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Michael Pollan's deliciously simple meal plan to avoid ultra-processed foods — and where it falls short

Hilary Brueck   

Michael Pollan's deliciously simple meal plan to avoid ultra-processed foods — and where it falls short

Michael Pollan is probably best known for the seven simple words of diet advice he first used to open a New York Times essay in 2007, which later became the backbone of a bestselling book:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

He knows it's really not so simple.

"We all make compromises," Pollan told Business Insider ahead of the release of his latest documentary, Food, Inc. 2, out April 12. "We do the best we can, and people pick out the issues they want to deal with, and can deal with."

At home, Pollan tries his best to avoid eating industrial meat, eggs, or any other product from big factory farms.

He and his wife have set up their life to make healthy eating easy and affordable. They keep a stash of well-sharpened knives, ready to chop and cook a rainbow of veggies for dinner most nights. Lately, his table's featured stir-frys and pasta dishes, as well as some wild salmon, since they happen to be running in Alaska this season. Pollan also enjoys cooking a firmer, more protein-rich form of tofu I'd never heard of called yuba, which is essentially a soymilk skin. Hearty stews, perhaps with Indian or Moroccan-inspired spices, are some of the other fan favorites simmering around his kitchen island in Berkeley, California.

It sounds very healthy, very delicious, very aspirational … and pretty impossible. Because it is.

The reality is that Pollan does participate in America's industrialized food system. He's spent the better part of two decades investigating the way food corporations combine chemicals, plants, and animals in some very toxic ways, and as a result he feels "really uncomfortable participating in a system that was so brutal, not just to the animals, but to the workers in it," he told BI. But he knows that, ultimately, if you want to participate in US society, some amount of toxic and unethical food is unavoidable.

"If you had me over to your house and you were cooking a pork shoulder, I wouldn't be rude I would eat it," he said. "I'm not so zealous about it."

Still, he might have some intrusive thoughts while eating store-bought sliced white bread or fruit salad. He worries about the glyphosate that's doused on industrial wheat right before harvest and the harsh pesticides often sprayed on thin-skinned fruits like strawberries (he opts for organic whenever he can, but even that's not a guarantee of safety). "I think that the more you know about food, the more it shapes your diet," he said.

'Plant-based' is just a marketing trick from Big Food

Pollan's new documentary (in select theaters now, and streaming on Amazon Prime) is a follow-up to his Academy Award-nominated 2008 release "Food, Inc." "Food, Inc. 2" focuses on the few mega-companies that dominate our grocery stores and often end up deciding what we put in our mouths.

The film explores what happened at a Tyson meat processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, during the first days of the COVID-19 outbreak (spoiler alert: it wasn't great.) It also features the voices of tomato pickers in Florida fighting for fair pay, Taco Bell employees asking for the same, one inventive farmer bringing a regenerative gizmo called the "clustercluck" to his cornfields, and Democratic Senator Jon Tester, who (when he's not in Washington) works an organic farm in Montana.

Over 90 minutes, the documentary takes you on a rather bleak journey through time, highlighting the many ways our food system has actually gotten worse since the release of the first Food Inc. 16 years ago.

And yet, it ends on a head-spinningly optimistic note. The shift is so stark it's almost funny. Just before the credits roll, the film encourages viewers to join the "movement" on its website, which encourages us to (surprise, surprise) eat fewer ultra-processed foods, support our local farmers by shopping at their markets when we can, reduce meat and dairy consumption, and then in our spare time, lobby for more antitrust law enforcement against the handful of big food companies that dominate the market for baby formula, meat, cereal, and other staples. Simple.

"The industry has a strong interest in complicating our relationship to food, creating problems that it can then solve — but it's a lot simpler than people think," Pollan says.

Is it though? Speaking to Pollan made me feel even more strongly than before that, even in a best-case scenario, for the thin slice of Americans who have the time, money, plus institutional and cultural support to adopt all of these grand ideas, some of the worst parts about our big, bad food system cannot be avoided. The emulsifiers that may mess with our gut bacteria in weird and poorly understood ways are sorely needed to keep food shelf-stable. And even if we stick to organics, the soil quality ain't what it used to be around here, meaning we derive less nutrients from the foods we eat.

"If you do eat food, not too much, mostly plants, you're going to be fine," Pollan tells me, doubling down on his old phrase.

But even he admits some caveats with his next breath. He's frustrated by the misleading "aura of health" that has sprung up around everything plant-based. That's a whole new game of whack-a-mole we have to play in the grocery store aisles. After all, sugar cane is a plant, and so is the corn that so many of our stabilizers, artificial sweeteners, flavors, and added ingredients come from. Plant-based diets aren't necessarily a beacon of health.

"I don't regard a lot of the stuff in the supermarket as food," he tells me.

But it's what we have.