Gullible’s Travels: Our Puritan Dilemma

Americans obsess about food, and marketers feed off that obsession. It’s an unhealthy cycle that needs to end, Michael Pollan says.

By Denise Gee

Photography by Spencer J. Eggers

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But since 1980, the average American man, adjusted for age (a 30-year-old man then vs. now) has become 17 pounds heavier; the average woman, 19 pounds heavier. Pollan shakes his head. “That’s a very short amount of time to have such a dramatic increase in weight, especially when you’re cutting out fat.” What’s more, “we have some of the worst nutritional health in the world—the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and we’re right up there for heart disease.”

Also since 1980, Pollan says, each of us now consumes 300 more calories per day of refined carbohydrates. “So you can see how fixing on nutrients can lead you into psychological and marketing traps where you end up eating too much of whatever is good for you.”

Good and evil foods are constantly changing roles. One month, our nemesis is salt; the next, it’s sugar. Now it’s high-fructose corn syrup. We’re all over the map. “That should tell us something,” Pollan says. “We’re either eating the ruinous food and feeling guilty about it or we’re eating healthy food and feeling virtuous about it. But I submit to you that that’s a really bizarre way to think about food.”

And think about food we do. Each year, American supermarkets usher in 15,000 new products, most touting convenience and nutrition—but almost all with an emphasis on novelty, Pollan says.

Which brings us back to those supermarket bags of culinary curiosities.

Citing information in Food Technology magazine, Pollan notes that the current ideal for manufacturers is to “bring health-boosting ingredients into your food to capture the cognitive-decline market.” The SMU audience erupts in laughter. “They’ve got our number,” he says with a broad smile. “And guess what people who feel like they’re losing their memories or their marbles will do? Go to the supermarket and get a fix.”

So where does that leave us? On our own, really. “Nutrition science today—and this will sound uncharitable—is approximately where surgery was in the year 1650,” Pollan says. “It's really promising, really interesting to watch. But I think I’ll wait to get up on the table until they’ve made a few advances.”

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