The man who warned us about UPFs: Michael Pollan on his 25-year fight with the food industry

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In nan mediate of Food, Inc 2 – nan follow-up documentary to 2008’s Food, Inc, narrated by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser – scientists stock what they person precocious discovered astir ultra-processed foods (UPFs). They are not conscionable bad for you successful a trashy, empty-calories benignant of way; they interfere pinch nan encephalon and nan body’s expertise to process food; they messiness pinch you connected a cellular level. Whole populations are seeing wellness deteriorate, profoundly, for nary intent beyond profit. It must beryllium annoying, I propose to Pollan, 69, to perceive scientists present this arsenic a discovery. He been informing against processed nutrient for decades.

Pollan’s mantra – “Eat food, not excessively much, mostly plants” – was immortalised successful his 2008 book In Defence of Food. By then, he was already an oracle of nan genesis, meaning and accumulation of what we eat, acknowledgment to The Botany of Desire (2001) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). His different memorable building from that clip was: “Don’t eat thing your grandmother wouldn’t recognise arsenic food.”

His taste impact, successful nan US and acold beyond, was immense. It wasn’t conscionable these nutritional fundamentals, but his full modus operandi. He would travel a foodstuff from its birth, aliases germination, to nan constituent wherever it deed your rima successful nan astir intricate detail. He took isolated Bismarck’s apocryphal statement astir laws being for illustration sausages. Maybe you do want to spot them being made. Maybe, successful nan agelong term, you will extremity up pinch amended sausages.

Michael Pollan successful a bluish Oxford shirt, opinionated up, leaning connected a plot chair
‘We were naive astir really simply arming nan user pinch accusation would thrust alteration successful nan nutrient system’ … Michael Pollan. Photograph: Christopher Michel

He has besides written astir psychedelics, successful 2018’s How to Change Your Mind, which successful 2022 became a Netflix documentary series that took a chaotic dive into MDMA, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. Today, he is simply a nonfiction professor astatine Harvard and a subject and biology publicity professor astatine nan University of California, Berkeley. But, supra each that, he is Mr Food.

Anyway, backmost to nan question: does it irk him that subject took truthful agelong to drawback up pinch ultra-processing, grandmothers and truthful on? “We presume subject ever gets location first,” he says. “It has specified authority. But sometimes nan grandmas cognize things.” He is speaking complete a video telephone from California, looking relaxed and urbane. “I retrieve being struck, erstwhile I was moving connected nutrition successful 2008, by this study that came retired saying that nan lycopene successful tomatoes [often claimed to beryllium an antioxidant] can’t beryllium absorbed by nan assemblage unless it comes successful nan shape of fat. OK, truthful oliva lipid connected tomatoes. There’s a contented successful that and nan grandmas sewage location first.”

While grandmas, Pollan and Schlosser (the writer of 2001’s Fast Food Nation) person been connected to junk nutrient since for ever, “that had nary technological meaning”, Pollan says. The gamechanger was Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition astatine nan University of São Paulo, who appears successful nan caller documentary. “He labelled and defined ultra-processed food,” says Pollan. “Processed nutrient you could make astatine home. An ultra-processed nutrient is 1 that contains ingredients nary normal personification has astatine location and requires instrumentality you could only find successful a factory.”

If UPFs are driving obesity, they are conscionable 1 portion of a elephantine nutrient pipeline that is wholly bust. While Food, Inc 2 is astir nan US, truthful galore of its elements are existent of nutrient systems crossed … well, for brevity, I would telephone it “late capitalism”, but Pollan pushes backmost connected that. “Capitalism is simply a crippled that tin beryllium played according to different rules,” he says. “We tin conscionable alteration nan rules.”

Pollan and Schlosser didn’t intend to make a sequel – until Covid. Its effects connected nan nutrient strategy were dramatic. “We each had to scrounge for food. Getting into a supermarket was a situation and then, erstwhile you’d sewage in, location were quiet shelves,” says Pollan.

“This is specified a weird thought for Americans. We unrecorded successful abundance. Our supermarkets are cornucopias. We utilized to look astatine videos of quiet shelves successful nan Soviet Union and consciousness self-satisfied. Suddenly, it was happening here. And for very akin reasons: an overly centralised strategy that didn’t person immoderate redundancy built into it.”

At nan aforesaid time, successful nan early days of nan virus, pigs were being euthanised successful jaw-dropping numbers, because they couldn’t beryllium processed owed to lockdowns. Academic papers person been written astir nan immense psychological toll this took connected vets.

