Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Omnivore's Dilemma

On Friday I posted a review of the book The United States of Arugula. Today I will be discussing this book:

** If I wanted to give a full review of this book I would probably take up ten posts worth of space. This post is not a review, but a summary of my thoughts about some of the topics brought up and candidly discussed in the book. Even this post is overly-simplified, but hopefully you'll read enough to entice you to read the book yourself. Specifically, Pollan's discussion on the ethical issues involved with eating animals was very interesting, yet not discussed in this review.**

On Wednesday of last week I presented some information from this book, along with information on navigating the grocery store, to a group of eighth graders at a local middle school. They were in the middle of reading the children's version of the book for class, which I thought was pretty fantastic.

This book really got me thinking. Since when do we need a label that told us that what we were buying is "REAL"? When did "real cheese" escape from our food supply? Apparently it's been happening very slowly, right in front of us, but we just don't seem to care.

At the beginning of my presentation to the eighth graders I talked about how years ago (early 1900s through the mid 1950s, I would guess) dietitians worked in hospital kitchens, mainly feeding sick patients (including many men of war), and serving food to customers of the hospital. Flash forward 50 years and now one of the primary roles of dietitians is to help people develop healthier diets, learn how to navigate grocery stores, understand food labels, and understand the basic concepts of healthy eating. Omnivores eat both meat and plants, and therefore have millions of different foods from which to choose for the thousands of meals they will eat in their lifetime. And in fact, this is "the omnivore's dilemma" in a nutshell. Back in the early 1900s, people didn't need RDs to tell them how to eat, because food was so much less complicated! Now it takes an hour to decide which type of yogurt, bread, or multivitamin to buy.

Source: iStock Photo

Speaking of multivitamins, we didn't even have these 70 years ago...so why the heck do we need them now?! If today we have access to the most healthy and nourishing foods, why are we fortifying our bodies with all of these extra vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, etc? Have you ever thought that maybe that is the reason for the rise in cancer deaths? Just a thought.....

Source: iStock Photo

I presented to 8 different groups of eighth graders and I asked each group; "how many of you drink vitamin water?". More than half of the students in each group raised their hands. The same was true, by the way, when I asked them if they drank Gatorade or Powerade. They were floored when I told them both drinks were really not as good for them as they had once thought. Check out this article to read more about teens and sports drink.

Further into my presentation I discussed some of the common myths about food and nutrition. First and foremost, high fructose corn syrup isn't necessarily BAD for you, but like the book implied, it's bad because it's so cheap and easily accessible. American's will eat more if given the opportunity (especially when the food is high fat and high sugar), and the corn industry has provided that opportunity to "get more for your money" and we're taking advantage. I discussed how HFCS is the scapegoat, because in reality any form of "added sugar" can cause health disparities when consumed in excess amounts, but it just so happens that HFCS is so freaking cheap, therefore it's found in just about every food (or at least some form of corn is found in every food....) therefore HFCS and corn are all of a sudden "the bad guys". By the way, here are some of the things that corn is turned into:

Corn syrup




di- tri- and mono-glycerides


Vegetable shortening

Citric acid


I think I shocked the kids when I told them CORN is actually one of my favorite foods.
Not necessarily the corn that is depicted so gruesomely in the book, but popcorn. Popcorn in it's simplest form, not microwaveable popcorn, which has been chemically altered and loaded with butter and salt. Do I frown upon the microwaveable popcorn? Not at all. Do I eat it, and other processed foods, in moderation? Absolutely. If all Americans did this, maybe we wouldn't have such an issue with obesity. But at the same time, as depicted in this book, if processed foods weren't so cheap, and if corn wasn't subsidized by our government, giving farmers more reason to produce more and more of it, maybe more American's would start eating more natural foods.

