Self-styled food Guru Michael Pollan’s latest rant against the modern American diet lists 64 rules for healthy eating, a comprehensive list of eating restrictions that would make even the most prolific food scolds blush. In Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, Pollan says they are meant to be taken as “Food Don’ts”—for the sake of our health and the environment. And America’s “foodies” are going ga-ga, largely without thinking past their next farmers’ market excursion.
Pollan admits that he ignores nutrition science, which he derides as “inexact.” But the real reason he avoids citing actual research may be that he knows it doesn’t support his pseudo-scientific beliefs.
Take Pollan’s Rule #22, “Eat mostly plants.” He claims vegetarians are “notably healthier” and live longer than meat eaters. Yet, a 2006 Oxford study 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 seeminterminably 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 free-range animals eating grass is more nutritious than ordinary animal protein from grain-fed animals. Before you drop half your paycheck on “artisanal” pork chops, know this: Free-range meat carries health risks that free-range advocates like Pollan won’t tell you about.
A study 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 roof-covered, environmentally controlled facilities are actually less vulnerable to disease because they’re less likely to come into contact with disease-carrying animals.
And what about those of us worried about how our eating habits affect the health of Mother Earth? Pollan’s advice may actually lead to greater environmental damage.
Modern agricultural methods that he loves to hate 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 animal.)
If today’s cattlemen exclusively used older, Pollan-approved 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 large as their more conventional counterparts, we would actually need more animals to supply current demand. So a wholesale backpedal to old-school farming would increase levels of animal-waste pollution by nearly 30 percent.
Pollan bases much of his argument for “traditional” agrarianism on the belief that buying directly from a local grower will use less fossil fuel and reduce carbon footprints. This too is false. Texas State University Professor James McWilliams—a vegetarian who is no fan of modern agriculture—says food miles are irrelevant in terms of overall energy usage.
Sometimes, it’s actually more efficient to transport food from a distance.
Shipping New Zealand lamb to Britain, McWilliams writes, produces 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. Home-grown British lamb carries a carbon footprint of 6,280 pounds. This is due, in part, to poorer British pastures that require farmers to use feed to sustain their livestock.
The point, of course, is not to order everything we eat from half a world away. Nor is it to reflexively discount Michael Pollan as an organic sprout-addled crank. But eating, cooking, and buying food are far too complicated–and customizable–activities to bend to the will of anyone’s list of rules.
Even Pollan gives himself a loophole in his final Rule No. 64, “Break the Rules Once in a While.” After reading the previous 63 rules, you can bet most Americans will take number 64 especially to heart and to stomach.