Oct 26, 2007

the omnivore's dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan was a fitting book to read after Good Calories, Bad Calories. Mr. Pollan takes us on a journey from the beginning to the end of different food chains.

The first is the industrial food chain; from the growing of corn in Iowa to a chicken mcnugget in McDonald's. The second, two organic voyages. One the Whole Foods variety and the second a Utopian and self-sufficient (but technically non-organic) farm. And finally a hunting/foraging expedition.

The main thrust of the book is to find out exactly what the hell we are all eating. And all of them have their shocking and scary moments. This is the best aspect of the book. What the hell is exactly in a McDonald's chicken mcnugget and where do all the components come from? What exactly does organic mean? Are we too sheltered to really come to terms with what feeding ourselves would be like without an industrial apparatus to package it all for us?

The craziest part is the description of how corn is fed to cows which effectively just cannot process this food. So rather than feeding them grass they solve that problem with another set of solutions which lead to other problems. And so on. It's utterly ridiculous to read this section. As an aside there actually is a high-end steak joint I've been to in Seattle, Daniel's Broiler, that actually markets on their menus that their steaks are corn fed. In such a foodie state as Washington this struck me as just bizarre.

And what are the implications of buying New Zealand lamb chops in Whole Foods. Sure it's organic but how much oil was burned shipping it here? It's ridiculous if you take a step back.

On this level the book really is a joy to read. There are moments when I feel the author takes things to too much of a philosophical and reflective level but that doesn't mar the book too much. Much more engrossing are the descriptions of food production. The intricate flow of energy and animals and plants and other resources that occur in order for us to put something in our mouths. On this account it's worth the read. It will be hard to read this book and not think about the consequences of what you are putting into your mouth. Both for its affect on us as well as the world around us.

The weakest aspect of the book is the pontifications that are scattered here and there. Phrases like "Maybe this is why..." drive people like me crazy. Either back up your statement with some data or don't bother. And there are some flaws in the generalizations he tries to invoke (e.g., he invokes the 'Thrifty Gene' argument which is dead.)

Most interesting for me though was how this book tied into the last book I reviewed. Particularly the industrial part of this book which has a single basic powerful idea. That the government subsidizes the creation of corn (making it cheap) and as a result the food manufacturing industry has found ways to substitute this carbohydrate kernel into almost every food in order to bring overall prices down. Fat and protein are pricey compared to a similar amount of corn-based carbohydrate.

In fact high fructose corn syrup usage has gone from 0 to 65 pounds per year while our consumption of plain sugar (which is expensive by comparison) has increased 5 pounds. What is meant as a substitute for sugar became an entirely additional energy source. Good Calories, Bad Calories also made this case that our increase in calories over the last 50 years is purely due to carbohydrates. It's impossible to read this book and not see the reasons why we're overloaded with carbs. Compare this to the utopian and self-sufficient farmer who basically has meat, dairy, and perhaps some vegetables at his immediate disposal. Things like flour and sugar just don't fit into his self-contained ecosystem.

The biggest downside of this book is that whenever you go into a grocery store to buy some food (even Whole Foods) you are still going to wonder what the hell you are eating. Because frankly even the store might not know.

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