Author Michael Pollan admitted to a Salt Lake audience Thursday that his new book, if written 40 years ago, would have been deemed "the manifesto of a crackpot."
On this day, however, Abravanel Hall is packed to the rafters with enthusiastic fans waiting to hear Pollan talk about his new tome, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."
The book is a follow-up to Pollan's 2006 mega-hit, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," that ended up on 2006 top-ten lists of both the New York Times and Washington Post.
Pollan's newest foray into food explores the evolution of the current "Western diet" and why that diet has led to alarming new rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and other diet-related health concerns.
Pollan said the relatively new food concept of "nutritionism" has led to some serious missteps in evaluating what is good for us and what is not.
"We bring an ideology to our experience of food that I think is very destructive," Pollan said.
Under this subconscious paradigm that Pollan says is typical of Americans, food is equated directly with health, and how we apply food value is tied directly to what experts tell us is a food's nutritional value. The problem with this system is that the "experts" frequently miss the mark.
"At any given moment there is a 'Satanic' nutrient," Pollan said. "In the past it's been saturated fat ... lately, it's been trans-fat."
Pollan noted that the introduction of high-levels of trans fat into the American diet came as an attempt to reduce the amount of saturated fat, thought at the time to be unhealthy. Now, the experts have discovered that trans fats represent a much higher risk than saturated fats. Other nutritional mistakes can be tracked to processing methods that strip food of their natural nutritional value.
Pollan cited other examples of nutrition science gone awry and came back to a new approach to how and what we eat.
"The challenge is to stop eating this way ... to stop eating the Western diet," Pollan said. "The question becomes, how do you eat if you want to get off this diet."
Pollan does not offer to solve this dilemma. He recognizes himself as a journalist and a professor of journalism at the University of California Berkeley, but he makes some suggestions for how to approach the issue.
Culture, Pollan says, and the tool of language provide the keys to finding the right, healthy and appropriate diet. Gathering cultural rules to help us navigate the food world is a project Pollan is currently engaged in. He offered this simple approach to keep modern shoppers grounded.
"When you go to the supermarket," Pollen said, "avoid products that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize."
Other insights Pollan offered included being wary of anything with more than five ingredients and avoiding anything that claims to be healthy."My advice does come down to the seven words on the cover of this book," Pollan said. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."