Michael Pollan begins by diagnosing America with a “national eating disorder.” He argues that Americans are suffering from mass confusion about what to eat, propelled by constantly-changing food trends and conflicting diets. This is a uniquely human problem, since humans are omnivores by nature who can eat most plants and animals and, therefore, are faced with the challenge of deciding what to consume. This problem is especially acute in a country with endless food choices—many of which are highly processed and far removed from their natural origins. Pollan sets out to trace major American food sources like corn, which he follows from one end of the food chain to the other in a journey that takes him from farms to fast-food restaurants. In doing so, he explores the implications of the choices Americans make within the modern food system, ultimately seeking to answer what Americans should eat, for their own sake and for the sake of the planet.
Pollan explores the American food system by focusing on four different meals that are representative of three food chains: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. The first meal he focuses on is fast food, a product of the industrial food system. He begins with corn, a crop that dominates the American landscape, supermarket, and diet. Most corn is grown in enormous quantities to feed industrially-raised cattle and other livestock, and the rest is refined to create many of the ingredients in processed foods, providing sweetness, texture, color, and starch to many familiar products. Due to its efficiency as a plant, and its diverse utility for food, alcohol, and fuel, corn (species name Zea mays) has evolved alongside people very successfully, changing itself to meet human needs.
Pollan visits two farmers in Iowa who grow corn as part of the industrial system, using every tool and pesticide they can to grow as much corn as possible on their land. It is impossible to trace a particular ear of corn to the resulting meal, since corn from farms throughout the middle of the country is all industrially processed together, and three-fifths of that corn will become cattle feed on factory farms.
Although it is also difficult to follow the progress of a single cow, Pollan purchases and visits a steer named 534. 534 is born on a ranch in South Dakota, and he is sent to a feedlot in Kansas at the age of six months, where he is fed a corn-based diet. This is cheaper and easier than grazing cows, and it fattens them to produce the kind of marbled meat that Americans like. But cows’ stomachs are a complex system that have evolved specifically to process grass, so their corn diets make them sick, necessitating frequent medical care and antibiotics.
The corn that isn’t used to feed cows is sent to refineries, where it undergoes complicated processing to turn it into various edible and non-edible materials, most frequently high-fructose corn syrup. Food scientists are hard at work creating new and more complicated uses for corn all the time, illustrating how the industry is driven by the economic needs of food companies and manufacturers, rather than the best interests of its human consumers, the animals, or the planet. The corn industry harms the environment with its reliance on a huge amount of fossil fuels that go into producing its fertilizers, and the unnatural system of growing only one crop damages the planet because it requires chemicals to eliminate all other species on cornfields. Corn has also harmed American consumers by making unhealthy calories cheap and easily available. Because people eat a set amount of food, these companies have a profit incentive to find ways to pack as many calories together as cheaply and efficiently as possible, while also continuously convincing people to eat more.
Pollan eats his McDonald’s meal in the car with his wife Judith and son Isaac, and the meal evokes its removal from nature—a removal that he witnessed in tracing the origins of its ingredients. Fast food allows each member of the family to order something different, but each item is standardized to replicate the comforting smells and tastes to which the consumer is accustomed. Each item tastes only vaguely like the things it purports to be, with chicken nuggets merely conveying the “idea” of chicken. Pollan shows that many of the ingredients in his family’s fast-food feast originally came from corn, and he illustrates just how many resources have gone into this meal that, although cheap for the consumer, carries enormous costs, all of which are spread through the industrial food chain spanning the entire country.
Pollan’s second and third meals are both categorized as pastoral, or farm-based, and he uses these meals to explore the meaning of the labels “natural” and “organic,” demonstrating how different the food chains behind these labels can be. First, he looks at large-scale farming, the products of which wind up in large supermarkets like Whole Foods. His farm guru is Joel Salatin, an independent-minded small farmer who runs Polyface, his small family farm in Virginia. Salatin sneers at “Big Organic,” which he considers to be just as bad as the industrial food system. Pollan sets out to find out whether Salatin is right.
