Keith Akers's Reviews > In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
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's review
Dec 28, 2009

did not like it
Read in December, 2009

I came to this book predisposed to give it 3 or 4 stars. The subtitle, "Eat Food, not too much, mostly plants" sounded like something that (as a vegan) I could get behind, even if Pollan himself isn't vegetarian. I liked "The Botany of Desire," and also am liking "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (haven't finished yet).

This book is well written and contains much that I agree with. But it's not in the same category as these others because of his attitude towards science. Michael Pollan can do better.

The reason for the low rating is that Pollan has essentially trashed science in favor of a vague admonition to eat foods that your great-grandmother would recognize as food. In other words, science is no help here. It's true that science is addled with "nutritionism," as Pollan correctly points out, which is called "scientific reductionism" by T. Colin Campbell. It's also true that the studies are contradictory and often badly done. But this no reason to trash the scientific method: instead, look at the science and try to figure out what's wrong.

As I read through the book, I asked myself, "I wonder what Pollan is going to say about 'The China Study'?" T. Colin Campbell specifically refutes one of Pollan's key contentions, about not eating too much contributing to obesity. Campbell shows that the Chinese eat substantially more calories and yet weigh less. I don't think this can all be attributed to exercise and if Pollan had bothered to read this book I think he could have seen why. Campbell also has some other points which bear on what Pollan says. Pollan has references to "The China Study" but these are clearly added at the behest of his fact-checker. It's clear to me that he hasn't read "The China Study" himself!

My grandmother, Naomi Woodroof, was a food scientist. This book is an insult to the memory of my grandmother and our intelligence. Pollan's cavalier attitude towards science, in my view, negates all the positive aspects of this book. [/Rant off:]
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Vegetarian I see, too, that you wrote the review of your famous grandmother, Naomi Chapman Woodroof. Nice! She knew a few important things about food, to be sure!

Barry I think his attitude toward science is a little more complicated than you give him credit for. He is not writing to a science audience but a general audience of consumers. He is telling his consumers to pay less attention to the science and what is in the food and more attention to the food itself-- to choose real food instead of food products. It's clear that Pollan cares about the science of food and that good things can come of it, but consumers do not have to pulled into a word game that does not benefit them. Instead of looking for foods that claim to be "lo-calorie," a health snack," or have potassium, look for the tomato. While it is true he states to be wary of science and health claims by institutions or even scientists, it is still clear he depends on it and has reverence for it throughout the book and does not leave it on the curbside.

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