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

Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma Summary

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan presents convincing arguments for sustainable, locally produced foods. He uses in-depth research to detail the unpleasant and sometimes horrifying truths about large-scale, industrialized food production.

  • In Section 1, Pollan gives readers an inside look at the world of industrial corn. He examines common fast food items and snack foods to show readers just how much high fructose corn syrup there is in the average American diet.

  • In Section 2, Pollan switches focus to the world of organic foods. He compares the organic food produced in large-scale farming operations to that made on a small scale with locally-sourced produce.

  • In Section 3, Pollan recounts his own experiences hunting and gathering food. He readily admits that isn't a reasonable or convenient solution to our food problem, but recommends the experience to those who want to feel closer to the food they eat.

Introduction

Going to the grocery store can be an exercise in guilt. You know—or think you know—that you should buy free-range eggs, organic celery, and grass-fed beef. But should you pay attention to the labels or to the price? Should you shop at your local farmers market, or grow your own tomatoes? These, and other pressing issues, are explored in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, published in 2006.

Pollan, an entertaining writer and expert foodie who reached nonfiction fame with The Botany of Desire and An Eater’s Manifesto, attempts to answer the question that weighs on all of America: do we save our money or our planet...and how? In three info-packed and wryly funny sections, Pollan suggests ways in which to do both. Section 1, titled “Industrial Corn,” examines the source of much of our mass-produced calories, from sweet corn syrup to corn-fed cattle. As a shocking conclusion, Pollan dissects a fast-food meal ingredient by ingredient, in order to show just how much corn Americans ingest.

Section 2, or “Pastoral Grass,” investigates the growing culture of organic farming, and questions whether or not it is truly good for the planet. A large-scale industrial “organic” farm is compared to a much smaller operation, where the farmer takes active steps to work within the natural ecology. Pollan caps this section with a meal made entirely of food purchased at Whole Foods, a well-known national purveyor of organic food.

Finally, in Section 3, Pollan goes primitive in “The Forest,” and eats a meal consisting entirely of food he caught and foraged himself. While he admits that this is not exactly practical, he advises it as a meditative exercise for those of us who have lost touch with the source of our sustenance.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was one of a number of food-centric books published in the past decade, including Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, all of which vilify industrial farming and act as proponents for locally produced and grown food. This trend has translated to movies as well, and Pollan himself narrated the 2009 film Food, Inc., based loosely on The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Synopsis

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, published in 2006 by Penguin Press, is the author's examination of Americans' overall eating habits. Pollan approaches this subject by looking at food as a naturalist does. He points out that all of our food originates as plants, animals, and fungi.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on industrial farming, the second analyzes organic food, and the third discusses hunting and gathering one's own food. Each section ends with a meal, and Pollan's narrative traces the meal back to its origins.

In the book's first section, Pollan zeroes in on the corn industry. Corn and oil compose the heart of the food industry: corn as a crop with byproducts, and oil as the fossil fuels that transport it to our tables. Pollan analyzes a McDonald’s lunch. The meal’s origins are on a cornfield in Iowa, with a main focus on the burgers that come from the steer that eat the corn. The oil used for cooking the fries also comes from corn. In the milk shakes and sodas, the syrup that is used also comes from corn. Amazingly, corn also makes up thirteen of the thirty-eight ingredients in Chicken McNuggets. Any reasonable reader would ask, “How can this be?”

Pollan continues his assault on corn, which makes up more than one fourth of the 45,000 items in a supermarket. Eggs, chickens, corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, prepared foods, toothpaste, and mayonnaise all go back to corn.

What has happened? The food industry went overboard with the corn plant and sold its many byproducts to the American people, making them become fatter and fatter. This exploitation of corn also did not help farmers.

Pollan makes a meal from the ingredients from a small Virginia farm as a lesson in our food, where it comes from, and what our expectations are from such a local meal. He shows readers how far we have come as a society from knowing the sources of our food. What ends up on our tables little resembles its original state.

Critics appreciate Pollan’s cause and admire his compelling and clear writing. The Omnivore’s Dilemma alerts its readers to the changes in our country’s food industry and how radically it has changed our health, diet, and country.