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Month: September 2009

Who Decides What We Eat?

It may seem like a silly question, but the impression given In Defense of Food is that somehow outside groups like the Food Companies, Food Scientists or Nutritionists dictate what we eat. Apart from someone that is institutionalized, like in a prison, the rest of us of course decide what to buy and what to spend our money on. Accepting personal responsibility is avoided if we just blame someone else for our choices and problems. Unfortunately taking personal responsibility for our decisions (such as what we eat, how much we eat and how much activity we wish to do) is not a theme in this book. The Go Big Read program is a great opportunity to engage in this dialogue. Food scientists can help inform us (as we are all consumers of food) of what is the current “science” on a topic and they challenge us to question our assumptions about food.

Compared to even 50 years ago we now have an incredible variety of foods available and we also have made huge progress in improving food safety over this time. Of course having more food choices available can be confusing. An important point I wish to make here is that food companies do not control what consumers will buy. Companies, not just food companies but any company that wants to stay in business, spend a lot of money and time trying to understand consumers. They undertake market and consumer research in an effort to try to understand what is important to consumers and what trends are altering consumers purchasing decisions. Consumers are exposed to a wide range of influences including new fads and diets (in the past 10 years or so we have seen the emergence of various popular diets such as Atkins, South Beach Diet, Nutrisystem, Low Carb, etc). Nowadays, consumers are exposed to a lot more new ideas but also more fads and bad science through Cable TV, Internet, blogs, and the rise of networking sites like Facebook. Food companies respond to these (or emerging) consumer trends by trying to re-position (market) their existing products or introduce new products. There is a high risk (and cost) associated with developing or launching new products, and marketing is heavily involved because if the consumer does not want this product then the product will fail. The difficulties that food companies face in developing new products can be demonstrated by the failure within 6 months of a high percentage of new products that are launched. It is in this context that we should view the changes that we have seen in the types of foods in stores and how they are marketed over the past 20 years.

Another aspect to the impact that consumers have on the food industry can be seen by the reluctance of food companies to use new technologies unless there is consumer acceptance of that technology. Some technologies they know could greatly benefit the safety of foods for consumers. An example is irradiated foods which have been accepted as safe by groups such as World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In particular, it is a promising technology for the treatment of raw meat which is routinely the cause of food poisoning outbreaks. Because NASA is fearful of astronauts getting food poisioning while they are in space their foods are irradiated. As we discuss what’s in our food and how it is produced I hope we will realize that with any technology there is always a risk and a possible benefit. We just have to decide if any suggested risk is real and how significant, and then decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. We also need to understand that rejection of some new technology or science also means we “lose” the benefits that might have resulted from the utilization of that approach.

Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Michael Pollan Lecture Event was a Huge Success!

 Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution

The Kohl Center was filled with around 8,000 people tonight, Thursday, September 24, 2009. Included in the crowd were hundreds of UW first-year students, upperclassmen, graduate students, faculty and staff, alumni, librarians, and members of the surrounding Madison community who all shared one common interest: they had all read Michael Pollan’s book, “In Defense of Food” and they were all there to hear what the author had to say.

The event commenced with a welcome from Chancellor Biddy Martin. One of the very first remarks she made was that this was the first annual Go Big Read project. Which to me, as a graduate school student who happens to be personally and professionally invested in the program, means that the pilot year has proven itself to be successful and we have the Chancellor’s support to continue the program in the years to come.

It was encouraging to hear Biddy mention right away that the reason we were all drawn together in this place at this time was because we all wanted to talk about the same book. It was refreshing to be reminded that despite all the media attention and news stories, and rumors about protesting farmers with tractors that might show up to sabotage the event, that we were all there for a reason bigger than the issues in Pollan’s book. We were all there because we believed that there can be something to be gained from pulling together as a community and talking about all sides of an issue that are important to us as a whole. One of the most valuable outcomes of a common reading project such as Go Big Read is starting a conversation and getting all kinds of people from different walks of life that would never normally interact, all in one place, talking about something that they care passionately about. As Biddy put it, what could be more elemental than food? It is essential to life and to culture and influences each and every one of us. Biddy declared that she could not imagine a more appropriate first topic for this campus than a book getting us to rethink how we look at food. I agree and think it speaks directly to the main goal of this program, which is to get everyone involved and talking to each other about ideas.

