Self-styled food guru Michael Pollan’s latest rant against modern farming, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, lists 64 rules for healthy eating. Pollan says they are meant to be taken as “Food Don’ts” — for the sake of our health and the environment. And as usual, America’s “foodies” are going ga-ga over someone whose claim to fame is repeatedly lecturing others to “Eat Food.” So let’s take a close look at what this journalism professor has to offer in his latest diatribe on what you eat.
Pollan admits he ignores nutrition science, which he derides as inexact. But perhaps the real reason he avoids citing actual research is because he knows it doesn’t support his pseudo-scientific beliefs.
Take Rule #22, “Eat mostly plants.” Pollan claims vegetarians are “notably healthier” and live longer than meat-eaters. Yet, a 2006 study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that vegetarians died of strokes and cancers of the colon, breast and prostate at the same rate as omnivores. The mortality rate, the Oxford team wrote, “appears to be similar in vegetarians and comparable non-vegetarians.” In other words, vegetarians don’t live longer than meat-eaters – though life may seem interminably long if you spend most of your time choking down Tofurky and soy-cheese lettuce wraps.
Pollan blows it again with Rule #27, which holds that meat from “wild” free-range animals eating grass is more nutritious than from grain-fed animals raised in feedlots. Before you drop half your paycheck on “artisanal” porkchops, know this: Free-range meat carries health risks that slow-food advocates like Pollan won’t tell you about.
A study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease found significantly higher rates of salmonella in free-range pigs when compared with pigs raised on larger farms. Pigs raised in the roof-covered, environmentally-controlled surroundings of the much-maligned Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are actually less conducive to disease. And pigs that spend time outdoors are more likely to come into contact with disease-carrying animals.
And if you don’t eat for your health, how about the health of Planet Earth? Pollan’s advice may actually lead to greater environmental damage. The CAFOs that he demonizes use less land to raise more animals than the free-range method. Grass-fed cows, for instance, can require up to 10 acres of pasture per head. If today’s cattlemen exclusively used 1950s technology, they would need an additional 165 million acres of land – roughly the size of Texas — to produce the same amount of beef. And since niche-market cows don’t grow as big as their more conventional counterparts, a wholesale backpedal to old-school farming would increase levels of animal-waste pollution by nearly 30 percent.
Is this the environmental outcome Pollan seeks?
Maybe it’s not fair to criticize Pollan for his scientific illiteracy. After all, he gives himself an out in his final Rule #64, “Break the Rules Once in a While.” If there’s a sequel, we think it should begin with Rule #65: Break most of Pollan’s rules most of the time.