Michael Pollan Answers the Most Common Food Questions

What really is the difference between organic and conventional produce/meat/dairy?  Is veganism for me?  Is soy better?  Local and seasonal eating? How to tell if your food is GMO…and so much more.

Whatever sustainable food question you’ve posed in your head, chances are Pollan answers it in the latest article from The New York Times.  Here’s a few of those questions below.  However, I hope you’ll take a moment to visit the entire article and read up:


New York Times
Published: September 30, 2011
The Food & Drink Issue
These questions for Mr. Pollan were submitted by New York Times readers. The first 10 questions below were the most popular among those we received. They were answered by Mr. Pollan on Oct. 6, 2011, after the Food Issue was originally published.

Our family is on a budget and can’t afford to eat all organic. Where should we direct our money to get the most benefit? Organic produce? Meats? Dairy?

This was the most popular question by far, and it’s a good one: some organic products offer the consumer more value than others, so if you’re on a budget, it’s important to buy organic strategically. Here are a few quick rules of thumb:

If you have young kids, it’s worth paying the organic premium on whatever they eat or drink the most of organically. So if they drink lots of apple juice — which they shouldn’t, by the way — or milk, then spring for it there.

On produce, some items, when grown conventionally, have more pesticide residue than others, so when buying these, it pays to buy organic. According to the Environmental Working Group, the “dirty dozen” most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables are: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collars. The “clean 15” are onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms. So if you’ve only got a little money to devote to organic, buy the organic apples and skip the organic onions. But do keep in mind that it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables regardless of how they’re grown.

In meat, organic is very expensive, and doesn’t necessary ensure that the animals didn’t live on feedlot. I look for grass fed for beef instead, milk and butter, too.

What are the pros and cons of a vegan diet?

There’s research to suggest that vegetarians and vegans are generally healthier than the rest of us; however “flexitarians” — carnivores who eat meat once or twice a week — are just as healthy. I know vegans who thrive on the diet, but also many who have trouble keeping it going: it takes a lot of work and care, much more than vegetarianism, which I would count as a con. You really have to organize your life around your eating. It’s also possible now to be a “junk-food vegan,” eating all sorts of processed vegan foods and mock meats. I guess if your goal in life is to keep from eating animals, this option makes sense, but from a health standpoint processed food is processed food. But I admire anyone who has gone to the trouble of thinking through the full implications of their eating choices, and then acted on that knowledge.

How much soy is too much? Can I eat tofu and drink soymilk every day? What are the true pros and cons of soy? I cannot seem to find unbiased information.

The honest and complete answer is that we don’t know — the jury is still out on soy. I do know we’re eating soy in forms it was never eaten before — highly processed and novel. The F.D.A. has declined to list an additive like soy isoflavones as “GRAS” (“Generally regarded as safe”). It’s worth noting that Americans are now eating more soy than Asians, and we eat it in novel new forms. Asians eat it only after it has been processed in traditional ways — fermented, or curdled in the form of tofu. These products have been eaten for centuries, which is reassuring. Now soy protein isolate, soy isoflavones and soy lecithin are found in myriad processed foods. If you see any of these in your snack foods, I would+ lay off. Soy can act like estrogens in the body, which may or may not be a good thing. There’s a section on soy in my book, “In Defense of Food.”

I’m torn between artificial sweeteners and regular sugar. I know that both aren’t good for your health, but if I just can’t live without some form of sweetener in my morning coffee, which would you pick? In other words, which one is better for you health-wise?

Sugar is probably the biggest culprit in obesity and diabetes, but I wouldn’t make a capital case of a teaspoon of sugar in coffee. In soda, there’s research suggesting that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss, so whether they’re safe or not, they may not do what they purport to. For more, see Gary Taubes in the food issue.

Should I buy local foods or stick to organic?

It depends on what you value most. If keeping pesticides out of your food is your highest value, then buy organic. If you care most about freshness and quality or keeping local farms in business and circulating money in your community, buy local. But very often you can do both. Some local farmers are organic in everything but name, so before you decide to pass them up, ask them not “Are you organic” — to which the answer must be no if they haven’t been certified — but rather, how do you deal with fertility and pests? That starts a more nuanced conversation that may convince you to buy their produce.

What is the single best food we all should be eating every day? Cutting to the nitty-gritty, here.

Single best? Probably whole grains — they offer a lot that’s missing from the industrial diet, from fiber to important antioxidants and healthy fats. People who eat lots of whole grains are generally healthier and live longer than those who don’t. But if I could add to the list of important foods missing from the standard American diet, I would add leafy greens and fermented foods with live cultures.

What is the “real deal” on egg consumption? Good or bad?

Eggs are great and always were. The nutrition researchers have rehabilitated them in recent years — they used to think that cholesterol in eggs raised cholesterol in the blood, but this turns out not to be the case for most people. So enjoy, but look for at least “cage-free,” (most other laying hens are raised in crowded cages) and ideally “pastured” eggs, which come from chickens that have actually been out on grass. This makes for happier, healthier hens and tastier, more nutritious eggs.

How can you tell if a food is genetically engineered?

You can’t, unless you’re willing to move to Europe or Japan, where the government requires that it be labeled. Ours doesn’t, so there’s no way to tell. This is despite the fact that 80 to 90 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want it labeled, and Barack Obama, as a candidate, once promised to make it happen. But the industry is afraid you won’t buy genetically modified foods if they’re labeled — and they’re probably right. Why would you? So far at least, genetically modified food offers the consumer no tangible benefit. In America, the only way to be certain you’re not buying genetically engineered food is to buy organic; the U.S.D.A. rules for organic prohibit it.

What will our food system be like in 100 years?

