“Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan

I really like my Kindle, and it was especially convenient and enjoyable on my recent vacation. All I needed to bring was my Kindle, and within it I had all the books I’m reading or about to read (including my ESV Study Bible), along with my daily subscription to The New York Times. And Amazon now enables me to access all my highlights and comments from books I read, right on their web site. That’s a big deal for someone like me who likes to quote and have access to quotes from books I read (like I will do here in this blog). I can also pick up my iPhone in the dark of night in bed, wife asleep, and Kindle lets me read my book on the iPhone, picking up right where I left off on my Kindle. Really cool stuff.

I say all this because a book I read on my Kindle during my vacation (well, I’m 75% of the way through it, so not technically “read” yet) is Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It was recommended to me by one of my favorite Bohexies (my name for bohemian-existentialist types) at The Crossing. I’m glad she recommended it.

This is a very interesting, convicting, informative, uncomfortable, enjoyable, important book to read. I really like Pollan’s writing style. Very witty, self-deprecating at times, intellectually honest, and he seems to reason through things like I do, even if we think about the world quite differently (from what I can tell, he seems to be an agnostic, leaning toward atheist).

I highly recommend you read this book (not that you should drink it all in, especially his hyper evolutionary-everything in explaining everything about everything). Its premise is that our industrial and governmental influence/control of the food and farming industry has negatively affected our diet, our food choices, our purchasing habits and expectations, and our humane care for animals, not to mention our support of the kinds of farmers who are trying to do things the right way. That may sound to you too much like a typical ultra-leftist tyrade against the industrial-military complex, but I am not a leftist, and I really like this book (although, now that I think about it, he does refer to the industrial-military complex once or twice in this book).

There is so much in Omnivore’s Dilemma that challenged and is challenging me on many levels. But for today let me just introduce the premise of the book the way Pollan does in the first chapter. He introduces what he calls the omnivore’s dilemma (we humans are omnivores in the sense that we’re designed to eat a wide variety of food groups for our overall health, but pretty much all we’re eating today is corn disguised as different foods).

To quote Pollan in “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (from accessing my Kindle highlights from Amazon’s web site)—

Zea mays [is] the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn. Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” can all be derived from corn. To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn—…after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you’d still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn.

…The frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes, it’s in the Twinkie, too.)

It does take some imagination to recognize the ear of corn in the Coke bottle or the Big Mac. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five thousand different items or SKUs (stock keeping units) in the supermarket—seventeen thousand new ones every year—represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant. You are what you eat, it’s often said, and if this is true, then what we mostly are is corn—or, more precisely, processed corn.

That will serve as my teaser for my next blog, or my motivator to get you to want to buy the book and read it for yourself. I’ll review and comment more on “Omnivore’s Dilemma” next week.

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