The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma set out to answer a very simple question, which turned out to be very complicated to answer:

What should I eat?

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan’s research, in answering this question, became organized into four food chains: Industrial, Organic, Alternative, and Hunter/Gatherer. The format of the book follows the food chains from beginning to end, from sunshine (where all our caloric energy comes from) to the dinner plate (where the calories are consumed).

I was immediately captured by the introduction, as with any good non-fiction volume. Not only did the subject (food) affect me personally on a daily basis, but I think all of us who live in today’s world with today’s choices would be interested in learning more about it. As soon as we walk into the market we are bombarded with choices. Generic vs. Brand Name. Conventional fruits and veggies vs. Organic. What should we choose? Is eating organically really that much better for us? Is it worth the elevated price? These, and more, are the types of questions answered (as well as can be done with modern research) by Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Nothing sums up this book better than the title itself, and I will explain why, using facts gleaned from the pages themselves.

In Nature, two types of eaters exist: Specialized, and Generalist.

Specialized eaters are more varied than you might think. They range from the Panda and Koala, who gain all their energy from one food source, Bamboo and Eucalyptus respectively, to Felines, who can eat any animal they can catch, but would starve if isolated in a vegetable garden with no other animals to munch on, and cattle, who eat only things that have grown in the Earth.

On the other hand, Generalist eaters, or Omnivores, are those who can eat both plant and animal, like Rats, Raccoons, and Humans. Hopefully the spark of realization is starting to dawn on you. If we, as humans, can eat pretty much anything that exists on the earth, what, then, should we eat? Are we going to get more energy from eating a handful of berries, or the roasted haunch of a rabbit? What food sources do we have locally? Is drinking the milk from a cow better than drinking the milk from a goat, or should we stick with water? Many mushrooms are edible and nutritious, but some will kill you before they make it to your stomach. How do we decide what to eat? The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is finding the best and most nourishing thing to eat within our means; a dilemma that has faced mankind since before we evolved to become such beings.

As we all know, this question has both been impressively simplified in modern times, and yet much more complicated than it probably ever has been. Most of us go to the store when we are hungry, or to a restaurant, to satiate us. Walk into the right store, and you are able to buy anything you could possibly need for any recipe you can imagine. We know that anything inside the store that we can pick up and put into our baskets is going to be safe for us to eat, provided that we follow the proper cooking instructions and practices. We will not be sold rotting meat, or poison mushrooms. So while Pollan does talk a bit about what our species has faced through the ages as far as food choices, this book is concerned with all of the food options we currently have as Americans (and I’m sure the same options are available in a very wide variety of countries).

When is the last time you thought: the energy I’m getting from this steak comes from whatever the cow ate during its lifetime?

One of the first things I leaned in this book, is how a food chain really works. Usually when I think of the food chain, I think of a line from the movie ‘The Lion King’ that talks about Lions being the top of the food chain. Obviously I had a lot to learn.

All food chains start with the same energy, solar energy. Plants then photosynthesize solar energy and turn it into more vegetation. Animals then take that energy (one rung from the source) and turn it into muscle and fat (protein). Whatever animal then eats that animal, will have then have utilized energy that had been processed through a plant and another animal. And so on and so forth all the way up. It can be important to trace back a food chain every once in awhile. The thing is, it’s nearly impossible to do so now. How does one find out which slaughterhouse the hamburger you’re buying came from, let alone which feedlot fed the cow, and what ranch it came from from there, and was it born at that ranch, or did that happen somewhere else? Sometimes the meat we’re eating is more well-travelled than we are!

I love how in depth Pollan does his research. Over the course of several years he visited feedlots, grain elevators, standard and organic farms, and slaughterhouses. He bought a young steer and followed his progression through the industrial food chain, from birth to slaughter. He spent quite a bit of time at a self-sustaining farm in Virginia where he studied every element of the ecosystem contained there, and even slaughtered his own chickens. He goes pig hunting in Northern California and mushroom foraging and even harvests his own abalone. Because of this meticulous research, I learned to trust him as a researcher and an author. Something I am finding is definitely necessary to enjoy a non-fiction piece.

Another element I enjoyed about this book was the discussion of evolutionary theories. For example, Pollan explains that our sense of disgust has been fine-tuned through evolution to keep us from eating things that will make us sick or kill us. There are some things that every human finds disgusting. Some of Pollan’s examples are feces and rotting flesh.

At one point he also shares a theory that an animal’s brain size directly correlates to the species eating habits. He uses a koala as an example. Although the skull of a koala isn’t very small, their brain is one of the smallest of all mammals. Pollan presents us a theory that because Koala’s only eat Eucalyptus, they don’t need much brain space. Conversely, some theorize that the human brain developed in size because of how much we have to choose from to eat. If you think about it, before the internet, before mass market publishing, before the printing press, and even the invention of writing, before we congregated in groups called cities or towns or villages, somehow we needed to find out and remember what we ate that made us sick, or what someone else ate and died from. We needed that brain capacity in order to survive through our own eating habits. We can see this in rats, Pollan tells us, who are also omnivores. Rats are very clever, before feasting on whatever food stuff may be in front of them, they only take a tiny nibble – if, in a half hours time, the rat does not feel sick, it will go back and eat some more. Now-a-days, we can consult field guides and the internet to figure out if a mushroom that grew in our backyard is edible or toxic. Back before all that, we just needed someone brave enough, or hungry enough to risk it, hopefully remember the effect, and spread the word, if necessary or possible.