Speaking of the word "Natural", this word has been completely distorted in the past several years. You can buy a "natural" snack bar that contains some of the most unnatural ingredients; such as maltodextrin and lecithin (both are modified forms of corn, most often). As stated in the book, "Natural raspberry flavor doesn't mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may have been derived from corn, just not something synthetic" (Pollan). Check out Melinda's post to read more about the term "Natural", and how it's a complete misnomer, or read my post, here. I told the kids to look for foods with the least amount of ingredients possible, rather than seeking out "healthy" words on labels. These days, that's the only way you know you are getting something that is at least close to natural.

I actually brought a container of Ben and Jerry's ice cream to show the kids that just because something has a label that says, "All Natural", it doesn't mean it's healthy. Ironically that same night when I was on my computer I found this article about how Ben and Jerry's must now remove their "All Natural" label, due to the presence some unnatural ingredients. Wow, I'm impressed! Let's not stop there, ok? There are about ten thousand more products that seem to be misleading consumers by using this term.

Want all natural ice cream? Come to my kitchen!

What about organic? Surely our precious organic foods must be what they say. Right? Well yes. The term "organic" has a lot more meaning than the term "natural" and in fact the term "organic" is regulated. The sad thing is, however, "Even organic food has succumbed to the economic logic of processing" (Pollan), as you can now buy foods made with organic maltodextrin, corn starch, xantham gum; all of which are modified forms of corn, or other subsidized food crops.

"Organic agriculture has grown more successful, finding its way into the supermarket and the embrace of agribusiness, organic farming has increasingly come to resemble the industrial system it originally set out to replace...(Pollan)"

In regards to laws about organic foods:
"The USDA listened to arguments on both sides and finally ruled that (organic) dairy cows must have "access to pasture".... (Pollan) (as in, at some point during the day they are allowed to roam through the pasture, but most of the time it's a very short period of time....oh boy! How kind.)

"Along with the national list of permissible synthetics [such as ascorbic acid and xantham gum], "access to pasture", and for other organic animals, "access to the outdoors" indicate how the word "organic" has been stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and alternative"

So here are some closing thoughts I pass on to YOU:

"These days, we need food scientists to feed us." (Pollan)

Let's at least try to be our own food scientists more often....

Don't want to grow a garden? Let a local farmer do that for you, whenever possible.

"These days, 19% of American meals are eaten in the car."

Let's at least try to make those "in car meals/snacks" a bit more healthy, by planning ahead before going on trips, or even keeping healthy snacks in the car at all times, just in case. Fruits and veggies are always fabulous options.

Question: What's one thing you will do today to bring yourself closer to the land, and further from the food scientists?


  1. This is a great post-- I bet you really opened up those kids' eyes and surprised them with some of the information.

  2. great info. I can see how we complicate ourselves with our food. People from hundred years ago didn't have this problem because processed food was not available to them. they eat naturally and intuitively. I don't think it's a bad thing what we have today (advanced technologies) we just need to take some perspectives into the issue and not only listen/follow the mainstream. More education to children and even adult by people like you is sooo important! :)

  3. great info. I can see how we complicate ourselves with our food. People from hundred years ago didn't have this problem because processed food was not available to them. they eat naturally and intuitively. I don't think it's a bad thing what we have today (advanced technologies) we just need to take some perspectives into the issue and not only listen/follow the mainstream. More education to children and even adult by people like you is sooo important! :)

  4. great info. I can see how we complicate ourselves with our food. People from hundred years ago didn't have this problem because processed food was not available to them. they eat naturally and intuitively. I don't think it's a bad thing what we have today (advanced technologies) we just need to take some perspectives into the issue and not only listen/follow the mainstream. More education to children and even adult by people like you is sooo important! :)

  5. This is a very good summary of some of my favorite points from that book! I love Michael Pollan. I had no idea there was a kid's version of Omnivore's Dilemma. What a great idea! Sounds like you made a wonderful presentation to those kids.

  6. I just read a funny little piece of a guy who tried to break everyone of Michael Pollan's rules listed in "Food Rules" in one day. While it wasn't easy for him as a healthy foodie, it was easy to find the means to do so. Because these kinds of processed products are everywhere!! The guy ended up being strewn away from the un-Food Rules diet during the evening from the dandelion he spotted growing in his grass!

