Monday, January 4, 2010

The Omnivores Dilemma = Required Reading

I picked up this book, "The Omnivores Dilemma" after watching the documentary "Food Inc." What I was expecting was a text book like march through the controversy surrounding the American food industry. What I found instead, was a mind bending thriller, which threw me from page to page, challenging my way of life and causing me to pause, several times, get up and look at the ingredients listed on the side panels of the food I hand to my children every day (AAHH! Chicken nuggets are EVIL!!).

The most interesting part of the book is all about the corn (and soy) industry. An industry subsidized with tax payer's money, to the point that the actual farmers could not survive without the supplemented money. The mantra of more, more, more, drives the mentality of the farmer, letting concepts such as nutrition, quality, and sustainability, become neglected to the extent that they are not even part of the equation anymore.

You know that thing that happens when you learn a new word, and then no less than 2 weeks later, you hear that word again and think "If I hadn't learned that word two weeks ago, I would have never noticed it this time around. I would have just passed over it." That happened to me, in a way, with this book. Pollan talks about the quality of an egg at a farm called Polyface farms. He talks about the bright orange color of the yolk and how it would stand up straight and tall due to the nutritional diet and general happiness of the chicken that had laid it. I had two cartons of eggs. One of the "organic" Costco variety and one from a barn raised, cage free,  family farm in Rippon CA. I never would have noticed prior to reading this book, but there was a world of difference between these two eggs. As I cracked the "organic" Costco egg onto my griddle, the yolk was a pale yellow color and fell flat with the egg white, while the family farm egg had the same qualities Pollan talked about with the Polyface egg, bright orange and strong.

Pollan not only calls into question the industrial food industry, but also the new big industrial organic food industry and how it may suffer from many of the same ailments as it's conventional counterpart.

Why shouldn't I know where the food I eat comes from. I get that some things you just can't get local. Some things you don't need too. Coffee, sugar, tea, other dry goods with naturally long shelf lives, but it is still important to know who the companies are, and be able to hold them accountable to a high standard of cleanliness and ensure they are using sustainable practices. Do we need more government intervention? New safety standards? Or how about a whole new rule book, that does not set the standard of success based on quantity, but instead on purity and sustainability.

But until then, I will begin to hunt for local food, from people I can talk to, from farms and ranches I can visit and evaluate myself. Of course I still have a LONG way to go with all of this. There is still a box of C&H refined sugar in my cupboard, there is still a couple pounds of Kirkland Beef in my freezer. I don't expect that I will suddenly be able to just shut down everything and switch over to an entirely local/seasonal diet. That would not be realistic at all. After all, I have been living at the whim of the industrial food market for 29 years now. No, this does not call for instant and extreme measures. This calls for a well thought transition to a more sustainable, local, seasonal diet.


  1. You must see the movie "King Corn"...we didn't have anything in our house with corn syrup in it before this film, but it sure solidified the decision afterwards - it's fascinating and will make you want to know more about the Farm Bill, which Pollan talks a lot about, too.

    - Jenn Wong

  2. I watched that one too, it had a lot of good info. The thing that shocked me so much is finding out just how many ingredients are just some other name for a corn product. I was looking at a jar of "organic" sour cream the other day and saw that it had xantham gum in it, which is just corn apparently, and organic corn at that :) I opted for the non organic "Daisy" brand, because it only had one ingredient. I placed a higher value on that, then the word organic on the label.

  3. Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is similar. The book that's rocking my world right now is Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Check it out sometime.
    I have made an adjustment in food choices already, but a friend shared a thought the other day that is sad. She is a big fan of eating local and seasonal, but she said that if EVERYONE did that and only purchased items made in the USA... well, just think about to whom our country owes our trillions of dollars in debt. I shudder to think what would happen to our country if we stopped supporting the ones who enable all Americans to live such an extravagant life. (Not that I want an extravagant life, but I think the consequences might be far from extravagant).

  4. Thats an interesting point, like I said, this is definitely something that needs a lot of thought, discussion and planning. Obviously we all are not ready to just suddenly change our entire way of aquiring the food we live on. Having said that China, Japan, the U.K. and Brazil own most of the U.S. Debt. With the exception of Brazil we don't really get much meat or vegetables from any of the others. Unless it is some specialty item or dry/preseved/fermented/canned good, which is fine and important to import in my opinion anyway.

