systems while hurting our health, our planet and our soil. Despite that understanding, reversing the habit has been an ongoing struggle. As Pollan points out in his conclusion, everything in our culture encourages us to rely on the convenient, unemotional and often unrecognizable food-like products offered in bulk by giant industrial companies.
For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes. I wonder if it isn’t because so much of that context has been lost that I felt the need, this one time, to start again from scratch.” (p 411)
For Pollan, starting again from scratch meant travelling across America to discover the basic ingredients within four meals: a McDonald’ meal eaten in a fast car, a Whole Foods organic dinner, a Polyface Farm meal, and a foraged meal. Pollan takes readers along with him, detailing every element in each meal from start to finish. He brings us with him into industrial food operations, to small and large farms, and into the forest in search of mushrooms and big game to hunt.
In between the descriptions of places and people, Pollan carefully outlines every element within every meal. Often, many of these elements turn out to have the same source.
In his description of his McDonald’s meal, for instance, he described how three people chose 45 different products almost totally made of corn.
It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac, and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.” (p115)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma also contains a great deal of information about how many societal norms and regulations have radically transformed when it comes to food. Often these changes were due to marketing by various members of the agricultural industry.
Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida,” wrote Pollan, on page 178. “Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.”
In other places, Pollan speculates about the extent that changes to our food system might be creating problems with our health.
One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there’s research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a radio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one.” (p268)
Despite multiple examples of dense information, the overall impression a reader has of Omnivore’s Dilemma is an exploration of America through its food and communities. Pollan aptly outlines his deep concern about deep problems in the food system while demonstrating how caring individuals can change how things are done.
Pollan has nicely captured the hurtful and healing attributes of America’s food system. Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a treasure and a great source of hope.
Reading it may force you to change the way you eat, the way you shop and the way you see your local community as it did for me.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.