Friday, January 27, 2012

Michael Pollan Comes to Boston

He can sling witty reproach right back at Stephen Colbert and keep a smile on his face, so it's hardly surprising that he seemed so at ease showing off a couple of bags of groceries to the audience at Symphony Hall.

Michael Pollan opened his talk Wednesday night with a display of some things he'd picked up at a local grocery store, pulling item after item out of plastic bags and seeming genuinely amused at what he read off the packaging.  Lucky Charms boasted their supposed abundance of whole grains, something called "Muscle Milk" held a disclaimer that it didn't contain real milk, a serving of "low-fat" yogurt tried to hide the fact that it contained more sugar than a can of Coke, the list goes on. What all these things had in common was how loudly they screamed out their supposed nutritional value, despite being linked to our nation's skyrocketing rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

None of this was a surprise, of course.  By now most people who know anything about Michael Pollan know his frustration with overly processed foods, especially the ones that make health claims.  Only very briefly did he mention that all the "edible food-like substances" in question were made up mostly of corn and soy, as if he were sick of hearing himself talk about commodity crops.

The twist that made the speech timely was his discussion of Paula Deen.  As you may have heard, the celebrity chef has recently announced that she not only has Type II diabetes, but will be a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, a manufacturer of various diabetes treatments.  Disappointment with her decision has been buzzing around the internet for a few days, so it was wonderful to hear about it in person from someone so respected in the health food community.

Pollan thinks- and he's far from alone in his opinion- that Deen's diagnosis could have been an excellent opportunity for her to use both her celebrity and her cooking to raise awareness about the perils of our western diet, and it's a shame that instead of changing her eating habits, she's going to rely on chemicals to fix her health problems.  Pollan called the moment a "fork in the road" (not sure if the pun was intended, but I certainly hope so, don't you?) where society can choose to wake up to the realities of our unsustainable food system, or it can continue to choose short-term convenience over long-term health.  He went on to say that if most people take Paula Deen's path, the food movement's next powerful ally may be a seemingly unlikely one: health insurance companies.  If rates of diabetes and heart disease continue to rise, the health insurance companies will find themselves essentially picking up the check for our unhealthy meals, and they'll start wanting to prevent that.

I'm not sure I agree with his prediction; only time will tell.  One fact that is not up for debate, however, is that the sustainable food movement still has a long way to go.  As long as we continue to choose the combination of Western medicine and Western diet, and as long as cheap, convenient food is marketed as heavily as it currently is, it's going to be an uphill battle.  But, judging from snippets and sound bites overheard as the crowd poured out of Symphony Hall into the Boston night, we're thinking about food in new ways. The conversation has begun.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Lab-Grown Beef: It's What's For Dinner!

Remember when Toyota first released the Prius, and suddenly we all had that friend who thought they could drive as much as they wanted guilt-free because their car was so darned fuel-efficient? Inevitably that was the same person who still downs a liter of Coke every day, but it’s OK because it’s Diet.

We Americans have a nasty habit of missing the point when it comes to moderating, and the new buzz over in vitro meat is just another example of that.

If you haven’t heard about in vitro meat yet, it’s still in the preliminary stages, but scientists think we’re not too far away from a day when we’ll be able to grow meat in a petri dish instead of having to kill an animal for it. The idea is gaining favor with animal rights activists, as well as environmentalists concerned about the amount of land and natural resources involved in raising animals for human consumption.

According to a recent Huffington Post article, “growing in vitro meat would use up to 60 percent less energy, emit up to 95 percent less greenhouse gas, and use 98 percent less land than conventionally grown meat.”

Call me crazy, but you know what else would use less energy and emit less greenhouse gas? Eating less meat! When did we all lose the ability to make small sacrifices for our own long-term good?

Enter Meatless Monday. Gaining renewed interest from the recent sustainable food craze, this movement which, as its name would suggest, encourages people to abstain from meat one day a week, has actually been around since World War I, when Herbert Hoover encouraged Americans to cut back on their meat consumption as a part of the war effort.

And I’m not just skeptical of lab-grown meat, as some people who know me may suspect, because I hate progress. (Although, come on, five years ago, did you really say to yourself, ‘Wow, I wish I had a hand-held device that could instantly send a picture of this sandwich I’m eating to everyone I know?’ There’s only so much progress we need.) I’m saying this because when science tries to imitate nature, we usually don’t end up with what we expected.

In last summer’s post, You Probably have Scurvy, I mention a significant danger in relying on synthetic vitamin supplements for health. We’re a long way away from discovering everything there is to know about what nutrients our bodies need and the best way to get them. If the nutritional difference between corn-fed and grass-fed meat is any indicator, there’s a very real possibility that there will be a pretty significant deficiency in cultured meat that won’t be discovered until it’s clogged a few hundred thousand arteries.

It’s no secret anymore that fruits and vegetables just aren’t as nutritious as they used to be before the soil was depleted by chemical fertilizers and other unsustainable farming practices. It’s been proven time and again that quick fixes to agricultural problems just create more problems than they remedy.

You can read more about Meatless Monday on their website, where you’ll find, among other things, some really clever and tasty meatless entrees. Not all of them are easy to make. Not all of them can be eaten quickly from the comfort of your computer desk while your mind is on other things, but I for one would rather suffer that inconvenience than have someone’s science fair project for dinner.