The original edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual came out a little more than three years ago, in January 2009. Its publication immediately inspired readers to send Mr. Pollan suggestions for additional “rules.” Pollan notes in his introduction to the new illustrated edition of Food Rules (The Penguin Press, New York, 2011) that he wished he had thought of and included some of these additional rules. In addition, when he asked Slow Food USA to put out a solicitation to members online, “4,230 rules came back in a few days.” While pondering these suggestions for additional rules, Mr. Pollan was also considering “”doing something more visual with the rules, maybe a poster, as a way to reach as many people as possible.” Pollan’s wife Judith “hatched the idea” of asking Maira Kalman, the talented artist whose cover art and cartoons for the New Yorker Magazine has earned her a wide audience, to collaborate on the new edition. This wonderful new version of Food Rules, illustrated with humor and a colorful palette by Ms. Kalman, and an additional nineteen food rules (for a total of 83 food rules) is certain to achieve Mr. Pollan’s goal of reaching a wider audience for his remarkable book, which answers (succinctly, humorously, and bravely) one of the major questions of life: What should I eat? The answer to this vital question remains the same in the new edition: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Food Rules is organized into three sections which address a “different dimension of your eating life.” The first section, Eat Food, helps to distinguish real food (plants, animals, fungi) from “edible foodlike substances.” The second section, Mostly Plants, helps the reader to choose among real food. The third section, Not Too Much, deals with how rather than what to eat, with rules which help readers moderate their eating and enjoy food more.
For a book that has the authoritarian word Rules in its title, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules prompts smiles and chuckles and is a rulebook full of good cheer. Maira Kalman captures the overall tone by noting that Food Rules “asks us, gently, to hit the reset button on manufactured food and go back in Time.” The only note of sarcasm comes very early on when Pollan cannot resist noting: “What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” Of course, the good cheer of the author does not keep him from critiquing the Western diet “consisting of lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grains, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits and whole grains” [emphasis in original]. Mr. Pollan speaks plainly and bravely when he ties the “high rates of the so-called Western diseases: obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and cancer” to the Western diet of highly processed foods. According to Pollan, “Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet.” He emphasizes the fact that “People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health.” A staggering “three quarters of the $2 trillion plus we spend each year on health care in this country” goes to treating chronic diseases, when the focus should be on preventing them.
Mr. Pollan bemoans public health campaigns that, instead of targeting the American diet of processed foods, focus on “identifying the evil nutrient in the Western diet so that food manufacturers might tweak their products, thereby leaving the diet undisturbed, or so that pharmaceutical makers might develop and sell us an antidote for it.” This past fall, Mr. Pollan spoke to a full-house at a local college [knowwhereyourfoodcomesfrom.com/2011/10/26/michael-pollan-speaks-to-full-house-in-troy-ny/]. Strolling on to the stage with two bags of food just purchased at a nearby Price Chopper supermarket, Pollan began his talk by displaying to the attentive audience his supermarket purchases of “Products I haven’t seen before,” including a cereal “modeled on candy,” Reese’s Puffs Whole Grain . It was the “Whole Grain” designation on the colorful package that drew Mr. Pollan’s withering eye to lend support to his contention that the food industry borrows the halo of nutritionism to “muddy and confuse.” Instead of focusing on “nutritionism,” which now undergirds the marketing of so much processed food, Mr. Pollan presented a forceful argument that any traditional diet of real food is superior. In his view, why a carrot or an apple is good to eat is a continuing mystery. This mystery cannot be solved by merely analyzing the nutrients: A carrot is more than the sum of its nutrients.
In distinguishing “real” food from “edible foodlike substances,” it is no surprise that the first section of Food Rules is centered upon the rejection of processed foods or the foods produced by America’s industrial agriculture machine, which has perfected the economics of “processed foods” since, in Pollan’s words, “the more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes.” His criticism of “processed foods” is succinctly summarized:
“Not only can processing remove nutrients and add toxic chemicals, but it makes food more readily absorbable, which can be a problem for our insulin and fat metabolism. Also plastics used to package processed foods can present further health risks.”
Recent research by biochemist Barbara Corkey reported in Bostonia magazine suggests that food additives and other environmental factors may play a role in the biochemical changes that lead to diabetes. Dr. Corkey, the Boston University School of Medicine’s vice chair of research, “began her newest line of research by screening about 500 food additives for effects on liver, fat, or beta cell tissues.” Monoglycerides, a class of widely used emulsifiers found in processed baked goods and the artificial sweetener saccharin “made beta cells secrete insulin, but not in the normal way . . . Instead, the beta cells underwent some unexpected chemical changes and released molecules called reactive oxygen species, which have been implicated in cell damage, inflammation, and obesity.”
How to avoid these processed foodlike substances? Follow Rule 11, “Avoid foods you see advertised on television,” Rule 7, “Avoid food products containing ingredients a third-grader cannot pronounce,” and Rule 39, “Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.” In elaborating on Rule 1, “Eat Food,” Pollan emphasizes the extraordinary fact that there are 17,000 new products in supermarkets each year:
“Most . . . don’t deserve to be called food . . . They’re highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted.”
The success of these products is rooted in their appeal to the inborn human preferences for sweetness, fat and salt, which are tastes “cheap and easy for food scientists to deploy.”
