Anyone who is a food scientist has probably been the target of uninformed accusations related to what the accuser seems to think we do or don’t do in our food science laboratories. We make “processed” foods, try to figure out ways to get more preservatives in our food to extend the shelf life and, somehow we are also responsible for the way every single animal is treated and slaughtered, both the organic and non organic ones. I can spot these conversations a mile away, and they usually start with someone giving me the evil eye and asking me if I have seen the Food Inc. movie or read Fast Food Nation or accuse me or my peeps (my food science peeps) of putting HFCS in everything.

I try not to get too involved in these discussions because I know that anyone buying their prepackaged organic products (that are, by the way…. PROCESSED) won’t believe me because food science is what I do all day long so I am only a part of the problem, not the solution!

But the other day I was at the Warming Hut, a gift shop at the base of the golden gate bridge that sells eco friendly gifts and wholesome processed foods to locals and tourists and picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules An Eater’s Manual.  I know Michael has been praised by the NY Times and James Beard and many other important foodies and chefs but I found this book frustrating because it is filled with lies and contradictions that even a freshman who has only taken food science 101 would recognize and roll their eyes at.  I know the intro to his book points out that he did not write all the rules but gathered them from his audiences and so forth, but at the end of the day, it’s his name on the front, so as far as I can see, he at least approved and agreed to them.  

So… in defense of food science I feel that I must defend the field and comment on a few of Michael’s rules that are untrue, misleading and what I consider to be part of the bigger problem, the problem of misconceptions in food manufacturing-and not part of the solution!

Rule # 2 Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food

My great grandmother wouldn’t recognize lots of things that are in the supermarket today, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat them today.

Rule # 3 Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry-like xanthan gum

What’s wrong with Xanthan? They sell it at Whole Foods, it’s a naturally fermented product that just happens to thicken food and emulsify salad dressing. It’s also approved in the USA, Europe, Canada and other countries.

Rule #8 Avoid food products that make health claims –Pollen says “for a product to carry a health claim on its package, it must first have a package, so right off the bat it’s more likely to be a processed rather than a whole food”. He then continues to say “Then only the big food manufacturers have the wherewithal to secure FDA approved health claims for their products and then trumpet them to the world”. This is not true. Lots of companies make health claims, and not just the big companies that have wherewithal to secure FDA approved claims. The FDA has a pretty specific list of rules when it comes to health claims and anyone who makes a claim has to follow their rules! Sometimes companies get caught for posting misleading rules, but there are also lots of times when someone wants to be informed of what a certain “packaged” product contains-because maybe they don’t know and maybe it will help them deal with their own vitamin deficiencies…. So I say, don’t AVOID health claim packages-but perhaps you can double check to make sure they are accurate and if they are not accurate, you can report them to the FDA and eventually maybe all health claims will be valid ones.

Rule #9 Avoid food products with the word “lite” or the terms low-fat or nonfat in their names

Pollen elaborates here on how people replaced their fat with carbohydrates and got fat-but that’s not the fault of the low fat product, that’s the fault of the person that just ate too much of it! People should take responsibility for their actions and what they eat.

Rule #10 Avoid foods that are pretending to be something that they are not.

Pollen includes on his list soy based mock meats and fake starches. I don’t know what a fake starch is, but I think mushroom meatballs are very tasty. I also like the mock chopped liver that my grandmother used to make with hard boiled eggs and walnuts.

Rule #13 Eat only foods that eventually will rot (via the fungus and bacteria that get to it before we do).

Pollen says that “food processing” extends shelf life by protecting the food from our competitors by removing nutrients that attract the competitors. Huh?  Last I checked, food preservation is mostly related to inhibiting the bacteria with salt, sugar, freezing, heat, pH and dehydration. We do what we can to create a hostile environment for the bacteria so the food will last longer for us. Canned foods,  salted meats, frozen vegetables-these are all foods that can be stored for a long time that will not necessarily rot and they probably still have a lot of their nutrients … AND I think my great grandmother ate them too!

Rule # 17 Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans

Pollen says only eat food made by humans, not by corporations because they cook with too much fat, sugar, salt and preservatives. Last I checked, there are plenty of packaged products that have reduced sodium, reduced fat, and that are made with minimal preservatives. There are also plenty of humans that cook with too much of everything.  I like eating organic frozen meals sometimes and I can easily find varieties that have lots of vegetables, low sodium, low sugar and not too many preservatives (except for the fact that it is frozen… which is, in itself a preservative I guess…)

Rule # 18 Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap

I wonder if Pollen also is anti HACCP, anti GMP’s (good manufacturing practices) and anti lots of things that help keep our food clean and free of hair and germs.

Rule # 19 If it came from a plant, eat it, if it was made in a plant, don’t

I am busy… too busy to grow all my own food and too busy to shop every single day. I like to buy frozen vegetables and yogurt and thermally processed foods and pasteurized apple sauce. All that stuff was made in a manufacturing plant.  There is nothing wrong with it.

Rule # 20 It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car

This rule is just silly-there are lots of restaurant chains that offer wholesome healthy choices, many of which can be delivered to the window of your car. Just because its mass production, does not mean its bad for you!

