What should you eat?

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in food production, especially in the US and Canada. It asks a good question: if you can eat anything, what should you eat?

The book is divided into three sections, in each of which authour Michael Pollan investigates what’s involved in creating and eating a different type of meal. The first feast is a drive-through McDonald’s meal for his family. The second comes from organic farms. The final meal is one he hunts and gathers himself. The background behind each meal provides dozens of compelling stories.

For the fast food meal, Pollan describes the chain of mass-produced food in America and how so much of it relies on corn: from high-fructose corn syrup to “nutraceutical” derivatives to feed for cattle and chicken and pigs, there’s some element of corn in nearly half of everything North Americans eat. He also explains the history and lobbying reasons why this is so (and not so in other parts of the world), as well as the amount of oil used in creating fertilizers.

In the organic section, Pollan looks at how “organic” has changed meaning with its popularity, and much of what now bears that label has additives and – because it needs to be distributed in the “regular” food distribution system – is still unsustainable because of the oil required for packaging and shipping. He does eat a meal from a dedicated true-local organic farm, though.

The hunting and gathering section is the most personal, as Pollan describes learning to hunt wild pigs in northern California, and the trials and tribulations of identifying mushrooms that are safe to eat.

Pollan is a journalist, not a nutritionist or scientist. His approach works well, because he’s thorough, and likes peeling back layers of things. In the end, he admits that while we’d all have a much better relationship with, and understanding of, nature if we hunted and gathered our own food that’s a pretty unsustainable idea in today’s world. Similarly, he thinks the high-sugar, high-fat, mass-industry mainstream food business is just as unsustainable, from a health and resource point of view; and, he worries that large industrial organic isn’t much better.

He lets the quality of the meal at the end of each section illuminate his views on what the perfect meal is. As for as solutions, he suggests that buying locally and asking questions of the meat and vegetable producers is the best idea (which is really only possible when you buy locally).