Pollan’s perspective on the consumption of sugar is somewhat unexpected since he puts all types of sugar into the same “avoidance” category . Rule 4, “Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup,” is based “not because high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is any worse for you than sugar, but because it is, like many of the other unfamiliar ingredients in packaged foods, a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed . . . [and] it is being added to hundreds of foods that have not traditionally been sweetened.” Consequently, if HFCS is avoided, “you will cut down on your sugar intake.” Rule 5, “Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients,” closely complements Rule 4. Pollan notes that “sugar is sugar” and this rule applies to all forms:
“There are now some forty types of sugar used in processed food, including barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose, fructo-oligosaccharides, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, invert sugar, polydextrose, sucrose, turbinado sugar, and so on.”
Non caloric sweeteners “such as aspartame or Splenda” should also be avoided:
“Research (in both humans and animals) suggest that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss, for reasons not yet well understood. But it may be that deceiving the brain with the reward of sweetness stimulates a craving for even more sweetness.” Rule 38, “Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature,” provides some small way to satisfy the human craving for a sweet taste. The reasoning behind this rule makes sense: “In nature, sugars almost always come packaged with fiber, which slows their absorption and gives you a sense of satiety before you’ve ingested too many calories.”
Mostly Plants, the second section of Food Rules helps the reader to choose among “real food.” Pollan notes that “Vegetarians are notably healthier than carnivores and live longer” and undergirds Rule 25, “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves,” and Rule 26, “Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.” With the advent of more widespread hydroponic food production, Rule 33, “Eat well grown food from healthy soil” deserves special mention. Pollan elaborates:
“We now have a body of research supporting the hypothesis, first advanced by organic pioneers Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food: that is, food with higher levels of antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals.” [Maria Rodale’s Organic Manifesto is a book worthy of attention.]
In choosing what meat to eat “as a flavoring or special occasion food,” Rule 30 advises: “Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.” Pollan elaborates that food from animals with access to green plants “will contain much healthier types of fat . . .as well as appreciably higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.” [A study by agricultural experts at California State University (Chico) and Univeristy of California (Davis) recently confirmed the superiority of grass fed beef.]
Food Rules also notes the benefits of fermented foods with Rule 36, “Eat some foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.” Fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, soy sauce, kimchi, and sourdough bread, “have been transformed by live microorganisms” and “can be a good source of vitamin B12 . . . and probiotics which improve the function of the digestive and immune systems and . . . may help reduce allergic reactions and inflammation.”
Rule 51, “Enjoy drinks that have been caffeinated by nature, not food science,” was prompted by the book’s illustrator, Maira Kalman, who “thought there should be a rule about coffee.” Pollan explains: “Coffee and tea can make us happy, alert, and more energetic . . . and in fact the antioxidants in coffee and tea (as well as in chocolate, which also contains caffeine) may do us some good.”
The final section of Food Rules which deals with “how” to eat notes the French paradox: “a population that eats all sorts of supposedly lethal fatty foods, and washes them down with red wine, but which is nevertheless healthier, slimmer, and slightly longer lived than we are.” This paradox is rooted, according to Pollan, in the “completely different relationship to food” of the French: “They seldom snack, eat small portions from small plates, don’t go back for second helpings, and eat most of their food at long, leisurely meals shared with other people.” Perhaps one of the most difficult rules for the American eater is Rule 55, “Stop eating before you’re full.” A global diversity of sayings lends support to this rule.
“The Japanese on Okinawa have a saying- hara hachi bu– that counsels people to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. The Ayurvedic tradition in India advises eating until you are 75 percent full; the Chinese specify 70 percent, and the prophet Muhammad described a full belly as one that contained one third food and one third liquid- and one third air, i.e., nothing. . . there’s also a German expression that says: You need to tie off the sack before it gets completely full. . . Here again the French may have something to teach us. To say ‘I’m hungry’ in French you say J’ai faim– I have hunger, and when you are finished, you do not say that you are full, but Je n’ai plus faim– I have no more hunger.” Rule 57, “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re probably not hungry” has become a rule that pops into this reviewer’s mind almost on a daily basis.
A good case can be made that two rules coming near the very end of Food Rules (along with the governing standard of avoiding “manufactured” or “highly processed” foods) are the most important. Rule 82, “Cook,” is short and sweet. According to Pollan, “Cooking just might be the single most important thing you can do for your dietary health . . . Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and food processors, and to guarantee you’re eating real food rather than edible foodlike substances, with their unhealthy oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and surfeit of salt.” And Rule 81, “Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t,” inspires the reader to do something with his own hands. Michael Pollan explains the reason for the rule:
“To take part in the intricate and endlessly interesting processes of providing for your sustenance is the surest way to escape the culture of fast food and the values implicit in it: that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature. . . On a more practical level, you will eat what your garden produces, which will be the freshest, most nutritious produce obtainable; you will get exercise growing it . . . you will save money . . . .”
It is with special pleasure that I close this review by mentioning Rule 65, “Give some thought to where your food comes from.” Mr. Pollan includes a spiritual dimension to this rule of knowing where your food comes from:
To take a moment before a meal to reflect on the work, and the wonder, involved in the process that brings food from the earth to your table is to eat it with both more pleasure and more consciousness.
Michael Pollan and Maira Kalman deserve gratitude for this updated, illustrated Food Rules, a book to be treasured.
[Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual (The Penguin Press, New York, 2011)]
(Frank W. Barrie, 5/1/12)