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Michael Pollan and our dysfunctional food systems

Drawing of corn
Eat Local Challenge posted a great summary of author Michael Pollan's (The Omnivore's Dilemma) talk at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis.

An excerpt:
Did you know you are 10 times more likely to have a conversation at a farmers' market than you are at a grocery store? Or that Americans get 80% of their diet from 4 or 5 plants? By the way, if you guess that two of them are corn and soy, you're right.


I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the other ones are wheat and potatoes, and... well, I was going to say sugarbeets, but I think most of the sugar we consume is actually (from) corn syrup. If you're as surprised as I am to see soy on there (given that tofu is often regarded as yucky), remember soy sauce, soy protein (which I think they put on Safeway chicken thighs, and I'm allergic to those), soy milk and soy-based "meat" (what I affectionately call "fake meat") such as Yves Veggie Cuisine. Soy — and corn and wheat — are more prevalent in foods than you may think. They put some kind of soy protein extract in my favourite soup, and god knows what else. There is wheat in soy sauce. In fact — and this is totally off-topic but just in terms of unnecessary food additives — they put salt in Jello chocolate pudding! Why?! I bought one without salt. What's worse is the very real situation Thomas Pawlick describes in which meats are "seasoned" with salts before they even get to the store. Companies then expect you to simply avoid meat, period, if you have high blood pressure. (I guess they don't need your dollars.)

Ah, here we go. Pollan says in his book that since the 1970s "soybeans have become the second leg supporting the industrial food system: It too is fed to livestock and now finds its way into two-thirds of all processed foods" (35). Thus we are not necessarily consuming it directly, as with corn... and we're consuming a lot of it. So there you have it.

This is also interesting. He says, "A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don't have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants* are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn" (75). Further down he mentions how in Argentina, steaks are produced on nothing but grass. As they should be: cows eat grass; corn makes them terribly ill. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

*Ruminant (from American Oxford Dictionaries):
1) an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
2) a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.
From Latin ruminant- 'chewing over again,' from the verb ruminari, from rumen 'throat'.
Compare to ruminate: to "think deeply about something," from Latin ruminat- 'chewed over,' (American Oxford Dictionaries).

My comments at ELC's post:
Wow, thank you for this exciting review! I bought Pollan's book probably 2 and a half months ago for research, but since I needed to attend to library books first, I left his on my shelf, waiting. Your post inspired me to open it up and find those details. I couldn't find the one about the 4 or 5 plants we eat, but I did find some very interesting facts on corn and soy. I was surprised about soy being in that list until I read what he said, and realised it has penetrated our diets as an additive possibly moreso than as a directly consumed food. My soup tonight had soy in one or two forms in it, in addition to potatoes, potato starch, corn starch, and wheat. That would make everyone in my family terribly ill, with the exception of my dad and myself. I'm happy not to see anything chemical on there except MSG (cleverly disguised in its spelled-out form), although I have to wonder... what was genetically-modified? What was treated with pesticides? What was imported? I also wonder whether I'll buy that soup anymore. It wouldn't be hard to make my own. My mother always did.


Great post! And thanks for the trackback. I agree that it's appalling we force cows to eat corn.

I checked out "The Omnivore's Dilemma" from the library. The fear of overdue fines propelled me to get through some chapters that were hard to read (I wimped out and skipped the "Power Steer" sections). After reading "Fast Food Nation," I didn't think I could be affected by reading about the industrial food chain, but I was wrong.

I also highly recommend "Botany of Desire." The chapter on potatoes will change how you look at french fries forever.

No problem.

I have overdue fines, hehe, and left things til the last minute, got things out twice, etc. I haven't checked out "Botany of Desire," yet, but I'm curious to know what he says about potatoes. I've had some interesting experiences with potatoes, but the worst was at a restaurant that specializes in fries, and emphasizes their "double-fried, Belgian-style" technique. I was enormously sick within 30 - 45 minutes. I didn't eat fries after that for a long time.

Hmmm.. I was raised with MSG junkfood.. and I have to say, its a vice I'll probably never get rid of, though I dont indulge in it that often.