Michael Pollan is one of the great prophets of the sugar backlash. His name is one to drop in discussions of the Western diet. He’s a highly influential writer, journalist and activist, and is probably the reason you’ve heard of High Fructose Corn Syrup. People drinking along at home (and I highly recommend turning all your reading, viewing, cooking, eating, life, in to a drink-along game*)you can find his documentaries Cooked and In Defence of Food on Netflix, and his books which inspired them - along with the Botany of Desire and his definitive The Omnivore’s Dilemma in the usual places.
His onscreen persona is somewhere Between Victor Meldrew and Larry David, with some of the leaf-fiddling quick-pickling gaucheness of Nigel Slater. He talks to stadium crowds, turning up on stage with his grocery bags and allotment pickings, as unglamorous and incongruous as a latter day saint, or Jeremy Corbyn. He utters great words of wisdom, akin to Consider The Lily:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”
He has made his life’s work the unravelling of the systems of that underpin - and undermine - the western diet. The agro-industrial complex, the supermarkets, Big Cattle, Big Pig, Big Corn, Big Sugar. He is chased through the cornfields of his mind by marshmallow men from the ministry, as his shines the light on HFCS and other “Edible Food like Substances”. American farming, food laws and supply chains are very different from European ones, hence our horror at what may befall our shopping baskets when we leave the comforting pasteurised bosoms of Mère Europe, whose worst excesses of foie gras fattening, and penny pinching and banana-straightening still forbid the chlorination of chickens and the feeding of HFCS to humans.
Pollan rightfully points out that the governments (in the US) puts out food pyramid diagrams encouraging people to eat more fruit and veg whilst also pumping money into subsidising industries and products which make us fat, mainly soft drinks, but the corn derivatives in the cheap food chain are pretty endless. Pollan places the blame with Agro-giants and the politicians they pay and lobby make the laws and defund projects that would allow more people to eat better.
Confession: I was raised on the sweet, sweet poison of American candy. As I write this I am literally eating Twizzlers, which have an import label covering up the Corn Syrup and replacing it with Glucose Syrup followed by three asterixes, so who the hell knows what I’m actually eating. I think its like the tastiest plastic you’ve ever accidentally put in your mouth.
He suggests that we should ever eat anything our grandmothers and great grandmothers wouldn’t recognise as food. He has clearly never met my grandmother. My maternal grandmother acquired a morgue’s worth of commercial freezers from Bejams when they closed down in 1992 and has been freezing and defrosting on an industrial scale and decade-long cycle ever since. She bakes for the freezer. She is already laying down the honey cakes for weddings of yet unborn great-grandchildren, like a shit sommelier. My paternal grandmother subsisted on a diet of gefilte fish and sugar free candies. My great-grandmothers survived pogroms, the Holocaust, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and endured unimaginable suffering and hardship on at least three continents. My own mother is yet to successfully boil an egg without literally setting it on fire (have you ever smelled burning eggshell? It’s the smell of my childhood). We should look to none of these women as the arbiters of edibility.
But the principle stands. Want a cake? Bake it ourself. Apple pie? Go for it! And all the better if your apples come from your own orchard, or at least your local farmers market, ideally in the Fall. Just like my great grandmother didn’t.
Pollan is self-evidently right about many things, eminently sensible, powerfully well-informed. He is curious and enthusiastic and communicative, more the storyteller than the investigative journalist. He is also a man of wealth, privilege and status. He has time, money, education, a small but perfect family in the liberal paradise of Berkeley California. It’s a company town, the company is question being the University of California. Everyone is healthy, clever, good looking, and has hiking books and tenure. He and his friends - including, bizarrely, James Taylor - whose pet pig Mona scared Pollan’s pet pig Kosher to literal death on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s - galavant around their well-situated gardens, building barbecue pits, brewing beer, baking perfect sourdough, making their own kimchi. You know, like white people do now.
One of the more mind-bowing things Pollan invites us to do, is to look at the world from the point of view of other species. What if we explore the ways in which domesticated animals and plants have been party to their domestication, giving us the feelies and the tasties so we will provide them with the perfect conditions in which to reproduce, thrive, and generally have a better time of it than they would in the wild. His major hypothesis is that corn is driving us humans around like those parasitic wasps who eat the brains of their prey, and walk around in zombie ant exoskeletons, because nature is gross and there is no god.
It’s a worthwhile thought experiment. Compelling. But as far as science goes it’s somewhat selective, and as dietary advice goes, it’s all a bit… niche. I’m going to write a bit more in future posts about his take on bread and booze because trying to summerise his entire ouvre in one post doesn't do it justice. But has Pollan changed by attitude to sugar? Not really. For, as much as I love the petrochemical tang of American candy, it does not form a significant part of my diet. His famous advice “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is good and sound, as is the plea to cook you own food, grow your own veg, dine en famille and a la table, teach your children to cook and to eat and to garden. And his recommendation to eat less meat, buy the best you can afford, ideally with a name, a backstory a good life, and “one bad day" is an idyllic way to eat. I reckon I could afford to eat this way a couple of weeks of the year, maybe. In a good year. I daydream of life where I can live by these simple rules...
I call my life coach from aisles of Whole Foods in a flap.
“I forgot my mantra” I wail into my Apple Watch, knocking over a display of a kombucha with my yoga bag.
He replies in the calming Larry David tones:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants, hardly any Twizzlers, just think of the food miles and for what? Strawberry flavour coaxial cable? Jeez, Sara, read the slogan on your fucking T-shirt.”
I buy the organic apples, the biodynamic flour, and the small-batch cinnamon to make my homemade apple pie. But in the sugar aisle, I stop again, confused. Agave, honey, or maple syrup? Will my internal organs know my good intentions and magically metabolise them differently to the caster sugar or golden syrup or molasses? I opt for the most expensive item just in case, and get an Uber home.
Back home I can’t work out where I buried my kimchi, near the heritage tomato patch or by the hen coop? I’ll have to find something else for dinner. I scroll through the options on Deliveroo, and see Ottolenghi Islington can deliver within the hour, or 3 different places are offering me sourdough pizza.
Now that really is the omnivore’s dilemma.