  7. 19% of meals in cars? Wow.

    I love that you addressed vitamin water and sports drinks with the 8th graders. So important! And thanks for reiterating that HFCS isn't the problem, but the portion and widespread use of it is. I read most of the book and found it fascinating. It's hard for even me to make all the "right" choices in the grocery store, especially when it comes down to cost. It's a shame that doing the best thing is the most costly thing in the short-term. It really derails so many from making the changes they want to see happen.

    Personally, this is why I cook so much. Not only do I know what I feed myself and Mark is healthier, I know EXACTLY what's in it. And changing things up so much keeps us enjoying our healthy lifestyle. If I were bored with what I was eating all the time, I would be eating in my car after buzzing through the drive-thru...not good!! I also garden, but you already knew that :)

    Great review, Gina!

  8. I have been trying to finish this book since April :(( I only have a few more chapters to go. Great post. Although I do still stop at whole foods, I am trying to make an effort to support more local farmers market!

  9. Such a great and informative post as always!! I def need to be visitng the farmers market more. I love the fact that I am personally supporting the folks I am buying from, and that their produce is all organic!

  10. The Omnivore's Dilemma is on my nightstand next in line to read. Right now I'm reading In Defense of Food. Yeah it's a Michael Pollan pile of books haha

  11. Great post! I have started reading that book and hope to finish it over Christmas break - when my school work disappears!

    I am going to the farmers market today to pick up my CSA - best thing I have done this year was to join one.

  12. thanks for sharing your thoughts! it really is such a shame that it can be so costly to buy real ingredients and make your own meals. prepackaged foods are so much cheaper, but cooking yourself is always tastier i think!!

  13. Loved this post!

    I just bought apples and potato from a farmers market which is one step closer to the farm:)

    Also, I think we need multivitamins today because we have easy access to a lot of unhealthy food. Unhealthy foods that weren't around 70 years ago. A lot of people eat at places like McDonalds multiple times a week and aren't getting the nutrients needed. If these people aren't getting what they need through food than they can just pop a pill. Than again, instead of helping to fix the problem of poor eating habits we are making it easy to maintain by taking a pill to get what you need.

    Okay, I'm rambling;)

  14. I definitely need to read this book, Food Politics, and US of Arugula! You've definitely inspired me to check these out, Gina! Thank goodness grocery stores have great dietitians like you to lead them through all of the crazy choices available.

    It's so neat that there's also a kids version of TOD...I'll be looking for that!

  15. THANK YOU for mentioning the "natural" bit. it frusterates me that marketers use that term because it dupes people into thinking they're eating healthy. (and they don't necessarily know what natural means, it just *sounds* good.) hey, on my last post we're talking about organic farming, i would LOVE to hear your thoughts!:)

  16. i started to listen to this in my car via commute but then got really angry at the narrator's voice so i stopped haha. but i remember an interview with pollan either on a morning show or maybe it was in his book but i liked when he said that one of the reason's american's are so obese is because of the availability of food! it's everywhere and meals and eating can happen everywhere and anytime of the day which i thought was an awesome observation

  17. Very interesting post... I find Michael Pollan to be a fascinating author.
    It's so weird to think of how much of the world has changed even since we were kids and even more so since before that. The options are limitless when it comes to food. It's crazy.
    I used to drink Vitamin Water until one day I realized how not great it was for me haha. I still am not a big supplement person. I wonder if they could cause cancer?

    Speaking of did you see the statement released by John Hopkins about things that make cancer cells grow etc? Someone printed it out at my work and it was very interesting...

  18. Great post! I was just talking to a coworker today about a local farmers market I wanted to visit. Once Cory and I buy a house with a yard, we definitely want to plant a veggie garden.

  19. Wow! I can't believe that statistic on how many meals are eaten in the car. Makes me want to set my alarm ten minutes early just to play it safe and have enough time for breakfast at home. Some mornings I'm rushing out the door and the car is my table. Fail.