Rule # 28 If you have the space-buy a freezer

This contradicts everything Pollen said earlier about eating food that will rot. If you freeze it, it won’t rot and will last-and contradicts rule # 13.

Rule # 33 Eat some food that has been predigested by bacteria or fungus

This also contradicts rule # 13 and… Pollen already was dissing on xanthan, which is a predigested sugar.

Rule # 41 Eat like the French, Japanese, Italians or Greeks

We do eat like them already-we are the melting pot after all! And the rest of the world is not so perfect.. they eat lots of junk food in Europe and have just as much processed stuff as we do.

I know that Pollen is trying to make a point but he always seems to make his point by using the activities of the food scientists as examples of all that is bad in the food industry. He never mentions all of the good that we do and that we try to do –to help create better products for the marketplace. People are busy and don’t have time to buy all their produce at the farmers market and cook everything from scratch. Some of us have to buy stuff that was manufactured by company or from the frozen section of the supermarket. Food scientists are creating healthier selections all the time and as technology improves we are able to use natural preservation methods like HEAT (aseptic, pasteurization) and water removal (dehydration) to extend product shelf life. It’s not always all about adding chemicals and using our “chemistry set”. I have been doing R&D for years and have worked in yogurt, tomato sauce, and “acidified food” production. I rarely use chemicals in anything that I develop yet the products I make are processed and can be bought in the supermarket.

I think Pollen owes us a thank you –I eagerly await it! In the meantime I am working on my own set of rules –a food scientists manual!

About rachel zemser

One Response to “Michael Pollans “Food Rules”-a Food Scientists Dilemma”

  1. Andrew Sigal

    Hi Rachel;

    Great comments on “Food Rules.” I actually never even looked at a copy because it sounded like it was just Cliff Notes for In Defense of Food. So, much like my comments on Mark Bitterman’s book “Salt,” here I am commenting on a that book I haven’t read 🙂

    I think Michael Pollan has been a victim of his own trajectory and the modern media machine. He wrote The Botany of Desire and Second Nature. His thinking on these books sent him down the road that produced The Omnivores Dilemma. I found The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be beautifully written, well balanced, and overall factually correct. More importantly, it raised awareness of a set of issues around food safely, health, and so on, that other important thinkers had failed to popularize. He got many people thinking about their food choices and how those choices impact their bodies, communities, and planet – people who had never considered those questions before. I especially appreciated the fact that he did NOT espouse vegetarianism, didn’t promote the ridiculous “raw food” movement, etc.

    But this is America and while he was convincing us to stop drinking Kool-Aid (r), he was drinking the Kool-Aid of the American media machine. Can’t you just hear his publicist saying, “Michael, this is hot, hot, hot. You’ve got to get another book out right away!” . [I don’t know Michael – this is pure speculation on my part.] So he wrote In Defense of Food. I enjoyed this book, but it was inconsistent and there were contradictions. It clearly wasn’t as well researched, well thought out, or well-crafted as Dilemma. But I read it with what I will call “Omnivore’s Dilemma” eyes. I read between the lines, finding his underlying message to be quite moderate – eat food, enjoy your food, be aware of what you are eating, and yes, eat less processed food.

    Of course, paying attention to what you are eating is more trouble than most Americans are willing to go to, and requires more education about ingredients than most Americans have. Yes, I know that agar-agar, xanthan gum, etc., etc., are fine. But Pollan’s book would have been a crashing failure if he had written page after page of discussion of each of the ingredients in the modern food scientist’s arsenal. So he gave his readers some rules of thumb, like “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” It’s not a bad rule of thumb, except that my grandmother wouldn’t recognize a durian as food. She also wouldn’t consider crickets to be food, though they are critical sources of protein for a lot of people in the world, and American’s would probably be healthier if we started eating them [I’ve never managed to eat more than a few termites myself.] If you treat it as a “rule of thumb” it works well. If you treat it as a “RULE,” it has some serious problems.

    Unfortunately, Pollan now had a following of groupies who took his rules as dogma, and again the media machine, hungry for sound-bites, grabbed the rules and not the surrounding, moderating logic. Then along came the publishers, agents, and publicists – so Pollan put out The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids, followed by Food Rules, in which he apparently published not only his own rules, but rules submitted to him by others. I can’t blame him. I would probably have done the same thing. “Wow,” I would have thought, “people love this. I love this. More, more, more.” How could one not be intoxicated? No doubt he was criss-crossing the globe on publicity tours, so, to keep the momentum going he collected a bunch of “rules” (American’s, living in the “land of the free,” love rules,) and put them in this book. Now he’s collecting more rules for an expanded edition. OK. Hopefully he will add some moderating rules. We shall see…

    Someone once said (and boy do I wish I could find the actual quote,) that every great idea starts out as a notion, becomes a movement, and is ultimately co-opted and destroyed by a massive hierarchical power structure that is more interested in its own preservation than the original idea (e.g. every major religion, every country on earth, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Levi’s, etc.) So, I still love Michael Pollan and his books, despite their faults, and despite the fact that he is a human being. He raised awareness of food issues in America, which was a terribly important thing to do. I doubt I could have done better.


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