Michael Pollan has a reputation. His food writing is popular, and it isn’t because he’s merely the flavor of the month. Take, for example, his 2008 tome, “In Defense of Food“.

It starts with some excellent prose. It’s hard not to cheer when paragraphs end with these kinds of conclusions.

Science has much to teach us about food, and perhaps someday scientists will “solve” the problem of diet, creating the nutritionally optimal pill in a meal, but for now and the foreseeable future, letting the scientists decide the menu would be a mistake. They simply do not know enough.

And it continues by stepping back from the lively arguments about nutrition and taking a “big picture” approach, one that eschews diving too deep in minutiae, and relies more on common sense.

In the beginning, however, it’s not so obvious he’s headed that way. For about 50 pages of the trade paperback, it looks more like Michael Pollan is channeling Gary Taubes and not doing a very good job of it. The arguments tend to be eerily similar to Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories“. It’s only around page 59 that he begins to differentiate himself from Taubes’ more focused approach and hit the problem with a broader, but more accurate hammer.

Michael then spends a lot of time talking about the differences between what he called food, and foodlike substances. He spends an large amount of time talking about the effects of a food, and how all too often the entire benefit of the food is reduced to a single nutrient in the eyes of myopic scientists (he also bothers to explain why nutrition science is myopic and full of unintended effects). There are lively discussions of the benefits of butter from pastured cows, and how butter is better than garden variety margarine. He discusses a study of 10 diabetic Aborigines, and what happened to them when they returned to a “native-like” state.  Michael’s take on the virtues of green leafy vegetables are more deftly stated than most anywhere else.

It would be easy to write the whole book off, and transform the manifesto in the beginning to the phrase, “Eat like an old rich hippie.” Except, that’s not what he’s trying to do. It could also be restated as “Eat food you grow yourself”, though that’s only part of the suggestions he makes. He’s fond of people cooking their own food, of people buying from farmer’s markets, of the use of heirloom plants and animals. He suggests that people who take the time to eat a little slower, enjoy themselves a bit more, and pay for (or grow) more diverse and whole foodstuffs will end up living a healthier life in the end.

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