Pollan’s lecture was captivating. He is an excellent public speaker, and is often quite funny. His perfectly timed jokes interjected throughout the lecture helped to ease the tension in the room, which was also lessened by his opening remarks addressing the protesters at the event. He actually claimed that he completely agreed with the message on the In Defense of Farming group’s green t-shirts, and stated their message would even be an appropriate title for his lecture tonight: “Eat Food. Be Healthy. Thank a Farmer.” He argued that the protestors might discover as they listened to his lecture tonight that they shared more common ground with Pollan than they might have thought, and that he actually believed that American farmers held the key to solving three of the major crises facing our society today: the healthcare crises, the climatic crisis, and the energy crisis. He hoped that tonight’s lecture would expand for everyone there our working definition of the word “health.”

Pollan began his message by very animatedly pulling processed foods out a grocery bag. One by one, he pulled out items such as Twinkies, Fruit Loops, and Gogurt. This was to illustrate his description of the difficulties faced by American consumers as they make food choices in today’s modern world. His main takeaway message was that real food is in the stores, we just need to learn how to discern it from the edible food-like substances with which we are constantly bombarded.

Pollan reiterated many of the main points from his book, “In Defense of Food,” especially the fundamental problems with nutritionism and how it has affected the processed food we eat everyday. He talked a lot about fad diets and how major corporations can take any criticism and market their product to reflect emerging trends in food and nutrition. He broke down the idealism of the American or Western diet and where it came from. He compared it to other cultures’ relationship with food and eating and pointed out that all over the world, people eating the traditional diets of their cultures are much healthier than Americans and other people around the world eating the Western diet.

Pollan concluded by suggesting that we are at a fork in the road with the way we eat in America. We can either adapt to what this diet does to our bodies because over time, evolution should select the genes of the people that are most tolerant of high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diets. Faster than evolution, medicine has enabled us to become a “diabetes culture” as Pollan puts it. We are able to use our human advances in science and technology to medicalize the “catastrophe that is the American diet.” To this remark Pollan received a huge roar of applause.

Our only other alternative, the other way in the fork in the road if you will, would be to change the way that we eat. It is the more practical, economical, and beautiful solution after all. The effects of the Western diet can be reversed quite quickly with the change, and you don’t have to go back to hunting and gathering to do it. Pollan looks to culture as a guide. He believes that studying traditional cultural diets will reveal that the rules of eating that have been developed over hundreds and thousands of years carry great wisdom for us. The problem we are facing is not just about what we eat, but how, when, and why we eat. Americans need to take a deep look at their relationship with food and eating, and learn to take pleasure in the sensation of eating and the company with which we share it.

Pollan ended his lecture by arguing that the solution is for all of us as a community to shorten the food chain. By cutting out the middle men of packaging, transporting, marketing, etc, more of our food dollars will end up in the pockets of the farmers who grew it. Pollan asserted that health consists of a set of relationships between our bodies and the food, soil, animals, and people around us. The best thing we can do for ourselves, our families, and our communities is to take back control of our food and our meals.

The event was wrapped up with a question and answer session moderated by the Chancellor asking questions that were submitted to the Go Big Read program blog and pre-selected by a committee to be posed to Pollan. The entire event ended with a standing ovation for Pollan, as he encouraged everyone to come listen to him speak about other related issues at tomorrow’s events (see the Go Big Read website: for upcoming events related to Michael Pollan and the common book project in Madison).

Overall, the event was inspiring. Sitting in the audience you could really get a sense of community empowerment and the ability to make a difference in the world. It is exciting to think of all the things we could accomplish just by joining together to openly discuss important issues that affect us all. Thank you to everyone who participated in tonight’s event and helped make it a huge success!

Tweeting Go Big Read

Can’t come to Michael Pollan’s Kohl Center lecture, but still want to know what’s happening? Or maybe you’ll be there, but are interested in knowing how others are reacting, in real time? Twitter can be a valuable tool for just these issues. We’ll be tweeting the lecture via the Go Big Read Twitter account. You can post your own reactions by including the #gobigread hash tag in your posts.

