Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.  Penguin Press (2006), 450 pages.

I was prepared to wade through a fair amount of dry technical talk on vegetable genetics and the like, in order to get to the good stuff in this book.  I’m pleased to report, however, that I did not experience a single moment of boredom while reading it.  In fact I could not put it down.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma has everything I look for in nonfiction—lots of information that is new to me, written in a literate, entertaining manner, on a topic I love—in this case, our impact on the environment, and the hidden politics of the industrial food chain.

Pollan follows four different meals, from their beginnings as a seed, a cow, etc., to their final destination upon his plate. I thought I knew most of what there was to know about industrial food, but it turns out the situation is even more wretched and depressing than I realized. The factory-farmed-animal section will not be news to anyone who knows much about that business, but it’s worth reading anyway just to remind yourself why eating any kind of meat, eggs, or dairy products from factory farms is just about the most immoral, abhorrent, depraved activity you could possibly engage in. The real surprise for me in this part of the book is the apparent ubiquity of corn in just about every single thing we eat, and the devastation this crop has wrought upon our planet.  As Pollan says, we are literally “corn walking.”

The second section follows food called “organic” but that is processed in almost exactly the same non-sustainable way as the industrial food. This is an unexpectedly disturbing part of the book, especially if you have been patting yourself on the back, under the illusion that your “organic” food is not contributing to the ruination of the planet and the misery of billions of animals. In the third segment, Pollan investigates truly organic, sustainable, small farms and explains with unassailable clarity why this is the only way farming can and should work. Finally, he has a “hunting & gathering” meal, which consisted of a wild pig, wild mushrooms, and produce from his own backyard garden. Here he makes what I think is a pretty good case for the morality of killing wild animals for food, except for the fact that if everyone did, there would be no wild animals left.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is not just great reading, it should be required reading for everyone who eats.

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapis and increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it get fried… .

To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980’s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)– after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you’d still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins.

This review first appeared in August 2006
By Cindy Blackett