Michael Pollan: From food guru to psychonaut

Posted on Jul 12, 2018

It's not often we get to link to Stephen Colbert's Late Show on the Sumfood blog but this short chat with [Michael Pollan](Michael Pollan) humorously captures the unconventionality—some would say outlandishness—of his latest headline-grabbing venture.

Pollan has been called many things in his writing career: award-winning author, activist, journalist, professor, food pundit, guru, revolutionary—even the High Priest of American Food and America's (sugar-free) Sweetheart. The release of his eighth book has provided the 63-year-old Long Island native with a new, and definitely unexpected, label: psychonaut.

What’s a psychonaut? Per the Macmillan Dictionary: ‘A person who explores altered states of consciousness for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition, including shamanism, sensory deprivation, and the use of psychedelic substances.’

In short: Someone who drops acid.

Of course, Pollan’s approach to the writing of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, is similar to the one he took to each of his previous books—impassioned, personal, thought-provoking, and ultimately compelling to an audience desperate for expertly crafted insight into the always precarious ‘human condition’.

Asked if the new book is a departure from his ‘food’ books (which Pollan says his wife may have been sick of hearing him talk about) or part of a continuum, he gave a very Michael Pollan answer: “Both, really. I have this abiding interest in how we interact with other plant and animal species and how they get ahead in nature by gratifying our desires. And one of those desires I have always been keenly interested in is the desire to change consciousness.”

There’s no doubt Pollan’s work has changed the consciousness of consumers seeking a new relationship with food. He’s credited Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001) and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2002) with piquing the curiosity of consumers about their system of industrial food production, but Pollan is often touted as the inspiration of a ‘food movement’, the ethos of which is vividly captured by three things he recommends for someone starting out in a kitchen: "1) Pay attention to where your food comes from. I won’t buy meat unless it’s grass-fed or pastured and ideally raised within a 150-mile radius of my home. Buy local first, then organic. If the ingredient list on the package has a lot of polysyllabic chemicals you’re not familiar with or can’t pronounce, don’t buy it. 2) Make friends with your butcher, fishmonger, produce man, and cheese vendor. Ask what he’s most excited about today and tailor your shopping list and menu accordingly. 3) Think quality, not quantity. It’s better to eat four ounces of local grass-fed beef than a cheap 14-ounce industrially processed steak."

Pollan's place in the movement to reform America's industrial food production system was cemented with 2006's national bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Eventually named as one of the NY Times top 5 non-fiction books of the year, it proved that millions of people shared both Pollan's curiosity about where food comes from and his concerns about how it is produced—the bare bones of food transparency.

Here's how Pollan described the dilemma of choosing what to eat: "Without a stable culture of food to guide us, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance. We listen to scientists, to government guidelines, to package labels—to anything but our common sense and traditions. And so the most pleasurable of activities—eating—has become fraught with anxiety."

For the tenth anniversary of Dilemma, Pollan wrote a preface heralding the "remarkable changes" that had taken place in the food and farming landscape since 2006:

"There are now more than 8,000 farmers markets in America, an increase of 180% since 2006. More than 4,000 school districts now have farm-to-school programs, a 430% increase since 2006, and the percentage of elementary school with gardens has doubled, to 26%. During that period, sales of soda have plummeted, falling 14% between 2004 and 2014.The food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate. Sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today."

Here, Pollan candidly discusses food transparency and his reluctance to be considered a leader in the food movement. It's nearly a half-hour long, but is worth a watch.

If Dilemma focused on what Americans were eating, his next book, 2008's In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto sought to show how they could change the way they eat. He did this through what he called "a few simple rules", one of which struck a chord with many:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

You couldn't craft a more effective slogan for consumers seeking an alternative to a monstrously complex food production system. Another rule advised avoiding products with more than five ingredients listed on the label, which some have credited with sparking what's known as the 'clean label' movement in the food industry (i.e., more natural-sounding ingredients, less big words).

Pollan’s unique ability to motivate lies in his prose, however, which entertains while it advises: "… as a general rule it's a whole lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a raw potato or a carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over in Cereal the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming their newfound 'whole- grain goodness’ to the rafters. Watch out for those health claims."

It's not necessarily a direct line, but with Whole Foods now listing unacceptable ingredients while vowing "with every purchase, you get peace of mind knowing we've done the homework for you", it's clear Pollan caught the crest of a consumer wave that's replaced at least some food industry obfuscation with an appreciaton of—and demand for—food transparancy.

After dabbling with the science of psychodelics, the mind reels at what Pollan may choose to investigate next. We salute his success at connecting with consumers hungry to learn and make choices more closely aligned with their beliefs. If he no longer chooses to write about food, we're happy to step up to the plate.