The organic movement began as an alternative, countercultural protest against industrial food in the late-60s, and it was characterized by localized, off-the-grid, back-to-the-land hippie ideas. Pollan finds that this movement morphed into a booming industry as it became increasingly popular and mainstream. The demand for organic products forced organic farms to scale up, and to therefore make compromises that don’t always match the ecologically-sound intentions of organic food, or the stories told by the Whole Foods packaging and advertising. He visits places like Cascadian Farms, which began as a cooperative community and was later acquired by General Mills. He also goes behind the scenes at a poultry farm that purports to be free-range, though it actually only offers its chickens a tiny, bare, unused plot of land. The only concrete difference between this farm and an industrial chicken farm is that the chicken feed is grown without pesticides.
Although much of the food on the industrial-organic chain is more recognizable and traceable than fast food items derived from the purely industrial chain, what goes on behind the scenes is still often harmful to the environment. For example, Big Organic sometimes requires even more fossil fuels than industrial farms to combat the inefficiency of producing a huge amount of food without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Eating a dinner prepared from Whole Foods-bought ingredients, Pollan weighs the evidence that organic food is more nutritious and flavorful against the cost of flying his organic asparagus into San Francisco from Argentina in January. Pollan concludes that “industrial organic” does betray the intentions behind “organic”—it’s environmentally unsustainable, pricey, and yet it offers potential benefits in health and taste.
Pollan returns to immerse himself in the idyllic Polyface Farm, which Salatin has deemed “beyond organic.” Polyface doesn’t merely adhere to the letter of the law (the vague government regulations that allow industrial farms to call themselves organic)—he’s committed to the true spirit of the word. Polyface operates as a nearly self-sufficient and closed system, one that relies on the natural functions of its organisms and ecosystems. Calling himself a grass farmer, Salatin has developed farming methods that, instead of depleting his land, consistently revitalize it. As the cows are moved around nutritious, biodiverse, grassy pastures, the chickens follow, eating the grubs from the cow manure. Each system fertilizes the next, and the result is a group of animals that appear to Pollan to be happy and high-functioning, producing delicious, nutrient-dense food and almost no waste. They’re also tended by happy workers. Pollan participates in the slaughter, which is done carefully by hand, and he watches as members of the local community come to pick up their meat.
Salatin’s system compares favorably to the previous two, and the resulting meal is markedly more delicious and likely more nutritious as well. It also evokes fascinating conversations about the food, made possible by Pollan’s experience and close connection to it. A marked drawback is that Salatin cannot offer a satisfying answer to the question of how farms like this might be scaled to feed the population at large in the context of the modern economy.
For Pollan’s final meal, which he calls “the perfect meal,” he attempts to hunt and forage every ingredient himself, keeping the food chain as local as possible. Because he is engaging directly with his food, he has to grapple with more basic questions, like the ethics of killing and eating animals, and the methods by which humans decide what foods are edible in the wild, particularly in the case of mushrooms. Although he can’t solve the ethics matter, he decides that full consciousness and purposefulness of what goes into his meals is the approach he will take. He finds a guide in Angelo Garro, who takes him hunting for wild pigs, one of which Pollan shoots. Pollan learns to forage for chanterelles, goes fishing for abalone, picks cherries from a local tree, fava beans from his garden, and procures wild yeast to use in bread. The meal is a carefully curated masterpiece that he shares with friends, and together they have a direct connection to everything they’re eating.
Pollan’s perfect meal is completely inefficient and unsustainable as a consistent practice, however—the other end of the spectrum from the unsustainable fast food meal. There isn’t an answer to how Americans ought to eat, but Pollan ends by emphasizing that food is a person’s most direct engagement with the natural world. He reminds readers that the consequences of human choices about what to eat extend far beyond what any one individual can see.