My best guess is that the food system will look very different in 100 years, for the simple reason that the present one is — in the precise sense of the word — unsustainable. It depends on fossil fuels that we can’t depend on and exacts a steeper price in human and environmental health than we can afford. So it will change, whether we want it to or not. We certainly won’t be eating nine ounces of meat per person per day, as Americans do now — there won’t be enough feed grain, worldwide, to continue that feast, and presumably we will have faced up to meat-eating’s disastrous toll on the environment. If we haven’t, we’ll have much bigger problems on our plate than what to have for dinner.

What must government do to make a healthful food as affordable as its evil counterpart?

This is the $64,000 question. There are certainly steps the government can take to make healthful food somewhat less expensive: underwrite farmers’ transition to organic and other kinds of sustainable agriculture; support the renaissance in local meat production by making it easier to build and run small slaughterhouses; use crop subsidies to reward farmers for diversifying their fields and growing real food rather than “commodity crops” like corn and soy; enforce federal antitrust laws to break up the big meatpackers and seed companies.

But these measures will never make high-quality food as cheap as industrial food, some of which will only get more expensive if we take the steps needed to civilize feedlots, clean up water and protect farmworkers from exploitation. Faux populists in the food industry battle such measures on the grounds they want to keep food prices low for the poor. But the institution of slavery kept crop prices low, too — at a cost we ultimately decided was too great for a democratic society to pay. (Come to think of it, slavery still exists in parts of the food system, according to reports out of Florida.) Cheap food has become a pillar of our low-wage economy, one reason Americans have managed to stay afloat as their wages have declined since the 1970s. In the end, if we want healthful and conscientiously produced food for everyone, we’re simply going to have to pay people enough so that they can afford to buy it.

How do generic brands in supermarkets work? Are they worse than name brands?

There are generics, and then there are generics. Some generic products may be the exact same as the branded product they resemble — they’re made by the same manufacturer and simply sold under a different, usually more boring, store label. These are a great deal — you save by not paying for the marketing and advertising behind the big brand. But there are also many more generic products that are reformulated or made with cheaper ingredients. So how can you tell what kind of generic you’re getting? Compare the ingredient and nutrition label: if they’re identical, then the products are almost certainly identical, too.

When I purchase vegetables and meat labled ‘organic,’ why are they so much more expensive than similar items without the ‘organic,’ label?

There are several reasons organic food costs more than conventional food. First, the demand for it exceeds the supply, and presumably, as more farmers transition to organic, the price will fall, though it will never match conventional prices. For one thing, organic farmers receive virtually no subsidies from the government. (European governments significantly subsidize the transition to organic; ours doesn’t.) But even on a level playing field, farming organically would probably remain more expensive. Farming without chemicals is inherently more labor-intensive, especially when it comes to weeding. In animal agriculture, raising animals less intensively is always going to cost more.

Think about it this way: The “high” price of organic food comes a lot closer to the true price of producing that food — a price we seldom pay at the checkout. It’s important to remember that when you buy conventional food, many costs have been shifted — to the taxpayer in the form of crop subsidies, to the farmworker in the form of health problems and to the environment in the form of water and air pollution.

O.K., apart from a clearer conscience, what does the premium paid for organic food get you as a consumer? Organic food has little or no pesticide residues, and especially for parents of young children, this is a big deal. There is also a body of evidence that produce grown in organic soils often has higher levels of various nutrients. (But whether these are enough to justify the higher price is questionable.) Probably for the same reason, organic produce often tastes better than conventional (though a cross-country truck ride can obviate this edge).

So it’s possible to make a case to the consumer for the superiority of organic food — but the stronger case is to the citizen. Farming without synthetic pesticides is better for the soil, for the water and for the air — which is to say, for the commons. It is also better for the people who grow and harvest our food, who would much rather not breathe pesticides. Producing meat without antibiotics will also help stave off antibiotic-resistance. If you care about these things, then the premium paid for organic food is money well spent.

Are there real opportunities for consumers to make an impact on factory farming, unsustainable agriculture and animal cruelty?

Absolutely. As the market for humanely raised meat grew in recent years, the industry responded. The egg industry recently committed to an effort to phase out tightly confining cages for laying hens; some pork producers are phasing out gestation crates; McDonald’s has taken steps to ensure that the meat it buys is slaughtered more humanely; Chipotle now buys only humanely raised pork. There is no question that agribusiness responds to the “votes” of consumers on these issues. The food industry is terrified of you. And PETA!

How would our food landscape change if the government no longer subsidized corn? Is there a better alternative — subsidizing fruits or vegetables?

I’m afraid it would change less than you might think. Though crop subsidies certainly helped to make corn (and its boon companion, soy) the mainstay of our food system, eliminating those subsidies might not by itself be enough to topple king corn. Decades of crop breeding, advances in farm machinery and the building of a rural infrastructure all devoted to these crops means a Midwestern farmer can produce a bumper crop of corn with just a couple months of work while at the same time holding down another job. Growing anything else would mean a lot more time and work in the fields, and at this point that farmer probably depends on the other source of income.

As for subsidizing vegetables, that, too, is trickier than it seems. Subsidies tend to result in surpluses, which in the case of grain is fine: you can store surplus corn or soy in a silo for years. Try doing that with broccoli. In the case of “specialty crops” — the U.S.D.A.’s term for crops you can actually eat — we would be better off subsidizing demand rather than supply: giving vouchers to the poor to buy fresh produce, say, or incentives to retailers to lower prices in the produce section.

Are There Any Foods You Won’t Eat?

Feedlot meat. And tomatoes that have been in the refrigerator.

Introduction illustration by SARAH KING

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