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-- E.O. Wilson

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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pollan Rules

"Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" by Michael Pollan

Pretty much anything Michael Pollan writes these days is an automatic NY Times bestseller... and rightfully so, given his skills of exposition, especially on the food-related concerns he has now made a career from.  You could probably condense all the writing and text in his latest (2009) volume, "Food Rules," into about 25 pages if you chose to (even though there are 64 rules covered), but using white space and large print the publisher has stretched it into 140 pages, that I think may be the best practical bang-for-your-buck currently in bookstores --- the slender volume is $11 (with a coupon I got it for $7, and still less online).

Stripped of science, gobbledygook, and intimidating biochemical terminology, Pollan spells out a straightforward, common-sense, distilled treatise on "rules" for eating soundly, for all concerned with food and nutrition. He boils it down to this: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much," and then spends a chapter explicating each of these basic concepts in more (but very simple) detail.
Without being preachy or overbearing, nor too technical or wordy, Pollan offers up common-sensical, easy-to-remember notions that most folks have already heard along the way somewhere, but puts them in an order and format readily digestable by any reader.

Everyone will have their own favorites among his 64 rules; just a few of mine:

"Avoid food products containing words a third-grader cannot pronounce."
"Avoid food products that make health claims." (you'll have to read the volume to hear the explanation)
"Eat only foods that will eventually rot."
"It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car."
"It's not food if it's called the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)"

And you don't need to obsess over Pollan's rules; that would go against the spirit of this treatise. In fact he closes out the volume, exhorting the reader to break the rules once in awhile; 'moderation in all things... including moderation.'
Pollan is not a scientist, but a journalist and a teacher, and this little volume communicates and teaches, with a minimal investment of time from the reader. So buy this book, read it, give it to a friend or family member, and I predict that without even trying, at least some of these "rules" will become a part of your routine... to your betterment! 

Pollan's Amazon page is here:


Two NY Times reviews of "Food Rules" and interview with Pollan here:




Sam N. Vance said...

I like the tag-line of your blog; '..for those who relish science'.

I then read the following phrase and it bumped me a little:
'Stripped of science, gobbledygook, and intimidating biochemical terminology...'

If you relish science, you certainly wouldn't lump it in with gobbledygook. Regarding Pollan as a source of expertise about food is like getting your astrophysics lesson from an astrologer.

He is a Journalism professor. He's made all of this money and yet he hasn't spent time talking to the real experts or spent money to educate himself on the subject matter. He has the means to do it and why not?

If he's so sure he's right and the whole of science is wrong, then he can get his BS, MS, or even a PhD in food science and lend vast amounts of credibility to what he says and writes.

If he's on the West coast, he has access to UC Davis and Oregon State. On the East coast he has access to Cornell. In the Midwest there is Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. All of these schools have top notch food science & technology departments. So why not learn?

Maybe it's because he's wrong. Perhaps the true science behind a lot of the things he complains about just doesn't support what he has written and propagandized and politicized over the years.

An Astrologer wouldn't want to get a degree in Astrophysics because he would learn everything that disproves the claims he uses to make money.

'Stripped of science, gobbledygook, and intimidating biochemical terminology'

His rules are ridiculous. "Avoid food products containing words a third-grader cannot pronounce." When I was in the 3rd grade, I pronounced Mr. as mir. These rules are pointless. If it gets passed to you through a window, it isn't food? Really? If I handed you a banana through your car window, would that somehow change the chemical properties of the banana, such that it was no longer digestible?

You can't possibly love science and be remotely scientifically literate and hold in any kind of high regard his very unscientific writing about a subject in which he isn't qualified.

ARJ said...

methinkest Sam protesteth too much (and lacks a sense of humor to boot). Time will tell whether Pollan's views on food and health, or Sam's views hit closer to the mark. In the meantime, Americans remain among the most fully and over-fed folks on the planet, with continuing health issues therefrom.

Sam N. Vance said...

Well, time isn't necessary to tell, because we have science on those things already.

As far as health issues go, we really need to figure out what causes our demise, and that villain changes every few years. It used to be fat, then it was cholesterol, which led to trans fats as the enemy. The enemy has been HFCS and additives, and the newest demon is salt. Each of these mini-movements with either no credible science, or exaggerated science behind them all promised to save hundreds of thousands of lives. The trouble is that the largest influence on the ailments that people correlate with diet in this country is genetics.

