A Conversation with Michael Pollan

Activist, Author and Journalist

Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan argues that Americans eat too many “edible foodlike substances” and not enough real food. Pollan is the bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his latest book, In Defense of Food, sheds light on how everyone can make more thoughtful, healthy food choices. His best advice? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Q. How do you define the term “food” versus “edible foodlike substance”?

Foods are basically the plants, animals and fungi we have been eating for a long time and are more the product of nature than industry. Edible foodlike substances are relatively recent and novel and are characterized by higher levels of processing and synthetic ingredients. In general, one way to look at it is that edible foodlike substances contain ingredients you don’t have in your pantry, such as high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum and carrageenan.

Q. Why do we need to defend our food?

Well, because food is under attack. On the one hand, you have the food industry that is trying to replace real food, which isn’t very profitable to sell, with processed food, which is much more profitable to sell. Over time, the new products getting to the supermarket tend to be more of the edible foodlike substances. 

The other thing food needs to be defended against is this whole way of looking at it as a pile of nutrients, so that food disappears. When we walk down the aisle of the supermarket, we don’t see the names of traditional foods, we see omega-3, calcium and vitamin D. It’s all this biochemistry that’s getting in the way of perceiving actual real foods. 

Q. Realistically, how should people eat for maximum health?

First, tune out all the nutritional advice that’s out there—all the health claims, all the latest studies telling you whether it’s carbs or protein or fat that you have to worry about, and focus on the foods themselves. Take back control of your diet.

I think cooking is one of the keys, because a big part of our problem is that the culture of cooking has collapsed. We’re outsourcing our food preparation to corporations, and they don’t do it very well. They tend to cook with far more salt, fat and sugar than any normal human being would ever think to put in their food. When corporations want to cook for you, their goals are to sell you more food, to get you to eat as much as possible, and to replace good quality ingredients with salt, fat and sugar, which are very cheap to insert into a food and very seductive. 

The garden suggests there might be a place
where we can meet nature halfway.
- Michael Pollan

Q. In a recent interview, you claimed that democratizing organic food is crucial. Please explain that.

We need to democratize healthy food; not just organic food, but fresh produce also, which is more expensive than junk food. If you’ve got a dollar to spend in the supermarket and you’re poor, you’re going to end up in the middle aisle buying processed food, because by the calorie, it’s a bargain. 

One of the things we need to do is to change the agricultural policies of the country, so that we’re not subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket, which are high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil. This is what our policies make cheap, because we subsidize corn and soy. It also makes feedlot meat cheap because those [corn, soy] are what we feed the animals. We need to find ways to stimulate the consumption of and production of what are called specialty crops. The fact that the Department of Agriculture calls real food a specialty tells you all you need to know; it shouldn’t be a specialty, it should be routine.

Q. You have suggested many new national food initiatives. What can individuals do?

I think it’s vitally important that we teach kids how to grow food by putting gardens in the schools, how to cook food by having teaching kitchens (what used to be called home economics) and how to eat food. I think Alice Waters has it completely right; lunch should be an academic subject. You should get credit for lunch in the same way you get credit for physical education. 

Q. In an open letter to President Obama, you state that the health of our food system is a national security issue. Why is this?

Because it’s so highly concentrated and there are so few companies processing food these days. Four companies are basically packing all the beef. A single, hamburger-grinding plant could be making millions of patties a week and feeding so many people that if there is contamination in any of the meat going into that plant, it could affect millions of people. So, there’s a strong national security argument for decentralizing the food system. It doesn’t mean there won’t still be problems, but they won’t affect so many people.

Q. What is your view on the relationship between food and living a conscious, wide-awake life?

Food is one of the most profound ways we engage the natural world; not just the landscape, but the species we share this planet with. One of the traditional uses of food has been to remind us of this critical relationship—our dependence on nature. That’s why people say Grace. Yes, they’re thanking God, but they’re also thanking the creatures that gave their lives for us and the land that brings forth this bounty. I think eating at its best is a profoundly spiritual experience. 

There’s a wonderful quote by Thomas Merton: “From the moment you put a piece of bread in your mouth you are part of the world. Who grew the wheat? Who made the bread? Where did it come from? You are in relationship with all who brought it to the table. We are least separate and most in common when we eat and drink.”

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Ellen Mahoney is a freelance writer and teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Contact evm@infionline.net.

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