Michael Pollan begins by explaining that The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a “long and fairly involved answer” to the question, “What should we have for dinner?” He points out that, though this question is seemingly rather straightforward, deciding what to eat has become something that requires a “remarkable amount of expert help.” Indeed, it is this unexpected complexity that has prompted him to consider why, exactly, contemporary cultures—especially in America—have found themselves needing “investigative journalists” to reveal the origins of their food. He stumbled upon this conundrum in 2002, he explains, when Americans largely cut bread and other carbohydrates out of their diets in an attempt to lead healthier lives, a decision inspired by the highly popular Atkins diet, which encouraged eaters to consume as much red meat as they wanted as long as they stayed away from bread and pasta.
One of the central preoccupations of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the problem of making dietary choices. Many humans today have too much to eat, both because they have evolved to eat a wide variety of foods and because wealthy countries like the United States produce an abundance of food. As Pollan shows, the natural evolutionary advantage of omnivorousness—being able to choose between many dietary options—creates difficulties in human culture and society. In Pollan’s diagnosis, the remarkable complexity of eating in modern-day America is partly a result of this abundance of choice.
Pollan traces the decline in American consumption of bread and pasta during the Atkins fad of 2002. After three decades of avoiding red meat because of the Carter administration’s warnings against it, suddenly Americans embraced the idea of eating as much meat as they wanted—so long as they abstained from the carbohydrates they’d previously been shoveling down as a substitute. Since people were eating less bread and pasta, “bakeries and noodle firms” plunged into bankruptcy. “So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder,” Pollan writes, suggesting that if American culture had actual “traditions surrounding food and eating,” the nation wouldn’t feel the need to frantically change its eating behaviors to reflect the day’s most recent diet craze. And not only would a country with a “stable culture of food” be less vulnerable to harebrained culinary fads, he writes, it would also “not be nearly so fat.”
Pollan points out that Americans are remarkably susceptible to dietary fads, and he suggests that this is another result of the omnivore’s dilemma (especially as his book will specifically focus on the “dilemma” in contemporary America). Faced with a plethora of choices about what to eat, human culture has stepped in with expert advice, advertising, and a variety of other cultural rituals around diet and eating. The problem is worsened in the United States, which in Pollan’s account lacks a stable tradition and set of values relating to food. In this sense, what looks like a “natural” impulse—the desire to simply satisfy human appetites—is in fact reflective of human social conditions.
Other countries—like Italy or France—approach the question of what they should eat for dinner with more simplicity, allowing themselves to follow the “quaint and unscientific criteria” of “pleasure and tradition.” Of course, this means that although they sometimes eat technically “unhealthy” foods, they ultimately “wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating” than Americans. Pollan notes that Americans call this the “French paradox,” but suggests that it probably makes more sense to “speak in terms of an American Paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”
Pollan notes that pleasure offers one means of negotiating the omnivore’s dilemma. In Italy and France, for example, people eat technically “unhealthy” foods, guided not by the latest scientific trends on fats and carbohydrates but instead following the dictates of cultural tradition and what they find pleasurable. If Americans had such a stable core of traditions around eating, Pollan suggests, they would be healthier as a nation.
As omnivores, humans can eat any kind of food. Unlike koalas (for example), who are “hardwired” to only eat eucalyptus leaves, humans have the entire spectrum of food from which to choose. And although this kind of variety is something of a luxury, it also comes with its own complications. “When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer,” Pollan notes, “deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.” This, he explains, is what’s known as the omnivore’s dilemma, an idea outlined by a psychologist named Paul Rozin. Juxtaposing the koala’s highly specific eating habits with omnivores like humans and rats, Rozin upheld that “a vast amount of brain space and time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes nature lays on are safe to eat.”
The human ability to eat a variety of foods is arguably what facilitated the dominance of the species over other animals, since the need to make such decisions may have led to the development of the famously “big brain” in humans. Paradoxically, however, this evolutionary advantage also has a crucial weakness: humans often simply don’t know what to eat, when faced with such an abundance of choice. Human culture thus has developed to fill the gap, creating regional cuisines, rituals around preparing and eating food, and other rites and traditions that help people decide what to eat.
