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.


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