I am finally resuming my hiatus-ridden review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Let’s all hope that I quit getting distracted.
Chapter Seven is on the “Fast Food Meal,” in which Pollan demonstrates that he is a fine writer, fluid with prose that is easy on the eyes. I often think he is just crazy nuts, but he is fun to read. He has been following that enormous river of corn, headwaters in Iowa, and we now come to that great delta of fast food joints.
He falls for the dosage fallacy on p. 113, where he objects to the use of TBHQ, “an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the [chicken] nugget or the inside of the box it comes in” (p. 113). This is a form of butane, better known to you as lighter fluid, which the FDA allows to be used sparingly on our food. Now quite aside from whether or not you want your nugget to have that extra tang of freshness, Pollan goes on to say something almost completely irrelevant.
The FDA allows no more than 0.02 percent of “the oil in a nugget” to be made up of this boon from science. Pollan goes on to say that a single gram of TBHQ can cause “nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse” (p. 114). Not only that, but five grams of the stuff can kill (p. 114).
Okay, so you have the nuggets proper, and then you have the oil in the nuggets. We take that oil and find that 0.02 of it can be TBHQ. How many grams is that? It turns out that Pollan doesn’t tell us, but the chances are good that it is way below a single gram, a distance to be measured in light years.
Here is the dosage fallacy. Apple seeds have a cyanide compound in them, and so it would not be a good idea to save all your apple seeds in a jar over a couple of years, and then eat them all at once. Okay, so don’t do that. But I have (personal confession) eaten my apples whole and entire for a long time now. And you know what? I feel fine! Trace elements do not a poison problem make.
But Pollan’s real adversary is corn. He and his family chowed down at a fast food emporium, and then had somebody calculate what they had consumed.
“The sodas came out at the top, not surprisingly since they consist of little else than corn sweetener, but virtually everything else we ate revealed a high proportion of corn, too. In order of diminish corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent)” (p. 117).
But perhaps there is another conclusion to draw, not quite as grim as Pollan’s indictment of the “industrial eater.” Let’s look at it another way: we are all vegans now!