Friday, February 8, 2008

What do we eat now?

I recently finished reading the book by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Yeah, I know I am a little behind the times. The book was released in 2006 but a figured it could be revisited because his newest book came out last month and is a follow-up to Omnivore's Dilemma.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan investigates the American food system to find out what we should have for dinner. He examines both industrial and organic foods in addition to hunting and gathering for food. Pollan visits the corn farm in Iowa, the feedlots in Kansas, organic farms in California, a pastoral farm in Virginia, a free range chicken farm and even a fast-food restaurant to learn the difference between industrial, organic and pastural farming and ultimately finds out what goes into our food.

Although, Pollan does not end with a definitive answer of what we should eat (he saves that for his next book, In Defense of Food: A Eater's Manifesto, which I have not finished yet), you are left with such a distaste for the American food system that you have trouble eating anything without throughly examining its ingredients, origins and process by which it was produced or farmed.

Never in my life did I read a book that has forced me to make changes in my eating and shopping habits. Until this one.

So what did I learn? What can you take away from me reading Pollan's book? A few key things:

1. Corn is evil. Well, not exactly. Corn on the cob is still good. But most of the corn grown in the U.S. is either fed to animals which where not meant to eat corn in the first place or made into high fructose corn syrup, corn oil or a derivative and then used in some highly processed food such as soda. Laboratory analysis as reported by Pollan revealed that soda from McDonald's, a.k.a. Coca-Cola, is made of 100% corn!

2. Avoid industrial beef as much as possible which is fed a mixture of corn and antibiotics. Cows stomachs cannot digest corn so they are given antibiotics to ward off bacteria in the gut and other diseases from living in such close quarters. Chickens are no better.  

3. Free-range chickens do not exercise their option to roam free. They are given two weeks to exit their living quarters through tiny doors on each end of their home the size of a football field. None of them do.

4. Our food system uses way to much fossil fuel. For every calorie of process food it takes 10 calories of petroleum energy. A McDonald's meal for Pollan's family of three was a total 4,510 calories. "To grow and process those 4,510 food calories took at least 10 time as many calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil." *  Petroleum is used from the start of the food process at the farm, for fertilizer, transport and then processing and cooking to serving.

5. Organic foods are the lesser of the evils.  Although organic farmed food is much better for the environment and our health, many of the organic foods travel a very long distance to get to our grocery stores from farms in South and Central American and other far off places using a lot of fossil fuel to transport.

6. Locally grown foods seems to be the way to the way to go.  The best organic foods are the ones grown closest to home.  It is estimated that some food travels more that 2,000 miles from pasture to plate.  Eating locally grown food means less fossil fuels burned in transport and preparation.  Better for the environment, better for your health, and better for the community.


cog4444 said...

Omnivore Dilemma should be required reading for all Americans. If someone was thinking about if they should buy organic (or even better, local) or if they only buy organic sometimes, this book will push them to do it exclusively. It's better for our health and the planet. Michael Pollan is smart, funny and well informed.

Suze said...

How Do you know if you are buying local or shipped in NYC?

Melissa said...

suze -- most food is shipped in to NYC. however, living in NYC, you happen to have farmers markets all year round who carry locally grown foods. those of us who live in the suburbs do not have that option. the council on the environment for new york city lists the farmers markets in New York City. Use this link. -- good luck