Presenting a writer with no scientific background as an expert on food and nutrition might not seem like a prudent editorial decision for a major network newscast, but ABC’s “Nightline” did it anyway.
In a May 8 segment, reporter John Donvan gobbled up the anti-food industry propaganda of Michael Pollan, a writer and journalism professor who is a long time critic of “agribusiness.” (But you wouldn’t know Pollan’s history from Donvan’s segment.)
“There is food and there is what I call ‘edible food-like substances,’” Pollan said. “These are things we invented in the last 50 years or so that, you know, smell like food, taste like food, look like food, but they’re very different than the kinds of things people ate 100 years ago.”
Pollan, who recently published his latest book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” advocates returning to an all-organic diet and offers tips for healthy eating such as not eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.
Donvan even joined Pollan’s attack on processed and packaged foods, proposing to his subject that “it’s the edible equivalent of waxed fruit, is what you’re saying.”
Pollan praised “the authority of mom” and lamented that “the holders of culture when it comes to food (mothers) have been undermined by both the scientists and the food marketers.”
“If she picked up a box of Gogurt portable yogurt tubes, would she recognize this?” Pollan asked. “I don’t think she would.”
And, he says, stay away from the middle of the supermarket where you’ll find the processed foods. “It’s in the peripheries where the food that has been the least fiddled with in the last 75 years is found, so the fresh fruits and vegetables, the meat, the fish, the dairy products. And in the middle is where you get all the kind of imperishable processed foods.”
Donvan joined with Pollan in slamming scientists and “food marketers” who support health foods that fit in with popular diet trends. “The problem with that being that sometimes scientists are not working with all the information they need,” Donvan said.
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“In Defense of Food” isn’t Pollan’s first foray into anti-industry activism. One of his previous books, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” also slams “agribusiness” and the fast-food industry. According to reviews, that book even slams what Pollan calls “Big Organic,” instead praising small independent farms.
In another Times report, Pollan praised rising food prices – a result of increased demand for corn as ethanol mandates hoard supply – because, he said, they will “level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”
Donvan’s segment offered no input from the food industry to defend itself, nor nutritionists who might disagree with Pollan’s claims. One glimmer of balance appeared during the discussion of organic food when Donvan recognized a major downside: cost.
“You think the average person can afford to eat well?” Donvan asked.
“You know, it’s a problem. Real food costs more than edible food-like substances, by and large,” Pollan said, encouraging people who can’t afford pricier food to deal with it. “I think we need to begin to spend more on food, both in terms of money and time. I know that’s not a popular message. People like their convenience food. But this experiment of outsourcing our food preparation to corporations has failed us. I mean it’s left us really unhealthy and really unsatisfied and I think it’s undermined family life and undermined community.”