Something else Pollan wrote quite a lot about is why we are so unsure of what to eat now-a-days, specifically in the United States. The answer is largely, he argues, because of the expansive diversity of our country. As American’s, we really don’t have any hard-wired, culturally-engrained culinary traditions as most countries in the world do (Italy, France, Japan, China, etc.). We are preached to about what is good and bad for you on the news, in magazine ads, on the internet, in diet books, and by our friends who have read different articles than we have. We have become so focused on making our bodies look a certain way, we have forgotten to actually look at what we’re feeding it. Yes, we know it’s better to eat fruits and vegetables and less salt and processed foods (like boxed macaroni, ramen noodles, or frozen French fries), but what we don’t see as consumers, is how much different the simple growing of those fruits and vegetables has become in recent decades compared to how they were grown in our parents’ time. Our produce is continually genetically modified to support the most rapid, and fruitful growth possible to produce the ‘product’ at a commercial level. Pollan only begins to discuss how much we still don’t know about the fundamentals of nutrition and caloric energy, and how the modern way of mass producing the basic ingredients of our diet may be affecting our health, both in the short and long terms.

We also get most of our food suggestions from marketing teams hired to promote a food product (no matter the nutritional consequences of eating it), and not exclusively from our culture (mothers). The more he talked about the marketing schemes and the industrial aspects of the food industry, the more disgusted I became. It makes me sad that the world has come down to a few huge companies that control pretty much all aspects of our lives. There are about 4 large slaughter companies in this country, a handful of oil companies, a handful of fast food moguls, and the list goes on and on. Corn has become an internationally traded commodity. There are almost no industrial farms in this country that grow a variety of nutritious foods, most of them grow corn and soybeans (the most popular crop rotation of corn), and do not make any profit at all. The entire system is complex and counter-intuitive, and a little bit scary.

There are several places in this book that get pretty graphic. Specifically when he is slaughtering chickens, recounting the story of cattle slaughter, and when cleaning and gutting the pig he shot when hunting. But you will probably find things in these pages that are more fundamentally disturbing than that.

I really don’t get the impression that this book is biased at all (he is/has become a food activist), it seems to me that Pollan is very open about who he is and what he did exactly in the context of his research. As far as I can tell he basically just recounts his experiences with everything he encounters during his years of research. If that led him to feel the way he does now about food, then I absolutely think he has a right to it. I read a review that said that this book was aiming to shock Americans into basically revolting against the industrial food industry, but I don’t get that sense at all. Don’t take this book as scientific fact (though the author includes a lot of those, citing his sources), but for what it is – one guy (granted, an investigative journalist), that decided to figure out what it was he was serving at his dinner table, writing down his research and personal experiences along the way.

While reading this book, I must have struck up a dozen conversations about the topics I was reading about, because I was just so fascinated by so much of it. This is going to be one of those books I am constantly thinking of in the back of my head, always referencing, and always talking about. Those, I think, are the best qualities you can take away from any non-fiction book.

This book really shook the foundations of my thinking about nutrition and the food industry. That isn’t to say that I’ve stopped eating anything since reading this book, or even that I will in the future. I don’t feel the need to become a vegetarian because I now know a fraction about how the animals we buy at the grocery store are treated, and we’ve all known in some way that they’re not treated well. If I believed that the millionth of a percent of the meat I will have bought for myself in my lifetime would make a difference to the companies who have a hand in processing that meat and getting it to my table, then maybe I would consider being a vegetarian. But really, I don’t eat that much meat as it is, and the practices of producing our meat as a country is not going to change at all because one mouth, or even a hundred or a thousand mouths, stopped participating. There are five more mouths being born as I write this that will put even more pressure on ranches and feedlots to produce more meat for the masses. Humanity has overproduced itself so much that we have to have systems in place like we do to sustain ourselves. We can’t really turn back now. (This last part is all my opinion, and did not come out of the book.)

I am also highly interested in reading Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire. Here is a copy and pasted summary of it as it appears on wikipedia:

“In The Botany of Desire, Pollan explores the concept of co-evolution, specifically of humankind’s evolutionary relationship with four plants — apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes — from the dual perspectives of humans and the plants. He uses case examples that fit the archetype of four basic human desires, demonstrating how each of these botanical species are selectively grown, bred, and genetically engineered. The apple reflects the desire for sweetness, the tulip beauty, the marijuana intoxication, and the potato control. Pollan then unravels the narrative of his own experience with each of the plants, which he intertwines with a well-researched exploration into their social history. Each section presents a unique element of human domestication, or the “human bumblebee” as Pollan calls it. These range from the true story of Johnny Appleseed to Pollan’s first-hand research with sophisticated marijuana hybrids in Amsterdam, to the alarming and paradigm-shifting possibilities of genetically engineered potatoes.”

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2 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

  1. Great summary. I am a big fan of Pollan’s work. Botany of Desire is a great read. It’s laid out in a similar fashion as Omnivore, and Pollan draws upon a wide range of discipline to explore our relationship with the natural world.

    You might also want to check out Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education as well, but it’s not as food related.

    • Thank you so much Isaac – I am definitely interested in reading Botany of Desire, and I’ve been keeping my eye our for it. I definitely admire Pollan as a researcher and an author. I also think the clarity of his work comes, at least in part, from being an educator, especially of higher education.

      Also, thank you for the book recommendation. I will look into it!


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