Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance, as the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.
One Sentence Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a compelling, meticulously researched journalistic exposé on America’s food industry.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a detailed scientific and philosophical examination of America’s food supply. Journalist Michael Pollen traces the ingredients of four meals back to their source, and discovers some interesting (and disconcerting) facts about what we’re putting in our mouths every day.
The book is divided into three parts and twenty chapters. Part one (chapters 1-7) traces your average McDonalds meal back to its source and paints a vivid picture of America’s cornfields and feedlots. Part two (chapters 8-14) examines two very different types of organic–industrial organic and local organic. Lastly, part three (chapters 15-20) explores the ancient arts of hunting and foraging and philosophizes about the ethical implications of hunting.
Each section of this book was fascinating and helped me to better understand the biology of the food I eat, but none was more shocking–or complicated–than the section on fast food, hi-tech corn production, and the modern CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Consider this frightening analysis of one of the thirty-eight ingredients in the chicken McNugget:
'The Omnivore's Dilemma' Will Make You Think Twice About What You EatClick To Tweet
But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or inside of the box it comes in to “help preserve freshness.” According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e., lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more that 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause “Nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.” Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.
Pollen’s description of the CAFO he visited in Garden City, Kansas–Poky Feeders–is equally disturbing:
Poky Feeders, population, thirty-seven thousand. A sloping subdivision of cattle pens stretches to the horizon, each one home to a hundred or so animals standing dully or lying around in a grayish mud, that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all. The pens line a network of unpaved roads that loop around vast waste lagoons on their way to the feedyard’s thunderously beating heart and dominating landmark: a rhythmically chugging feed mill that rises, soaring and silvery in the early morning light, like an industrial cathedral in the midst of a teeming metropolis of meat.
These dismal images are starkly contrasted with the environment at Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, home of Joel Salatin and his grass-eating cows.
Laid before me was, I realized, a scene of almost classical pastoral beauty–the meadows dotted with contented animals, the backdrop of woods, a twisting brook threading through it all–marred only by the fact that I couldn’t just lie here on this springy pasture admiring it for the rest of the afternoon.
The research presented in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is critical to understanding the health and environmental implications of our food sources. Pollen’s narrative of his visits to factory farms, large-scale organic farms, alternative farms, and finally, the wilds of northern California, is colorful and engaging. This is one book everyone should read.
Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma? What did you think?