But nan ripple effects are traumatic for democracy-lovers, too. Tyson Foods, 1 of nan largest meatpacking companies successful nan US, started a meat-shortage panic pinch an advert successful nan New York Times imploring President Trump to invoke nan Defense Production Act. “It’s a portion of authorities designed to make companies do things they don’t want to do successful nan nationalist interest,” Pollan says. “In this case, Tyson wanted to beryllium allowed to do precisely what they wanted, which was to reopen accumulation lines.”

Meatpacking workers were incredibly susceptible to Covid infection, owed to nan conditions, and these plants became vectors of infection successful surrounding areas. One study successful 2020 recovered that betwixt 3% and 4% of all US Covid deaths were linked to nan meatpacking industry.

The US nutrient manufacture is simply a communicative of overconsolidation, usually pinch 4 mega-companies dominating 80% aliases much of each sector, from nutrient and dairy to cereals and soft drinks. It gives them undue governmental power – almost an immunity to legislation. “We support exempting agriculture from each nan laws we person astir labour and animal welfare,” Pollan says.

Before Covid, Pollan didn’t deliberation capable had changed successful nan manufacture to make it worthy different look. But this attraction of powerfulness and accumulation was “a caller wrinkle”, arsenic was nan ultra-processing. “So it was a sad infinitesimal – because, arsenic overmuch attraction arsenic Eric’s and my books had had, we hadn’t made that overmuch of a dent. The forces arrayed against america were truthful overmuch stronger than we realised. I deliberation that we were naive astir really simply arming nan user pinch accusation would thrust alteration successful nan nutrient system. It did thrust immoderate change, but obscurity adjacent arsenic overmuch arsenic it would return to dislodge powerfulness successful nan nutrient system.”

US cultivation workers successful a segment from Food, Inc 2
US cultivation workers successful a segment from Food, Inc 2. Photograph: Courtesy of River Road and Participant

He believes successful nan powerfulness of organised user boycotts, which are justified by different of nan film’s scandals, successful which workplace workers are truthful mistreated that their employment amounts to a authorities of semi-serfdom (you person to watch it for nan labourers’ stories – they are staggering). But he is besides powerfully alert of authorities failure. “Policies should beryllium organised astir 2 pillars – 1 is wellness of nan citizens and nan different is wellness of nan situation – and they are not,” he says. “They’re fundamentally designed to lead to overproduction and inexpensive cultivation commodities, which benefits nan soda makers and nutrient makers.”

There is nary uncertainty that nutrient arsenic it is produced is arsenic harmful to wellness arsenic tobacco, but location is simply a mobility people complete whether that oversea alteration – wherever cigaret giants were forced to return work for their products – would beryllium imaginable now, erstwhile corporations look truthful overmuch much powerful and amended defended.

“You realise that it was nan baccy companies, nether unit from nan authorities complete smoking, that bought nan nutrient industry,” says Pollan. “So it’s a akin playbook, isolated from now they cognize to pain nan soul memos saying: ‘We cognize this nutrient is unhealthy.’ ‘We cognize really we tin get group to overeat.’ Because nan logic they sewage screwed connected baccy was that location was a insubstantial trail. So they’re not going to make that correction again.”

Their different spot now, of course, is that nutrient is excessively large to fail. When nan proviso concatenation of Abbott Laboratories, 1 of only 4 important babe look manufacturers successful nan US, was disrupted successful 2022 after 2 shutdowns astatine its main plant, contributing to a nationwide shortage, nan panic successful young mothers’ faces arsenic they recounted it to nan media was palpable and contagious.

If Pollan comes disconnected arsenic overmuch much optimistic – jaunty, moreover – successful nan movie than these lawsuit studies warrant, it’s because he has a awesome woody of religion successful technology. He is amazingly enthusiastic astir nan frontiers of synthesised and cultured meat, fixed that your grandmother would decidedly not recognise immoderate of this arsenic food.

In person, though, he is ambivalent astir it. “If you tin prime disconnected 10% of nutrient eaters and get them to trim their consumption, that’s a bully thing. But you can’t flight nan truth that synthesised nutrient has 21 ingredients aliases whatever, immoderate of them ne'er seen earlier successful nan quality diet. We whitethorn look backmost connected this and say: ‘Oh nary – we didn’t spot this wellness problem coming.’ But it’s specified a non-American idea, precaution. It doesn’t spell pinch nan frontier spirit, nan heroic individual. It’s truthful namby-pamby.”

But contempt what he has discovered, Pollan still takes tremendous pleasance successful food: “I conscionable salary much attraction to it.” Thank God personification does.

Food, Inc 2 is successful UK cinemas and disposable connected request from Friday, pinch previews astatine selected cinemas

Source theguardian