Whether or not you’re on Twitter, you can follow the conversation, at

Suggest Questions for Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan’s September 24th lecture at the Kohl Center, “In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution,” is free and open to all. We hope you’ll attend and invite anyone you know who might be interested.

Due to the scale of the Kohl Center event, the question and answer period will be moderated. Questions should be suggested in writing by September 21st. The moderator will select a representative group of questions and ask them of Michael Pollan at the event.

If you would like to suggest a question, please post it as a comment to this blog post. Please also consider including some very brief information about yourself.

Please note: Details of the 9/25 panel, now at the Wisconsin Union Theater, are here

The call for questions is now closed. Thanks to all for a great mix of topics and perspectives! You can read them below by clicking on “Comments.”

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read

Food For Thought: Online Book Discussion

Are you unable to attend one of the scheduled book discussions but want to get involved in the conversation?

Want to connect with people from all over the UW campus and the greater Madison community?

Join us in a virtual book discussion on the Food For Thought Posts in the Go Big Read Blog!

Each week, we will be posing a new topic for discussion on the blog, and followers are encouraged to participate by responding in the comment section below each post. Feel free to use and expand on these questions in your own book discussions. Have a great idea for discussion topic? Let us know! Contact the Go Big Read Program at

Food For Thought: Topic for Discussion Week of September 21, 2009

Has Pollan changed the way you think about food? If so, how?

Have All Our Foods Become Fake Foods?

In Michael Pollan’s book he suggests that we lost control of what is in our foods and now we have stores full of fake foods or food-like products. Hence he called the book in defense of (these real) foods.

As a food scientist I feel that some clarification of the actual situation is needed regarding his claim. In the US we have federal standards of identity (CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 for a wide range of food products including categories such as: Milk and cream, Canned fruits, Bottled Water, Canned vegetables, Food dressings and flavorings, Chocolate products, Cheeses, Cereals and flours, Frozen desserts, Bakery products, etc. Fruits and vegetables are not included in these standards. Standards of identity define what a given food product is, its name, and the ingredients that must or may be used in the manufacture of that food. Food standards ensure that consumers get what they expect when they purchase certain food products. For example, to be called Ice Cream a product must be made from cream (derived from milk) and not some other fat source (e.g. vegetable oils). These food standards prescribe aspects such as the minimum amounts of certain ingredients; maximum fat and water contents and methods of processing or preparation. It is not correct of Pollan to suggest in his book that yogurt is now made with hydrogenated fat. The only type of fat that can be used in yogurt according to its standard (21 CFR Part 131.200) is milk fat. Pollan is correct in his comment that many ingredients are now added to some foods that were probably not in these products back in the 1980s. Much of these concern “nutrients” added to foods to improve its nutritional profile, e.g. cholesterol-lowering plant sterols which is an FDA approved claim (21 CFR 101.83). The FDA allows several types of claims to be made on foods, these are (a) health claims that meet significant scientific agreement (e.g. that plant sterols can reduce cholesterol claim), (b) qualified health claims (e.g., some limited evidence supporting the claim but not considered conclusive by the FDA) and (c) nutrient content claims (the usage of terms like lowfat, lean, etc. See the FDA website for more details.

The addition of nutrients and the inclusion of “claims” is of course largely driven by marketing (to increase sales). If you, as a consumer, do not want Omega-3s in a food product, then just don’t purchase it. Most of the new food products that are introduced each year fail and are withdrawn within a short period and of course, companies that want to stay in business, will launch another product to take its place. The important point is food products, that are regulated by a standard of identity (and most “traditional” foods have standards while novelties like Twinkies do not), still have to comply with the requirements of that standard even if the manufacturer wants to add some additional nutrient like Omega-3 to the product. I would recommend anyone interested in the ingredients or nutrients permitted in our foods to visit the FDA website ( Anytime that the FDA considers changing a standard (or regulation) for a food, you as a consumer can post your comment on this website and this comment will be considered by FDA before any change is made. I just do not understand the view that adding a nutrient (e.g. vitamin D) to a traditional food like breakfast cereal somehow makes it an inferior quality product! I agree, however, that just because a food is called lowfat does not make it a very healthy product if it contained lots of calories from carbohydrate! I do not believe there is reasonable evidence to conclude that all our foods have become fake foods although many consumers are confused about the claims and labels on foods.

