Q& A | Michael Pollan

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

You're standing in the supermarket contemplating a nice warm-weather meal -- maybe grilled fish or chicken and salad. But you worry: Is there any local or organic produce, or does that even matter? Is the salmon wild, or does it come from those fish farms that you hear might not be clean? Were the chickens raised in crowded cages and fed yellow dye? And what about the margarines, cookies and crackers that used to have all those trans fats, but you're not totally sure what trans fats are and why they're bad for you.

In America these days, deciding what to eat is a real problem, says writer Michael Pollan. An abundance of foods tempts us. Multimillion-dollar food marketing and the latest scientific finds (or fads) muddle our thinking. And we don't have centuries of traditional eating patterns to help guide our choices. In the midst of that confusion, we've become heavier and less healthy every year.

To figure out guidelines for what we should eat, Pollan set out on a five-year journey to learn more about where the foods we eat come from and just how safe they are. The result is his new "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Press, $26.95). Staff writer Judith Weinraub recently asked Pollan to interpret some of his findings.

Your initial question was "what should we eat?" How did you go about your research?

Before I could figure that out, I had to know what I was eating. So I did the food detective work to trace what was on my plate.

You went all over the country tracking American food -- to a cornfield in Iowa, a feedlot in Kansas, organic farms, McDonald's. You even hunted, gathered and grew food for a single meal. Was there anything in particular that surprised you?

All that food, that seeming cornucopia of variety, kept taking me back to the cornfield in Iowa. So I followed a bushel of corn to see what you can make from it. I had no idea how much of our industrial system was based on corn, and turning corn into meat and processed food.

What are the implications of having such a corn-based diet?

Environmentally, it's dangerous to eat so much of one thing. Nature teaches us not to put all our eggs in one basket. Think of the Irish and the potato famine [in the 1840s]. One day a blight attacked their potato crop, and a million people died. The only way to keep a food monoculture going is with lots of chemicals -- they need more pesticides and fertilizer than mixed-cropped farms.

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