By Irena Djuric


pollan dirt

If you weren’t one of the lucky ones who nearly had to crowd surf into the Harold Washington Public Library auditorium to hear food writer and activist Michael Pollan speak on Monday, we were there to do the elbow jabbing for you. The audio recording of the program is available at Chicago Amplified, but you can also read the Sprout highlights from the comfort of your very own web browser. Below is the scoop, just as it came out of Michael Pollan’s mouth.

“Who do you know that cooks with high fructose corn syrup?”
Pollan’s advice in a world that has been “taken over by biochemistry” is to avoid high fructose corn syrup, not because we have positive proof that it’s any worse than plain sugar, but because it’s “a marker of a highly processed food” and just one of many examples of how we are replacing real foods with what Pollan terms “edible food-like substances.” If it strikes you as counterintuitive that one should strive to eat food as opposed to food-like substances, don’t feel as if you missed the joke; the shelves in your local grocery store are enough to confirm Americans are happily purchasing food that isn’t, well, food. Pollan says that the trend in the food industry over the past two years has actually been to start shunning high fructose corn syrup, but despite its removal from several popular products Pollan still cautions, “just because it doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup in it doesn’t mean it’s a health food.”

“The only conclusion I can draw is: avoid any foods you’ve ever seen advertised.” While highly processed “food-like substances” have the virtue of being infinitely profitable, not the same money stands to be made selling, say, broccoli. The foods that contribute optimally to our health are fresh, in season, and locally grown, yet they are also of little interest to marketers. If a potato is a potato is a potato, yet a windfall can be made selling twenty different kinds of specially formulated potato chips, why bother with the food as nature intended? In short, Pollan’s advice is to steer clear of food that is being advertised to you: it is probably not real.

“Voting with your fork is really important. You don’t have to wait for Washington to get it right.” Although we considered mailing President Obama a red pen so he could start scratching away at the USDA food pyramid, the most immediately satisfying steps towards food policy reform really do begin at the dinner plate: one delicious taste at a time. There is a significant food movement making important progress worldwide, but we have the opportunity to vote with our forks several times a day, consuming the food that is fresh, local, sustainable, healthy and real and leaving those packaged and processed substances on the grocery shelves, where they belong.

If you’d like to know more, you can always pick up a book.  Sprout recommends In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Also available from Pollan are The Botany of Desire and Omnivore’s Dilemma.