Continuing his explanation of the omnivore’s dilemma, Pollan points out that humans have to depend upon their “prodigious powers of recognition and memory” in order to stay away from poisons. In addition to memory, taste buds contribute to a human’s ability to avoid sickening food, since human taste “predispose[s] us toward sweetness, which signals carbohydrate energy in nature, and away from bitterness, which is how many of the toxic alkaloids produced by plants taste.”
Prehistoric humans needed to develop a range of natural tools to help them stay away from foods in nature that could harm them, all of which requires an extraordinary amount of brainpower. In this sense, the omnivore’s dilemma has made human culture what it is today, with its preoccupation with the correct preparation and eating of food.
Thankfully, humans are better equipped to tackle the omnivore’s dilemma than other animals, like rats. Whereas rats are left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out whether or not something is safe to eat, humans can rely somewhat on each other, since the culture surrounding food is made up of a history of “human tasters,” forerunners who have warned the population away from certain foods. Pollan writes: “Our culture codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions that keep us from having to reenact the omnivore’s dilemma at every meal.”
Pollan explains that it would be impossible for a person to evaluate all the available information about which foods are safe to eat every time they sat down to a meal, as that would be ludicrously inefficient. This is where cultural memory comes in, allowing humans to pass down knowledge about food from generation to generation. Human cuisine thus represents a compromise between nature and human intervention.
Unfortunately, what Pollan refers to as “the cornucopia of the American supermarket” has essentially reintroduced the average consumer to the omnivore’s dilemma. Faced with so many choices, shoppers must suddenly confront “the extraordinary abundance of food in America,” an endeavor that complicates the otherwise straightforward decision of what a person should eat for dinner. Worse, “many of the tools with which people historically managed the omnivore’s dilemma have lost their sharpness” in America, since this is a “relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations,” meaning that there are numerous cultures and traditions surrounding food in the country. In turn, it follows that “Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition” to use as a guide when it comes to the omnivore’s dilemma.
In Pollan’s account, human culture helps people solve the problem of the omnivore’s dilemma by accumulating shared traditions and knowledge about food. But because the United States is almost entirely a nation of immigrants, the country lacks a stable cuisine and rituals around eating (unlike, say, Italy or France). Here the productive exchange between nature and human culture has broken down, leaving Americans often at a loss when it comes to making decisions about how to eat in a country with a vast overabundance of food.
Pollan notes that, faced with this resurgence of the omnivore’s dilemma, he decided to “go back to the very beginning” of the various “food chains that sustain us, all the way from the earth to the plate.” He explains that humans are like any other creature in that they “take part in a food chain,” so that “we are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too.” Unlike other creatures, though, we’ve found ways to actually change the various food chains in which we participate—indeed, even the process of cooking “opened up whole new vistas of edibility,” and agriculture has enabled the human race to cultivate especially “favored food species” that we depend upon. Plus, humans have found ways to “reinvent the […] food chain, from the synthetic fertility of the soil to the microwaveable can of soup designed to fit into a car’s cup holder.”
Pollan finds that human culture has significantly altered the earth’s natural food chains. People today are facing very different dilemmas around food than their prehistoric ancestors, who never had to contend with microwaveable soup cans. However, Pollan seeks to recover the ways in which humans are still part of a global food chain. Everything Americans eat today can be traced back to the soil and the energy of the sun, even if the interconnectedness of living things on the planet has been obscured by human intervention.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan asserts, focuses on three food chains that sustain humans: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. Although each one is different, they all essentially connect humans—through what they eat—to “the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun.” Of course, this is more obvious in certain food chains than in others, but Pollan assures readers that even a Twinkie is connected to the earth’s fertility.
It might seem impossible to imagine that a Twinkie, with its highly synthetic qualities, has anything to do with a farm. But Pollan asserts that everything people eat is connected to a food chain, even if those connections aren’t immediately apparent.
Pollan states that “all life on earth can be viewed as a competition among species for the solar energy captured by green plants and stored in the form of complex carbon molecules.” A food chain, then, is a “system for passing those calories on to species that lack the plant’s unique ability to synthesize them from sunlight.” Interestingly enough, this concept has been significantly altered by the industrial revolution, since industrial agriculture has allowed farmers to grow crops that subsist on energy from fossil fuels instead of solely on energy produced by the sun. In turn, humans have been able to significantly increase the amount of food the earth can grow, which has enabled the human race to multiply in number while also further complicating the omnivore’s dilemma.
