In Defense of Industrial Food

The other night I watched Michael Pollan’s new documentary, In Defense of Food. I’m a great fan of Pollan’s 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is gorgeously written and extremely thoughtful. The documentary, I regret to report, is neither. On the contrary, it’s a scattershot attack on what Pollan refers to as “industrial food,” with far too much romantic nonsense about what a natural diet ought to be and far too little serious discussion of the challenges of feeding a populous, highly urbanized world. It’s an opportunity missed.

As I show in my book The Great A&P, an industrial food distribution system was a signal accomplishment of the twentieth century. Before it came along, most people’s diets were calorie-rich, nutrition-light, and boring. In the summer, sure, there were lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. In the winter, there were cabbage and potatoes and potatoes and cabbage. Protein mainly came from smoked or cured meats or from fish caught in polluted rivers. Lard was widely used in cooking and baking. Fresh milk, when it was available, was often unsafe to drink. It’s not as if people ate healthy.

This isn’t ancient history. Growing up in the Midwest, I never ate fresh fish, because the food industrial complex hadn’t yet figured out how to deliver it a thousand miles from the ocean. Frozen foods were a staggering success in the 1950s mainly because they offered consumers unprecedented variety at any time of year. Today we may look down our noses at frozen orange juice as inferior to “fresh” juice, but when it arrived in grocery stores around 1950 average families could obtain essential vitamins in the middle of winter. That was an enormous change for the better.

It should also be said—and Pollan doesn’t say it—that food used to be staggeringly expensive. As late as the 1930s, urban families in the United States routinely spent a third or more of their incomes on food, with much of that money going to keep inefficient wholesalers and retailers in business. Chains like The Great A&P in the 1920s and 1930s and Wal-Mart and Aldi more recently have made food consumers much better off by squeezing costs out of the distribution system. Much of this saving is achieved from economies of scale in production and distribution. Pollan, judging by the film, doesn’t much like economies of scale; he’d rather have us buying from farmers who are selling green beans they just picked by hand this morning. Nothing wrong with fresh-picked green beans, but there’s a trade-off that Pollan refuses to recognize. You can see it in the fact that those farmers’ market green beans cost three times as much as the green beans at Costco.

Pollan’s documentary muddles a lot of things. It’s absolutely true, as he shows, that manufacturers of processed foods make misleading claims about their products. There is no doubt that some processed foods are unsafe and that many of them are unhealthy. I agree with his attack on what he calls “nutritionism,” the idea that adding a drop of one or another nutrient to a food product magically makes it better for us to eat. But the industrial food system has brought us a lot of benefits along with Big Gulps, Twinkies, and gluten-free burritos fortified with antioxidants. Pretending otherwise is just pop nutritionism.

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