Eating for the Environment: Interview with Michael Pollan
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Eating for the Environment: Interview with Michael Pollan

Foodie and best-selling author Michael Pollan talks to the Diet Detective about food and the way we eat. His insights can change what you put on your plate.

Simplifying What We Eat

Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley, has struck a chord in this country. His back-to-back best sellers, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006) and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 2008), take a good, hard look at the food we eat and how it's made. What he has to say could change the way you look at food forever -- so put down that fork and read on for some spectacular insights from top author and quintessential foodie Michael Pollan.

Should we really be that worried about the foods we eat?

I think we're far too worried about food, actually -- Americans have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. We need to learn to relax about it, but that doesn't mean eating anything you want. If you eat real food -- unprocessed whole foods -- you can eat pretty much any of it you want, in moderation. My aim in In Defense of Food was to help people relax about food by simplifying the food landscape for them.

I've read that you were pretty surprised when you first visited a commercial farm. What stunned you the most?

For me the awakening came in a potato field in Idaho. The farmers sprayed fungicides that were so toxic they wouldn't go into the field for five days afterwards because they were so worried about the effects of the chemicals. These potatoes can't be eaten until they have six months to off-gas the systemic pesticides in them. Many of these farmers told me they grew a small patch of organic potatoes by the house for their family. Most Americans have no idea how their food is produced, and the clearer an idea they get, the more interested they become in alternatives like organic.

We like to think that organic farms are run by caring, environmentally conscientious farmers -- is that true?

Organic farming has become much more industrialized than people realize. We now have organic feedlots -- to my mind, a complete contradiction in terms. Yet even these farms are better than their conventional counterparts. You can be sure if the label says organic that the animals did not receive hormones or routine antibiotics and they ate an organic diet. But you can't assume the animals grew up on Old McDonald's Farm. Some still do, but many don't.

It's one thing to be certain you're getting organic, locally grown foods when you're eating at home, but how do you do that when you're out to dinner?

Eating out is challenging, unless you really know the restaurant or are willing to be a pest. Basically, whenever we give control of our foods to other people, we lose control. How much salt? How much butter? What kind of oil are they frying in? Where do they get their meat? That said, it's not hard to track down the local restaurants that source their ingredients carefully. They're often associated with "slow food" or shop at the farmers' market.

When Healthy Eating Isn't Earth-Friendly

What do you think of the fish industry: mercury concerns, getting enough omega-3s, etc.?

The fish issue is complicated by concerns about mercury and sustainability. Fish is one area where the best choice for your health is not necessarily the best choice for the environment, because although we all need to be eating more fish (in part to get more omega-3s) there aren't enough fish in the seas for us to do it, which is tragic. Mercury is an issue in some fish, and these we should eat in moderation, but from what I've read, the benefits of omega-3s outweigh the risks of mercury. Also, there are lots of fish where mercury is not a problem. You're better off with the little oily ones rather than the big, top-of-the-food chain predators like tuna and swordfish.

Is there something about nutrition that you haven't discussed in a book or past interview and that would surprise us?

Perhaps it is the prevalence of hormones in milk -- even in organic milk and from cows not treated with hormones. We've been breeding for high yield, and in the process we selected for cows that produce high levels of growth hormones. This is a concern to many nutritionists. Skim milk avoids the problem, since the hormones are in the milk fat, but then, skim milk often has powdered milk in it, which some people worry contains too much oxidized cholesterol. So pick your poison. I didn't call it The Omnivore's Dilemma for nothing.

Michael Pollan's Favorite Foods

What's your favorite breakfast?

Fried eggs and bacon. Ideally, from pastured eggs and pigs.

What in your life have you changed based on the research for your most recent book?

I don't eat conventional industrial meat any more. I cook more of my own food. And I opt for quality over quantity whenever I can.

What's your favorite healthful ingredient?

Olive oil. Reduced chicken stock. Garlic. Can't go wrong.

What do you consider the most perfect food?

The egg is right up there, when it comes from a chicken that lived on grass and got to eat bugs.

What's your favorite healthful recipe?

Very simply: a sturdy fish -- halibut or salmon -- marinated (in olive oil and lemon juice, with garlic and fresh herbs; or in soy sauce, mirin, and sesame oil) and grilled outside.

I've read that your favorite junk food is Cracker Jacks -- is that still the case?

I like Cracker Jacks but don't get them very often.

Any others?

I really like corn chips, which surprises people since I've become known for being a critic of corn. But corn as food is another matter entirely.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, founder and editor of, the health and fitness network, and author of The Diet Detective's Calorie Bargain Bible. Copyright 2008 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission from, March 2008.