  20. Gina, this is a great post! You take some of the biggest controversies in the food industry i.e. corn syrup and explain what it is that makes it "bad".

    Very cool that there's a book for kids, I'll have to look it up.

    Oh and I'm posting a link to this on my facebook page. Thanks for writing about the book.

  21. I think that is so cool that all those kids read the book, and how fun for you to do a presentation for them. I haven't Omnivore's Dilemma but it's on my list.

  22. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book. It is indeed a tough book to summarize quickly! Funny, I was just thinking about the "real cheese" phenomenon the other day while walking through the grocery store. How sad that we have to be enticed by words like "real cheese" or "made with real fruit". So glad you had the opportunity to talk with kids about all of this!

  23. This is why I love reading other dietitian's blogs! Such simple concepts and yet big corporations are SO misleading and making it harder and harder to just be REAL! Crazy. I just ordered In Defense of food to meet my CEU's for this year. I will try to do a similar review! I can't wait to read this book as well!

  24. I didn't know there is a children's version?! have to read this. It's amazing to me how we've evolved to all this processed crap and to see what these kids eat like it's no big deal. So many of the 8th graders I work with don't even eat breakfast or lunch and their choices of gatorade and chips saddens me to no end. We do a activity called 'think your drink' and every time I have to tell them that gatorade is not the best choice unless you are engaging in intense physical activity in the heat!
    Great post girl, I could tell you were at the edge of your seat and probably couldn't type fast enough to get the info out there :)

  25. Seriously great post. I love that we are on the same page about so much. Sometimes I feel like I am making stuff up because people look at me funny when I say things that I am supposed to be the expert on, so I am so glad when I hear others say the same thing. I don't feel so alone. I hope to get to read this book at some point. Thanks for the shout out and link. My thoughts post tomorrow will be about dietary supplements. I think I toned some of my thoughts down a little, but there is still some good ranting in there. I just finished writing it a little while ago so I think I am riled up a little now. So anyway, great post!

  26. That must have been such a cool experience teaching these kids! You used some awesome teaching points. I love it!

  27. Great post! I'm so glad you got to present to 8th graders! I think we can really make an impact on the next generation if we provide them with the right information.

    We talk a lot at home about "real food" and why fast food and processed food isn't good. The teenager saw "Food Inc." in high school, and it really made quite the impression on him (much more so than my repeated monologues about the subject...).

  28. Great post Gina! I've read the book, and while I agree with some of what Pollan says about our eating habits, you put things into realistic terms consumers can understand here. As RDs we know no two people can eat alike, and there are many ways to meet them halfway.

    I'm also a consultant to the Corn Refiner's Association, so I want to thank you for taking the blame from HFCS, and shifting it instead to individual choices and using moderation. HFCS has functional properties that make it an appealing sweetener in food processing. Misinformation about the product has made it the current scapegoat for our health problems. There's just as much cane sugar in our food supply (and just as much fructose in it) as HFCS, and by moving toward choosing more whole foods, we automatically reduce sugar intake.

    Inerestingly, I just spoke with several 7th grade classes and asked a similar questions - "How many of you have had an energy drink?" Everyone raised their hand! Then I asked "How many have one every week? Every day?" In each class of 25 there were at least 10 kids that consumed these weekly, and 1-2 that consumed them daily. Of course I continued on explaining how to make smart, healthy beverage choices, comparing a Mountain Dew to a Milk Chug. So, it's true - kids drink too many sodas (even skinny kids), and we need to address this poor behavior choice.

    It's not the HFCS, it's all caloric sweeteners and the sheer amount of poor choices made daily.

    I also agree with you here - We don't need to eliminate processed food, we need to limit how much of it we purchase for our households, and balance out using convenience foods with including "convenient" whole foods daily (there's no preparation to eating a banana or apple, or a handful of nuts for a snack).

    Thanks for a great post based in reality!

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