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The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Michael Pollan’s Take on Food

October 27, 2011

The Omnivore's DilemmaLast week I took part in an event called The Omnivore’s Forum at the Fieldston Middle School in Riverdale. Over the summer the middle school students read the Young Readers Edition of Michael Pollan’s well-known book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. To foster discussion about the book, the school organized a forum for students to participate in food-related workshops led by people connected to the food industry. In addition to dietitians and food writers like myself, other presenters included chefs, farmers, bread and cheese makers, and food pantry coordinators. Beyond educating students about what we do professionally, the point of the workshops was to discuss ethical considerations in our line of work and to engage the students in a food-related activity.

In my workshops I asked the students to share whether their decisions about what to eat changed after reading the book. I was particularly interested in hearing their responses because I know many adults who took a very black and white view about food after reading the book. There was quite a mix of responses from the students who participated. Some said that their parents threw out all the “junk” in their house and will only buy organic food since reading the book. Others said that they understood Pollan’s points, but organic food is too expensive and it’s not realistic to eat only organic. There were also students who said they don’t want to give up eating certain foods they love because they taste too good. It was quite interesting to hear their different viewpoints, and I was happy to hear that most of the students don’t look at food as “good” vs “bad.” I wish some of their parents and adults I know could have been in the classroom!

Interestingly, the day before the forum, I read an interview with Pollan in which his point of view was slightly different than before. In the past, Pollan has been vocal about saying that certain foods are not good for us (especially those made with corn), but in the interview he seems to be taking more of a moderate stance. When asked specifically about high-fructose corn syrup Pollan said the following:

“I’ve done a lot to demonize it…And people took away the message that there was something intrinsically wrong with it. A lot of research says this isn’t the case.”

With regard to food in general he also said:

“We obsess about a small group of evil nutrients, and a small group of blessed nutrients, and every generation has an evolving cast of characters…And eventually, the fates of those nutrients will completely reverse.”

“The all-or-nothing approach is a dead end…Beware of products with labels that brag about the inclusion or exclusion of “good for you” or “evil” ingredients.”

I was happy to see that Pollan is speaking out against an “all-or-nothing” approach. I have always taken the view that all foods fit in moderation and that saying certain foods are off-limits is not a realistic approach, nor is it conducive to helping people eat better and be healthier.

Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? Did it change the way you eat?

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  1. People need to keep in mind that selling food is a business. So money is the most important thing to them. If they can sell you food that makes you crave more food and become fatter, then it is better for their business. They want as much of your money as they can get. There are many healthy sweeteners that can be used insted of HFCS.

    1. While I agree that selling food is a business and people need to be aware of advertising and claims made on packages, I think you are perpetuating the myth that HFCS is less healthy than other sweeteners. Numerous studies have shown, and there has been consensus amongst those in the field of nutrition and food science, that HFCS provides the same number of calories and is metabolized similarly to other caloric sweeteners like sugar.