Chapter 7 Summary
“The Meal” concludes the first part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan attempts to trace what he calls the industrial food chain. Having discovered how ubiquitous corn has become in America, Pollan acknowledges that he could have eaten almost any meal to finish his investigation. However, he ultimately chose to take his wife and son out to McDonald’s, where they each ordered individual meals. Although his wife objects to wasting a meal by eating fast food, Pollan’s son quickly shares that McDonald’s now serves salads. Pollan’s son is fulfilling a marketing strategy in which a child is able to “deny the denier” of fast food by pointing out that there are more healthful options like salads.
At the drive-through window, Pollan receives a handout titled “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts: Choose the Best Meal for You.” He discovers that one of the ingredients (dimethylpolysiloxene) is a suspected carcinogen. Pollan considers whether Chicken McNuggets taste like chicken and realizes that almost all fast food simply tastes like fast food. This leads him to speculate how much corn was used to make his family’s meal, and he decides to have a meal tested using a spectrometer. Pollan lists his meal “by order of diminishing corniness”: soda has the most corn, followed by the milk shake, the salad dressing, the chicken nuggets, the cheeseburger, and finally the French fries.
Pollan explains that from the point of view of the agribusiness, the corn-fed industrial food chain allows corporations to increase profits faster than the American population expands. For consumers from the “lower rungs of America’s economic ladder,” this food is cheap—but it also leads to obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Ecologically, the industrial food chain requires a great deal of energy to continue running because it relies not only on solar energy but also on fossil fuels. Although the corn plant itself is more abundant than ever before, American corn farmers exist only by government subsidy. Pollan concludes:
You have to wonder why we Americans don’t worship this plant as fervently as the Aztecs; like they once did, we make extraordinary sacrifices to it.
Ultimately, the Pollan family’s meal added up to over four thousand calories, far more than they naturally require for lunch. Although many people may view fast food as a comfort food or as a food that recalls their childhood, Pollan finds that his family had finished eating (while in the car) in less than ten minutes. Ironically, it seems that perhaps the food is consumed as quickly as it is made. Pollan suggests that the speed of consumption indicates that it is not worth savoring.