"I grew up eating margarine," he said. "My mother, even though she knew better at some level, put margarine on the table. And she was doing it because there was this public health campaign, you know, [to] avoid saturated fat. And you had the margarine makers going on about the health benefits. The whole time [my mother] would say, 'I know some day they are going to figure out that butter is better for you than margarine.' And we used to laugh. I mean, that was such a ridiculous idea. But, of course, it turned out to be true. We replaced a possibly mildly unhealthy fat, called saturated fat, in butter with what has turned out to be a demonstrably lethal fat, trans fat, in margarine."
Pollan says that the history of food in the modern world is one margarine after another.
"In general, I'm inclined to stick with the tried and true when it comes to food," he said. "And let the novelties be tested for a while. I think we need to begin to spend more on food, both in terms of money and in time. I know that's not a popular message. People like their convenience foods. But this experiment of outsourcing our food preparation to corporations has failed us. I mean, it's left us really unhealthy, really unsatisfied. And I think it's undermined the family life and undermined the community."
Pollan's message at its core is to stop listening to the food marketers, stop following the latest diet trend, and go back to listening to your mother.
Not too much.
But if we aren't eating food, what are we eating?
"There is food and there is what I call edible food-like substances," Pollan said. "These are things we've invented in the last 50 years or so that, you know, smell like food, taste like food, look like food, but they're very different than the kinds of things people ate a hundred years ago."
What's the difference between food and edible food-like substances? Pollan says it can be difficult to tell one from the other sometimes, so he's come up with some rules to follow (CLICK HERE for more on Pollan's tips and advice).
Eat food. Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
Avoid even those food products that come bearing health claims.
Especially avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable c) more than five in number — or that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
Get out of the supermarket whenever possible, and try and buy local.
Pay more, eat less.
Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. People who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are.
Cook. And, if you can, plant a garden.
Eat like an omnivore.
Pollan says simple foods like oats become expensive when they're re-packaged to provide novelty and convenience.
"I can buy a pound of rolled oats for 89 cents for organic in my market, and that's a lot of food because they're really light. It's a commodity. You can't distinguish your rolled oats from someone else's," he said. "The price will continually be going down because someone else will figure out a way to make them a little more cheaply."