The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Chapter 5 Summary

Michael Pollan

Chapter 5 Summary

In “The Processing Plant,” Pollan attempts to track down what happens to the corn that is not sent to the feedlot. Much of it ends up in processing plants. Pollan distinguishes between a traditional mill, which grinds corn into flour to produce tortillas, and wet mills, which rely on a great deal of water, energy derived from fossil fuels, and steel tanks. These wet mills are like an artificial digestive system that breaks corn down into its molecular parts so it can be used to produce, among many other things, high-fructose corn syrup. Pollan explains that once corn is broken down into these component parts, food scientists can process it to create nearly anything.

The benefit of processed foods is that it allows people that live in northern latitudes to taste pineapple in winter. Less food spoils, so it seems that consumers have freed themselves from their reliance on natural systems. Pollan explains that food companies like General Mills process food for profit rather than nutrition. Pollan outlines his argument by pointing out that people can only eat so much food, a concept represented by terms like fixed stomach and inelastic demand. He invites readers to consider, If people can only eat so much food, how can a company or industry’s profits grow? Pollan explains that the population expanding is too slow, but there are two short-term strategies: the first is to coax people to eat more; the second is convincing consumers to spend more money for the same amount of food. Pollan concludes:

Turning cheap corn into complex food systems is an excellent way to achieve both goals.

Pollan goes on to discuss other innovations that have come from processed foods, including “nutraceutical foods.” He cites a recent product that combines the cancer-fighting flavonoid phenols of red wine with the dietary fiber of a red apple. Pollan recalls a dream from the 1960s in which an entire meal’s nutrients could be put into a pill; he suggests that today the dream is to put pills into food. To point out the odd nature of these foods, Pollan cites an article entitled “Getting More Fruits and Vegetables into Food” and comments, “I had thought fruits and vegetables were already foods.” Pollan suggests that a recent innovation, “resistant starch,” is indigestible. This means people can eat foods built from resistant starch without actually digesting them. Pollan concludes that

when fake sugars and fake fats are joined by fake starches, the food industry will at long last have overcome the dilemma of the fixed stomach…since this food will leave no trace.