The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

by Michael Pollan
Start Free Trial

After reading the first part of Michael Pollan's The Omnivores Dilemma, would you think any differently about eating fast food? Give details from the book.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main discussion in Michael Pollan 's The Omnivore's Dilemma of so-called "fast food" occurs in Chapter 7, which is titled "The Meal: Fast Food." It is in this chapter, unsurprisingly, where Pollan enlightens the reader regarding the ingredients that are contained within many of their favorite foods. With a...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The main discussion in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma of so-called "fast food" occurs in Chapter 7, which is titled "The Meal: Fast Food." It is in this chapter, unsurprisingly, where Pollan enlightens the reader regarding the ingredients that are contained within many of their favorite foods. With a special emphasis on McDonald's, Pollan describes a family trip to one of this particular chain's franchises with his wife and 11-year-old son, the latter of whom orders the chain's popular Chicken McNuggets. It is Pollan's intention, and he supports his thesis with facts, such as the details that go into the manufacture of processed "fast foods" like McNuggets, to alarm his readers about what precisely they are putting into their bodies. If the information Pollan provides causes one to reflect upon their dietary habits, then he has succeeded in his mission.

Pollan devotes, as noted, considerable time to describing the contents of the food he has just purchased for his young son at McDonald's. Before he does this, however, dispenses with any suggestion that this and other fast food chains are serious about offering nutritional options to their customers, especially when children are involved. Noting that his wife has ordered a salad, Pollan writes:

"The marketers have a term for what a salad or veggie burger does for a fast-food chain: "denying the denier." These healthier menu items hand the child who wants to eat fast food a sharp tool with which to chip away at his parents' objections. 'But Mom, you can get the salad . . .'"

From here, Pollan launches into his indepth description of the contents and processes involved in the manufacture of fast food, emphasizing the way in which fast food chains entice customers to defy their own best interests and order food they know to be unhealthy:

"Well-designed fast food has a fragrance and flavor all its own, a fragrance and flavor only nominally connected to hamburgers or French fries or for that matter to any particular food. . .Whatever it is (surely the food scientists know) , for countless millions of people living now, this generic fast-food flavor is one of the unerasable smells and tastes of childhood — which makes it a kind of comfort food. Like other comfort foods, it supplies (besides nostalgia) a jolt of carbohydrates and fat, which, some scientists now believe, relieve stress and bathe the brain in chemicals that make it feel good."

In other words, the fast food industry deliberately, physiologically, manipulates the public for the sole purpose of enticing it to indulge in food that holds a high potential to adversely affect its health. This food, Pollan suggests, is designed to subconsciously instill in the customer a strongly-felt need to consume unhealthy substances that will very likely lead to health problems. The section of the chapter that is intended to have the most sobering effect on the reader is the discussion, in minute detail, of the precise ingredients that, in this particular case, go into the manufacture of McNuggets. Once past his discussion of those ingredients derived from corn--a huge, government (read: taxpayer) subsidized industry--Pollan proceeds into the most important part of his examination of fast food. The following, then, is the operative passage from Pollan's book that should give readers a pause before consuming such foods in the future:

"According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several com-
pletely synthetic ingredients, quasi-edible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but from a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed foods possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono- calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable
fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable. 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 the 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 than 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 ofTBHQ can kill."

Pollan painstakingly describes the contents of processed food and the processes by which these are manufactured. His intention is to alarm the public. The continued popularity of fast food chains, however, indicates that his message has not been widely- or well-received.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team