Food is everywhere, everyday, and in the news. So on page 3 of the deadtree Age this morning we see this (buried in the online edition):
Children’s advocates are claiming a victory … The Advertising Standards Bureau upheld the Cancer Council’s complaint about the [McDonald's] Happy Meal website, finding that it had breached several clauses of the voluntary code for advertising to children, including promoting unhealthy food choices by using characters and online interactive games aimed at children.
A long-standing [10 years] proposal to require all health claims on packaged food to be substantiated before they go on the market may have been derailed by the billion-dollar grocery industry, which is proposing that it be allowed to sell first, prove later. In a last-minute push, government and industry officials have floated the option of industry self-regulation of general health claims, a proposal consumer and health sources said was like the ”fox guarding the hen house”.
You’ll note that Macca’s breached a voluntary code, the kind of code the megagrocers want.
Last night, a highlight of the Wheeler Centre calendar took place with the writer Michael Pollan in Melbourne. The New York Times described him as a ”liberal foodie intellectual.” Which is perfectly why the Town Hall was packed to the rafters (@ $35 each). Constant Gardener muttered to me, “Do you think there is anyone left in Northcote?” There was a certain vibe of earnest righteousness, a sort of wholegrainy goodness.
Pollan is angular and very tall and thin, and speaks very fast like the New York native that he is. Fast enough to single-handedly hold the crowd for an hour; a professional comedian could not have entertained more vivaciously. His goal, he said, was ambitious. It was to clear the fog on how to eat to remain healthy, in line with ethical values.
A while back I read his book In Defence of Food on a long plane flight, in which he rehearsed his arguments at length. The evening was an unplugged performance of this manifesto. Pollan’s delivery is very smart — rather than adopt an activist’s anger he channels his passion into an acerbic glee.
He patted us on having read that 80% of our food was in the hands of the supermarkets: Nice going! Stats indicate that 1 in 3 of American kids were going to become obese and suffer Type 2 diabetes. You’re catching up, congratulations!
His main theme was the question: “What is food and what is this other stuff?” He wouldn’t dignify it with the name of food, and called them “edible food-like substances.” For which he had brought his shopping: a pile of packaged foods which ingredients he read out to hilarity: Oats with Omega 3! Oats with Fibre! Oats for Women with anti-oxidants! He brought out fruit roll-ups. We have this in the US too, he said, Sugar roll-ups.
It wasn’t all polished comedy. He delved into the mysteries of food science (We don’t know what is in the soul of a carrot that makes it good for you, riffing on carotene), into the agri-industrial complex, into the coming health crisis, into, most of all, the place where he thinks we can find the most resources to fight back, tradition and food culture: Before science we had culture. And that’s a fancy word for your mom, and what she tells you.
Food, he tells us, is about pleasure, about community, about identity (the non-pork eating tribe, the raw fish eating tribe…). One of the most interesting asides he made was about how diverse healthy diet/lifestyles can be — the Inuit who eat so much animal fat; the Masai who eat a lot of meat and drink blood and eat hardly any vegetables; the Aboriginal diet of old — all of them work, and you have to work for all of them.
He has collected sayings, this one from both a Jewish and an Italian grandmother: The whiter the bread the sooner you’ll be dead. From old sayings of the Chinese, Japanese and the prophet Mohammed: Eat only until you’re — 2/3 (or) 3/4 (or) 4/5 — full.
This one apt for his home office situation: If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not hungry. Or, eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored. – Don’t buy anything with more than five or six ingredients. — Don’t buy food with ingredients a grade 3 child cannot pronounce. — Don’t buy cereals that change the colour of the milk. – Anything your grandmother doesn’t recognise as food probably isn’t. Etc.
Eat as much junk food as you like as long as you make it yourself. (A point about how labour intensive so many foods are, and how that’s been shortcut by the market-industrial process.)
He tells a story from a transplant cardiologist, how at the exit interview with the surgery patient, instead of offering a prescriton for lipitor et al he gives them a recipe, how to get three meals from a chicken. Pollan’s biggest point is: Cook! Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to take back control of your diet from the food scientists and the food processors and to guarantee that you’re eating real food rather than edible food-like substances.
The seven word mantra he left us with is: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
It was wholesome fun. I recommend his book.