  5. Kingsolver writes that eating locally and seasonally (from sustainable farming) is also in support of conserving and renewing our earth's resources due to the amount of fuel used to import goods to our country.
    I don't mean to sound argumentative - I am a huge fan of eating locally and seasonally, of being a good steward of my body and of the earth. I am just in shock at the hole our country has dug for itself. If everyone changed their consumer habits to what was most healthy and beneficial, this economy would crumble. Is it possible to still move toward the ideal and change it slowly? I guess I can only continue to try to do what is good and right, but the reality is we (or our children) will still have to pay for the poor choices made in the past.
    Shifting slightly, it is also a dilemma to be made aware, to desire to feed my family foods that are natural and good, and yet need to stick to a strict budget that necessitates the purchase of cheaper items to make sure there is always food on the table. Do I give my child milk that has been pasteurized and homogenized so that Vitamin D needs to be added back into the milk because it has been cooked out and no longer has the healthy bacteria my child needs, and potentially contains hormones my child shouldn't have ... or do I give my child no milk at all (now that he asks for it 5 times a day)? Is it natural or good for him to be drinking milk from an animal that is no longer nursing infants at all?

    I have derailed your train.

    It was a good and well-written post. Continue the journey, and thanks for sharing.

  6. No, I think its great, derail away! I'm always interested to hear other angles and different ways to think about something. The milk thing is what we are dealing with right now. We have started buying the good stuff, but the when the kids don't finish a glass I freak out ("Thats like a dollar of milk!!"), so I totally get where you are coming from. One of the most interesting parts of this book was when Pollan starts talking about our nations eating disorder, how we have no national cuisine to fall back on, like France or Italy, who know what to eat and when to eat, based on their culture not because the government gave them a fancy food triangle to live from. They trust their bodies, their history and their food culture, developed over generations to guide their eating habits, and they are healthier for it. He states that not only is it what we eat that is important, but how happy we are with eating and how we go about eating (slowly/socially) that are equally (or more) important.

    As far as how far gone our food system in here, I totally agree. But I think that we definitely have to push towards the ideal and let the economy work itself out. If there is one thing we don't have to worry about, it's people figuring out how to profit and there is plenty of money to be made in a more localized food market. Feel free to "argue" anytime, I love it.

  7. I think you would like Nourishing Traditions. It talks about those national food traditions that involve "whole foods" instead of processed. It offers an approach to food different than a food pyramid. It's food categories are Nourishing Traditional Foods (in their most raw and natural form) from which one should mostly eat, and a variety depending on ethnic culture and indigenous food availability, Compromise Foods which includes much of what we probably are used to eating, say from Whole Foods or Trader Joe's (un-refined, additive free, etc.), and should be eaten in moderate amounts, and then Newfangled Foods which includes all the processed, fortified, ultra-pasteurized, preservatives "junk" (especially fat-free & low-fat "foods") and should really just be avoided. (Sadly, coffee falls under the last group.) The majority of the book is actually a cookbook, teaching to cook the "old-fashioned" way, but gives tid-bits throughout the book about how "primitive" cultures have always and still innately know that the more natural the food, the healthier.

  8. I probably would like that. Though the whole raw food argument gets lost on me. Even cooking food is turning that raw ingredient into "processed food." A lot of it is actually just overcoming a plant of animal's natural chemical defense, or preventing natures disposal system. But the "Newfangled foods" are the ones I can do without for sure. How is coffee in that category? Just a roasted coffee bean and water right? Are you saying if you add stuff, or do the beans themselves have additives and methods of processing that I am not familiar with? I drink my coffee black, strong and in small quanitities, once a day.

  9. Love your blog and this discussion! I am right there with you in my journey towards making wiser decisions and yet having to battle the limits of our budget. Here's another book you might like to check out or you could borrow from us if you'd like on choosing the best fruits & veges:

    How to Pick A Peach: The Search For Flavor from Farm to Table by Russ Parsons

  10. To answer your question about coffee... it's just about feeding your body what is beneficial. The affects of caffeine on the body are deemed unhealthy. Supposedly long-term use puts the body at risk for diseases. I won't go into detail here. It's a little depressing, and my husband would love for me to quit drinking the stuff altogether. Chocolate is included. I probably should shift into only having coffee on special occasions instead of my habitual every day addiction.

  11. That is interesting. I consider coffee a health food. Harvard Medical, Mayo Clinic and various sources on WebMD have posted studies that indicate there is an ever growing list of health benefits to drinking coffee on a daily basis. The list of diseases that it can help prevent seems endless. Check some of these links. Is the study you are citing from the book you mentioned?