We Are What We Eat

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Group Inc., New York, NY. pg. 15-119.


My initial thought when reflecting on Pollan’s book is: wow. Reading everything in the first half of his book was eye-opening, and it had my attention the entire time. Quite outstanding.

Even in the very first chapter I was engrossed in the book. Pollan brings up so many facts and things about food that normally, we wouldn’t even think of. For example, we often think of a supermarket simply as a place where we can pick up our necessities, but “in the eyes of a naturalist, your impression is apt to be of its astounding biodiversity” (pg. 16). Supermarkets have such a wide range of plants and animals within such a small area, something I’ve never thought of before.

One thing that Pollan really gets into quickly is corn. Right away, he states that corn is everything: coffee whitener, Cheez Whiz, frozen yogurt, waffles, syrups, sauces, hot dogs, vitamins, toothpaste, trash bags -the list goes on and on. I’m willing to bet that no one really knows how many things contain corn, or started from the plant.

“You are what you eat, it’s often said, and if this is true, then what we mostly are is corn – or, more precisely, processed corn” (pg. 20).

I found it very intriguing how corn, over the years, have become more and more dependent on humans. As Pollan put it, “corn, with the help of its Native American allies, evolved whatever traits it needed to survive and flourish” (pg. 25). I’m a fan of this statement, not only because he talks about corn as if it is a person with allies, but also because it reminds me of the argument from his other book, ‘The Botany of Desire’, which raises the question of who’s really in control – plants or people? We depend on corn for a ridiculous amount of things, but corn also depends on us.

Kind of interesting, don’t you think?

Something I especially liked about Pollan’s writing is that he gives us a background and history about where food comes from, but he provides us with that information as he’s travelling to various places and talking to various people in the book. When he goes to George Naylor’s farm, he talks about the farming background of food; when he goes to the ranch, he talks about the industrial background of producing food. It’s a story crammed with facts. Learning about the history and background of corn was actually very interesting, yet sad. Pollan mentions how farmers planted more and more of it, at first causing chickens and cattle to disappear from farms, then pushing out the people (corn doesn’t require as much labor as the old, diversified farms).

However, the most engrossing part of this book by far was discovering the relationship between corn and livestock. These days, livestock are fed with corn-based everything, which I was not aware of. Being fed a rich diet of corn, cows reach slaughter weight much faster than cows raised on grass – in industry, it is all about efficiency. “Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories [for livestock] on the market” (pg. 75). Although this may be true, a diet of corn can cause the cows many health problems, including ulcers, rumenitis, liver disease, and a weak immune system, which is turn can lead to other problems. Yet we continue to consume the meat on a regular basis – you wouldn’t eat a sick animal, so why would you eat one of these cows?

Utterly appalling.

I think Pollan definitely makes it clear that corn is the most efficient ways to get calories, whether it be in the form of an animal fat, a sugar, or a starch. As I mentioned before, most people probably don’t even know how much of our food is corn-based. Not only that, but most people probably don’t have a clue about the role corn plays in today’s food industry. I loved reading Pollan’s work, and he is undoubtedly changing my thoughts about food products. We really are living in a world where the food industry could be accurately described as “the omnivore’s dilemma”.


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