Enjoying and learning from the content on A No Grainer? If you’re looking for resources to enhance your journey towards natural health then this book is an excellent choice. Read the review for more.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by American food journalist, Michael Pollan, explores the various food chains in developed Western nations and the impacts on the producer, consumer, food and the environment every step of the way. Although based on the American food system, which is slightly more broken than in Australia, this book can serve as a wake-up call and warning for readers around the world. In most developed countries we have become far too disconnected from where our food originates and the impact that it has on the environment.

Personally, reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma at this point on my journey towards a healthier life supported by a nutrient dense diet was timely. Now that I am more aware of the way in which nutrients act in the body, and from which foods to obtain them, I am interested in turning my attention to the very important issue of our food supply. Pollan’s anecdotes and evidence about the food supply will be powerful tools to help educate clients on the importance of being more selective in their shopping. I am now far more concentrated on obtaining organic, properly grown and raised produce and so a thorough investigation of where these products originate.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, seeks to answer to the question, “How does an animal who can eat anything select what to eat?” I somewhat disagree with the notion that we do not “know” what to eat. Once we remove the highly processed and synthetic foods that numb our body’s senses that the human body is very adept at telling us what it needs. However, Pollan’s attempt to answer to this question in the book does prompt readers to reassess their food supply a multitude of ways. Vegetarians have been prompted to realise the mass deforestation and destruction of soil through pesticide use resulting from crops of grains and chosen to start eating meat. Conversely some meat eaters have been prompted to rethink their approach and become more “conscious carnivores.” Regardless of one’s individual response to the book, it is a timely reminder of the impact of where our food comes on our own health and the health of the planet.

Tracing four main meals

Pollan frames his exploration of the food chain through the lens of four main meals that are typically consumed by Americans.

Industrial farmed meal: The first is a fast food meal made at McDonalds intended to highlight the over-processing of food and the homogenous nature of the supply. He particularly focuses ubiquity of corn in the American food chain. Corn is used to make everything including the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the Coca-Cola, food for the meat in the burger, oil for the fries and even the packaging in which the meal comes. Corn and humans have somewhat symbiotic relationship, humans have made corn a super-crop with no rival and corn has helped sustain the recent exponential growth of the human population. Pollan looks at the genetic modification of crops, harnessing of nitrogen into ammonium nitrate for widespread pesticide use and feeding animals corn, which facilitates keeping them in tiny spaces. The use of a homogenous crop, corn has driven and facilitated a long and severe degradation of the food supply of the majority of Americans.

Industrial Organic meal: As Pollan moves into exploring the organic food chain, he looks at organic farming on an industrial scale and sits down to an “organic industrial meal”. Although organic certification means produce should not be contaminated with antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides, such farming on such a heavy scale is not necessarily better for the environment. Animals may not be pumped full of hormones, but are often kept in such small spaces they still don’t live the kind of life we want our meat to experience. Pollan looks at this through the eyes of Rosie the chicken, who although is raised on an organic farm, the industrial scale of the establishment means her short life is still deprived. Even organic chickens are kept in confined spaces for the first five weeks of their life and so by the time they are given the chance to “roam free” they have no appetite to do so. The corn that these chickens eat, while not supposed to contain pesticides and herbicides, is still a grain with a limited nutritional profile. The food that our food eats has a direct impact on our own health and so despite a chicken being organic, it may not be particularly healthy.

As part of this “organic, industrial meal” Pollan contemplates the carbon footprint, or “food miles” produced by organic, industrial farms. The bulk of energy expended in bringing food to our plate is to harvest, process, package and transport it around the country, and indeed the world. Often an organic version of a food will rack up just as many “food miles” as its non-organic counterpart. This is an important question for all consumers to ponder; particularly those concerned about their health. Our own personal health and the health of our planet, food supply and environment are inextricably linked. We cannot purport to care about one, without some thought for the other. Pollan’s work on this topic will be an important discussion to have with clients once they transition to focusing on a nutrient dense, whole food diet.

Beyond organic: Pollan seeks out a “beyond organic” meal from Polyface Farm where cattle, chickens and crops are given the space and tools to live symbiotically, as nature intended. The cows tread and fertilise the soil, which feeds the grass that they and the chickens graze upon. Their manure is used as further fertiliser for other vegetable crops. The chickens also eat the earthworms that thrive in nutrient rich soil. We see in this example that animals are not destructive to the earth, but actually nourish it and make the entire food supply richer in nutrients. This is a unique example of how an efficient, sustainable farm can exist. Notably, the farmer Joel Salatin, refuses to send his produce around the country and consumers must come and collect it. For him raising and killing animals on his beyond organic farm represents a political, spiritual and emotional activity.

Every single part of the animals killed at Polyface Organic farm is utilised as part of the food system. Pollan describes a gruesome pile of chicken guts that are covered with wood chips to make fertilizer. Here we discuss the importance of animal products in nourishing nitrogen-rich, fertile soil. This is one of the important components of protecting the environment that is overlooked by militant vegans and vegetarians. For healthy soil animal products (bones and their waste) must be part of the equation.

While at Polyface beyond organic farm Pollan looks at the health impacts of animals raised on corn vs the foods they are evolved to eat. Apart from being very unhealthy for the animal, grain-based diets in place of diets based on grass and fresh produce dramatically alter the nutritional profile of an animal, with a knock on effect on the human that eats it. Grass-eating animals such as cows and sheep that are fed grain have a much higher omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio than their properly raised counterparts. In the context of today’s diet where omega-6s far out number the amount of omega-3s we consume this presents a host of problems relating to inflammation in the body.

Wild-caught meal: Pollan’s final meal in the book is one that he catches and kills himself. Pollan goes hunting for wild-pigs, which he describes as a deeply emotional experience, but an important one to properly understand the food chain. On his second trip he successfully catches a wild pig, which is turned into delicious prosciutto. To accompany this meal are wild mushrooms, which also have a variety of health properties.

Final words

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an excellent resource for people who have moved to a more whole foods diet, but need extra encouragement to prioritise buying organic, sustainably raised produce. Pollan reminds us that while we don’t always have full control over where our food comes from, as paying customers we can always vote with our dollar. Humans are not above the food chain, but an important part of the web.

Nurturing the health of our planet and its various ecosystems is the first step to nourishing yourself well.

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