That's not to say that overeating for a sustained period(many years)won't lead to health issues for some, but you have to realize that 100,000 people out of 300,000,000 amounts to .03% and that if salt is a killer(for example), it's a very ineffective one. For something to be truly bad for you, it needs to much more consistent in causing problems. You need to be able to predict toxicity at a very high rate and explain exactly what happens. For instance, with HFCS, you should see much higher numbers of people with serious health issues, since the sugar is so ubiquitous. If I'm in a lab with a team of scientists and they put a Black Mamba up to my arm and let it bite my, they can predict very accurately what will happen. If I eat a cheeseburger...or 10...or 20, the results can very wildly.

The point is it's all complicated. So my issue with Pollan - aside from facts - is that he is telling people who should try to understand these things to go the opposite direction and be willfully ignorant about and paranoid of food.

ARJ said...

I didn't realize reviewing one of the simplest books around, which includes some of the most unassailable (almost boring) truths possible, would lead to such controversy...

The notion of correlating health with genetics is a ridiculous red herring... of course health can be correlated with genetics (duhhh!), so can sports talent, musical talent, IQ, height, weight, etc. etc. As living creatures, everything about us correlates to some degree to genetics. The question is what things correlate to health that we actually have some significant control over, and diet is a main one.

It's a funny thing how often the results of "scientific research" simply reflect whatever beliefs the funding party involved already held to begin with. It's not paranoia, but common-sense, to not trust food industry sponsored studies of health effects. And yes, such studies are complicated, which is what makes them EASY to skew, and why science doesn't always trump common-sense.

We have an epidemic of childhood obesity that is through the roof (as well as diabetes), but apparently that's not high enough numbers for Sam's concern. Most of the effects of the typical, highly-marketed, lousy American diet are not related to quick death or high toxicity, but simply to gradual, insidious, costly ills over time, which is what we are facing. I believe Pollan is doing much more than the food industry will ever voluntarily do to correct that... and because he's highly successful, major food industries will oppose him at each step along the way, lest he cut into their profits.

Sam N. Vance said...

Would you want a diesel mechanic to cater your party? Would you want a surgeon predicting the weather? No. But when it comes to the science and research of food, you are ready to blow off anything that has ties to the industry. Well people don't go get advanced technical degrees in food science or food business management to go work at Jiffy Lube, they have a passion for food and a desire to work in the food industry. Does their chosen career discredit them? And another thing, you say food industry like there's some building out in the midwest called food industry and all the food scientists work there and everyone that wants a job has to apply there and the whole building is a giant conspiracy. To be honest, you sound like a tea bagger. Do you also think the President was born in Kenya and is conspiring to lock us all up in FEMA camps?

I trust science. When a geologist talks about plate tectonics, I listen. When a meteorologist tells me about weather forecasts, I listen. When environmental scientists tell me how climate change effects the planet, I listen. And when an expert or a team of experts in food science puts out research detailing the levels of toxicity in an additive or the safety of a process, I listen. Keep in mind that people working in the food industry will change employers 3 - 5 times in their career on average, so they are much more motivated to provide sound science than they are to make something up just to make their company or area of the industry look better.

And by the way, we don't have high levels of obesity because of HFCS or trans fat, or Twinkies, or Taco Bell. We have it because people consistently over-consume and the extra calories are stored as fat at a rate of 1 lb for every 3500 that go unburned. Demonizing specific foods or specific types of foods won't change that.

ARJ said...

Sam, there is plenty of science that backs up much of Pollan's view (he doesn't just make stuff up out of thin air, as you seem to imply); you just don't happen to like those particular scientists as I may not like those on the industry's dole . I worked in toxicology in the past, and I know very well how studies are manipulated, fudged, skewed for a certain outcome... it happens much more than people realize (sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously). "Science" is not some pristine, failsafe endeavor, nor does a degree from an Ag school and some fastfood experience make you an expert on the underpinnings of science.
And I find it interesting that suddenly what was so complicated (like obesity) is now nothing more than overconsumption -- that's straight out of the simplistic 50's; is that the science you're relying on...
We may as well just agree to disagree.

Sam N. Vance said...

I was educated in one of the top food science & technology depts in the country. I learned HACCP at OSU, fastfood, and at Johnson & Wales from one of the men who developed the HACCP guidance for seafood. Don't demean me out of frustration or lack of insight into where the science begins and public opinion ends.

It's all complicated, but you can speak on some aspects in broad terms. Obesity relies on a number of factors such as genetics, metabolism, exercise, and caloric intake. The outer layer of the complicated onion in this example IS over-consumption and everything that follows has somewhat less of an impact. For instance experiment s have been done to measure the effectiveness of diet vs exercise and diet easily wins out. Even if you are genetically predisposed to be a thin body type, overeating will still make you fat.