Although it is obviously not what Pollan believes in his personal manifesto, the comprehensive food standards we have in the US are envied (and often used as a reference) in many other part of the World.

Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Blog Policy – Guidelines for Sharing your Point of View

The policy for comments on the blog is printed below, and is clearly posted in the comment section of each blog post. In creating the policy, we reviewed a range of standard policies and believe ours to be fair.

A few of the comments posted in response to the call for questions did not include questions for Pollan (“comments that are not relevant to the original post”) or included verbal attacks on individuals (“personal attacks”). As such, these were not posted, but we welcome you to resubmit and invite everyone to share their point of view in a civil manner.

Also posted here are questions submitted after the September 21st deadline.

If you have policy questions or concerns, you may contact
Please feel free to share reactions that are not questions as comments to this post.

Thank you,

Sarah McDaniel
Go Big Read


Comments posted to the Go Big Read blog are moderated. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that include any of the following:

  1. Offensive or inappropriate language
  2. Personal attacks
  3. Copyrighted materials used without permission in cases where permission is required
  4. External links and/or comments that are not relevant to the original post

UW -Madison’s Health Sciences community embraces Go Big Read.

When In Defense of Food was chosen as the inaugural Go Big Read selection, members of the health sciences community at UW immediately recognized the opportunity to connect Michael Pollan’s work with broader discussions of the role of diet in health and wellness. September 21-25th has been declared “In Defense of Food Week” at the Health Sciences Learning Center (HSLC), and a series of events will connect the themes of food, health, and the choices available to Wisconsinites.

All events are in HSLC 1335 unless otherwise noted, and all are welcome!

Monday, 9/21, 12:15-1:15 pm
“Backyard Food Options: Lessons Learned in Backyard Gardening and Chicken Raising” Monica Theis, Department of Food Sciences, and Daniel Marleau, School of Medicine and Public Health, will talk about how you can bring healthy food to your own yard.

Tuesday, 9/22, 3-4 pm
“Food and Health: How to Choose Well” Gail Underbakke, nutrition coordinator for UW Health’s Preventive Cardiology Program, will walk attendees through the food landscape, focusing on interpreting nutritional labels. The opening reception of “It’s Good For You! 100 Years of the Art and Science of Eating” follows from 4-6, in the Ebling Library Historical Reading Room.

Wednesday, 9/23, 12:15-1:15 pm
“Farmers’ Market Traditions” Veteran farmers’ market vendors Mary and Quentin Carpenter will share photographs, oral histories, anecdotes, insider’s tips, recipes and more concerning this engaging tradition of commerce, confusion, fun and fresh food.

Thursday, 9/24, 12:15-1:15 pm
“The Longevity Code” Dr. Zorba Paster will discuss his book The Longevity Code: Your Personal Prescription for a Longer, Sweeter Life.

Friday, 9/25, noon-1 pm, room 1225
In Defense of Food book discussion, sponsored by Ebling Library and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Book Discussions on Thursday

Just finished and dying to discuss it?

Thursday, September 17th Madison Public Library is sponsoring two book discussions

September 17th at 9:30 a.m. at the Madison Senior Center, 330 W. Mifflin St., (266-6581).Madison Public Librarian Liz Amundson will lead the discussion.

September 17th at 7:00 p.m. at the Sequoya Branch of Madison Public Library, 4340 Tokay Blvd. (266-6385).Susan Lampert Smith, Science Writer and Senior Lecturer at U.W. and former columnist at the Wisconsin State Journal will lead the discussion. Susan, along with her husband Matt Smith, are the owner of Blue Valley Gardens, a certified organic fruit and vegetable farm located 30 mileswest of Madison.

Join Us!

Opening Reception for ‘It’s Good for You’ 100 Years of the Art and Science of Eating

“It’s Good for You” 100 Years of the Art and Science of Eating is a historical exhibition in conjunction with the “Go Big Read” reading program. Themes include include the history of the food pyramid, the story of Victory Gardens, the confusion inherent in diet advice, the “voice of authority” in cookbooks and nutrition literature, the marketing of food products and the evolution of hospital diets.

Opening reception is September 22 from 4-6 p.m. Ebling Library Historical Reading Room, Health Sciences Learning Center. Runs through March 31, 2010.

Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, Ebling Library