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What is Ailing the American Diet?
UC Berkeley Professor Tracks Industrial and Organic Food Chain in New Book

Ioana Patringenaru | June 18, 2007

What should we eat? Author Michael Pollan came to La Jolla Tuesday and spent about 90 minutes trying to answer this deceptively simple question. He took his audience on a tour of the nation’s food supply, from industrial agriculture, to large organic grocery chains, to small sustainable farms.

Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan (Photo/Ken Light)

To find out what we should eat, we must first figure out what we’re eating now, said Pollan, a New York Times Magazine contributing writer. He has devoted his latest book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” to this very question. He spoke to a packed audience during a Revelle Forum talk sponsored by UCSD Extension at The Neurosciences Institute.

Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley, said he became interested in the subject after a New York Times Magazine piece published in July 2002 seemed to single-handedly change the way we eat. The story, titled “What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” skewered the low-fat, high-carbs diet recommended by scientists and enshrined in the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid. Almost overnight, bread and pasta were banished from the American diet, Pollan recalled. That’s when he realized Americans are suffering from a national eating disorder. He describes it as an “American paradox – that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

So what should we be eating? To answer this question, Pollan decided to follow the food chain from his plate all the way back to the farms and fields where his meat and vegetables were grown. In the process, he found an unexpected culprit for America’s nutritional ills: corn. More than a quarter of products in the average American supermarket now contain corn or its derivatives, Pollan points out. It can be found in everything from coffee whitener, to candy, toothpaste and even charcoal briquettes.

Corn also has become a staple ingredient in fast food. Pollan asked a UC Berkeley researcher to run a McDonald’s meal through a mass spectrometer to find the tell-tale signature of carbon atoms derived from corn. The results showed that a fast-food meal is, in the end, mostly corn. Sodas turned out to be 100 percent corn, milk shakes 78 percent, salad dressing 65 percent, chicken nuggets 56 percent and cheeseburgers 52 percent. Corn even turned up in French fries (23 percent).

What’s wrong with all this corn? For starters, it’s bad for the environment, Pollan said. Growing enough corn for the nation’s food supply takes a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, which leek into the soil and water table. One of these chemicals, atrazine, turns male frogs into hermaphrodites at a concentration of just one part per billion, he said. Chemicals flowing from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico have created a dead zone, where virtually nothing can live or grow, Pollan pointed out.

Also, a corn-based diet is bad for our health, he said. It’s now possible to eat too many calories and not get enough nutrients. For example, a clinic in Oakland is treating obese children who are suffering from rickets, a Vitamin D deficiency. These children are drinking more soda than milk, Pollan said. He had one piece of advice for his audience: “Don’t eat something that doesn’t rot.”

Industrial food and agriculture aren’t Pollan’s only targets. He also takes a long hard look at big organic grocery stores and the foods they sell. In his book, he followed Rosie, an organic free-range chicken, sold at Whole Foods and raised by Petaluma Poultry.  It turns out that Rosie lives in a barrack off Highway 101 with 20,000 other chickens. Pollan has to don a bio-hazard suit to meet her. Rosie doesn’t take antibiotics, so any contact with humans might make her sick. She’s supposed to be a free-range chicken, but is only allowed outside during the last two weeks of her life – again for fear of germs. “Free-range is not so much a life style as a vacation” for Rosie and her kin, Pollan said Tuesday. Still, Rosie is a better buy than chickens sold by industrial brands, he added. “Organic is a complicated story,” he also said.

Still, there is hope, he added. Pollan found a silver lining when he spent a week on a small Virginia farm. Owner Joel Salatin raises chicken, beef, rabbits, pigs, turkeys and sometimes sheep on 100 acres of open grass and 450 acres of woodland. By the end of the season, he gets a head-spinning 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits and 35,000 dozen eggs from his farm. And at the end of it all, his land is in better shape, Pollan said.

Salatin’s farm challenges the assumption that we have to diminish nature to get the food we need, Pollan said. For example, the cows and chickens help fertilize the soil with their manure and droppings. “The process feeds us, adds to the world and feeds the land,” Pollan said. He urged the audience to find the Salatins in their community.

Pollan’s talk earned rave reviews from the audience. “It just brought home a lot of what he said in his book,” said San Diego resident Lisa Goodin. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” changed the way she eats, she added. She won’t set foot at a mainstream grocery store. She does most of her grocery shopping at the Hillcrest Farmers Market. Her family became vegetarian for a while until she could find sustainable beef raised on a pasture, which she now buys at Whole Foods. She recently convinced a farmer at the market to raise a pig for her. She still can’t find local pasture-raised chicken, so she won’t eat any. “I would pay a lot of money for a chicken raised on a pasture,” she confided.

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