The fact that too many calories will lead to stored energy(fat) and weight gain isn't oversimplifying when convenient, it's the law of conservation of energy.

As far as toxicology goes, you should know that the government sets the lowest acceptable levels based on a small fraction of the lowest observable effect level. So in the case of something like BPA, the most they found leached into a canned product was Dole fruit. Even at that highest level(which was still under the reg amt), it would mean someone would have to eat several hundred pounds worth of the fruit/day for years to get sick.

This is the difference between simple concepts and complicated ones and Pollan does a diservice by not having the basic scientific background to explain these thing. He then benefits from it by stoking people's fears and distrust of science. Then we have people like you that use jackoff phrases like 'on the industry's dole' as if there is some corporate g-man standing behind the researcher, making sure the data goes their way. Those researchers are more concerned about having their work associated with sound science than worrying about what some CEO thinks. And that conspiracy theory of yours does nothing to explain university research, in which grad students complete much of the research and talk to nobody besides their adviser. How are they in on the grand conspiracy?

We can't very well agree to disagree because one of us is demonstrably wrong(and it isn't me). Your blog should be called Science on the Shelf because that's where you seem to put it.

ARJ said...

fine Sam, I see the light now; you're 100% right 100% of the time.
BTW, Pollan also argues against overconsumption, so I guess by some miracle he actually does get something right once-in-a-while. Who'd a thunk it!

Anonymous said...

Pretty funny that Mr. Vance seems to think one can equate overconsumption of Twinkies with overconsumption of say leaf lettuce (overall effects really rather different!). He employs sound bites from the food industry, using them poorly.... and "food science" by the way can be a very different subject matter than "nutritional science", which is really what much of this is about. Nor does acknowledge that the main reason for overconsumption is the manipulative marketing and packaging techniques to consumers to deliberately create overconsumption (sales); which is a science unto itself. Don't know if he's just an apologist for the industry or misguided from limited reading, but he needs to broaden his horizons, as he's the one demonizing legitimate concerns.

Sam N. Vance said...

Thanks anonymous, now I have to reply.

Food science encompasses nutrition and food scientists know everything a registered dietitian knows, except the dietitian doesn't take nearly as much food science and they take a certification test.

Lettuce vs. Twinkies.
Lettuce is slightly more nutritious, with about 10% RDV of vit A and has about 1 calorie per 6g serving, but despite that, it's filling.
Twinkies have more calories and fat (150 & 4.5g respectively). My earlier point about Twinkies and lettuce is that weight gain or loss is for the most part, determined by the calories. If you ate the same calories worth of either, it would have the same effect on weight gain or loss. In theory, as long as you run a caloric deficit, you will lose weight. Even if you eat hot dogs and deep fried Twinkies. As long as you are consuming less calories than you burn in a day, you will lose. That's what my point was about over-consumption.

This is an interesting article about the lack of trust in science:
It explains a lot about how you guys dismiss what I say over what a non expert say, because you don't judge the science, you judge the public opinion. In the study the article references, they tell people that scientists have debunked ESP but 90% of the public believe. The percentage was made up, but the people in the study rejected the scientific consensus.

So I'd ;ike to apologize for getting snarky. I'm just trying to help you guys. There are NO food scientists out there trying to educate and your only point of reference is Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Mark Bittman, and studies from environmental groups. So I don't blame you for thinking I'm the nutty one.

Here are some resources that may help:
IFT - Use this site to look up a food scientist near you and submit a question: http://members.ift.org/IFT/Education/EduResources/findafoodscientist.htm

Ohio State's Food Science & Technology Dept: http://www-fst.ag.ohio-state.edu/

Also, a good book to read is Denialism by Michael Specter

Of course, there's also my blog, Edible Intelligence: http://edibleintelligence.blogspot.com

ARJ said...

well, I don't wanna go 'round-and-round, but have to say a couple things:
1. there are medical doctors, nutritionists, epidemiologists, that concur with much of Pollan's view (it's not just the few writers you point out) -- we could play dueling experts forever, that's why there are controversies in science (look at all the PhDs who think global warming is a farce, and keep that debate going forever).

2. I'm quite familiar with Specter's book, but you know he's just one of those lowly journalists, who I guess has no scientific credibility... But seriously, that reminds me of the tobacco execs famously in unison before Congress denying that science showed that nicotine was addictive [ http://tinyurl.com/3x4at3f ]. I think some of Sam's food scientists will look that way 20-30 years from now.
But ultimately, yeah, Sam is right, read all sides (including his blog) and make up your own mind. We're not gonna settle anything here.