In the last two hundred years, humans have developed technology capable of altering food chains that have existed for thousands of years. Humans have always manipulated the food chains around them, but modern agriculture has significantly increased the amount of food humans can grow, a change that represents an impressive application of human effort and ingenuity to the natural world. Industrial agriculture represents the culmination of a long history of human intervention in the earth’s food chains.
Pollan explains that each section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma follows “one of the principal human food chains from beginning to end: from a plant, or group of plants, photosynthesizing calories in the sun, all the way to a meal at the dinner end of that food chain.” The first section focuses on the industrial food chain, since this is the one from which humans primarily eat in contemporary times. In addition, the industrial food chain is the most complicated, despite the fact that it is largely dependent upon just one plant: Zea mays, “the giant tropical grass we call corn, which has become the keystone species of the industrial food chain, and so in turn of the modern diet.”
Paradoxically, although the food chain that produces a Twinkie or a McDonald’s meal looks complex, it is also dependent on a single source. Most processed food, Pollan shows, can be traced back to America’s vast cornfields, demonstrating that all industrial food systems are in some ways linked to a more fundamental and basic food chain: the growing of crops from American soil.
The second section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan writes, will track the pastoral food chain, which is made up of “some of the alternatives to industrial food and farming.” This includes the foods that are called “organic,” “local,” “biological,” and “beyond organic.” Because alternative agriculture is quite varied and multifaceted, Pollan admits that he had to alter his original plan to follow just one meal throughout the pastoral food chain. As such, he decided to also follow a meal along a food chain he likes to call the “industrial organic,” ultimately offering up an account of the variations within the greater pastoral—or organic—food chain.
“Organic” food claims to simplify the food chain that leads to American supermarkets, growing food without the use of artificial fertilizers and other synthetic agents. As Pollan investigates this food chain further, however, he finds that it has more connections with other nodes of the industrial food system than the label “organic” might suggest.
The book’s final section, Pollan explains, “follows a kind of “neo-Paleolithic food chain,” one that he follows from “the forests of Northern California” to a dinner he made himself with ingredients he “hunted, gathered, and grew” himself. He admits that his interest in following this food chain was “less practical than philosophical,” as he wanted to gain insight into contemporary eating habits by harkening back to the ways hunter-gatherers used to eat. As a result, he was faced with several difficult questions regarding “the moral and psychological implications of killing, preparing, and eating a wild animal.” And although these questions were tricky to navigate, he upholds that the process of hunting and gathering his ingredients ultimately led to what he thinks of as the “Perfect Meal,” since it gave him the “opportunity […] to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding [himself].”
For Pollan, preparing a meal entirely composed of ingredients he hunted and foraged himself offered a means of fully investigating the connections between what humans eat and the resources of the natural world. It also offered him a connection with prehistoric humans, who had no choice but to eat with more awareness of where their food came from. And it was the only meal that allowed him to eat in “perfect consciousness” of all the processes involved in creating a meal fit for human consumption.
Pollan believes there is a “fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry.” This means that, however advanced we’ve become at producing mass quantities of food, there’s no ignoring the fact that many of these practices are at odds with nature, which otherwise places limitations on the amount of food the earth can produce. Ultimately, this leads to “many of the health and environmental problems” running rampant today, since humans are essentially “oversimplify[ing] nature’s complexities, at both the growing and the eating ends of [the] food chain.”
Pollan points out that although humans have become more efficient at feeding themselves than ever before, there is a tension between human desires for maximal productivity and the earth’s natural capacity to feed its inhabitants. At a certain point, human intervention pushes the earth to grow more food than it is naturally equipped to produce.
The way we eat, Pollan states, “represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” It also represents the relationships we have with other species, whether those species are plants, animals, or fungi. We have coevolved with these species, but many of them have also evolved “expressly to gratify our desires,” since we’ve altered them to serve our needs. Unfortunately, industrial food chains have obfuscated the connections humans have with nature and other species. Pollan is confident that “if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”
One of Pollan’s central contentions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that the industrial food system has a vested interest in obscuring the connections between humans and the world around them. By encouraging people not to think about where their food comes from, they are able to continue carrying out ethically and environmentally problematic practices.