“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan

Description of the term „omnivore‟, “carnivore” and “herbivore”, and “omnivore‟s dilemma”

The term ‘omnivore’ is used to characterize a creature that can eat just about anything found within the environment. An omnivore is well adapted to eat both plants and meat of other animals, and thus, its food chain allows for a much greater choice of what is to be eaten from a variety of sources (Pollan 6). The term ‘omnivore’ inarguably describes humans, though there are numerous other creatures with omnivorous characteristics.

Humans are not only endowed with the physical and cognitive capabilities (mind and teeth) to be categorized as omnivores, but their phenomenal powers of observation and memory, in addition to their inquisitive and experimental stance towards various food sources qualifies them as omnivores (Pollan 6). On the other hand, the term ‘carnivore’ describes a creature that largely depends on meat as its primary food source, while the term ‘herbivore’ describes a creature that largely feeds on plants.

Both terms apply to humans by virtue of the fact that they comprise the food chain by which humans survive on, thus their omnivorous capability. Lastly, the term ‘omnivore’s dilemma was coined by Psychologist Paul Rozin, though it had earlier been noted by Rousseau and Brillat-Savarin (Pollan 3).

Discussion of the terms “French paradox” and “American paradox”

The French paradox revolves around the fact that the French decide on their eating habits based on quant and unempirical standards such as pleasure-seeking and tradition, eat all types of foods considered unhealthy per the standards set by the popular media, nutrition books and magazines, yet they end up looking extremely healthier and happier than most Americans who are obsessed with the concept of healthy eating (Pollan 3).

The paradox demonstrates a disjoint in the information responsible for guiding people into healthy living and seemingly underlines the fact that there is more to healthy living than just following strict dietary guidelines mostly developed in the laboratory. The American paradox revolves around the notion of “…unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily” (Pollan 3).

The Americans are known for their strict adherence to dietary habits, but the prospect of looking healthier has evaded them. Again, this paradox points to a possible disjoint of the nutrition information disseminated to Americans by the various mediums and the abundance of food available to Americans.

Pollan’s view of the (US) “national eating disorder”

Pollan comprehensively discusses his view of the U.S. national eating disorder, basing it on our omnivorous characteristic – the orientation and capacity to eat just about anything found in the environment. The author wants to focus attention to the anxieties and challenges that Americans undergo when making their food choices from the numerous options that are available and stocked in supermarkets (Pollan 3, 5).

Specifically, the concept of ‘national eating disorder’ is derived from the confusion that Americans undergo when choosing food due to a breakdown of cultural systems charged with the responsibility of guiding food and eating. The guidelines offered by the government and media have not helped the situation, qualifying it to be called a national eating disorder (Pollan 5). I totally agree with the perceptions fronted by Pollan.

Culture has a central role by virtue of the fact that it “…codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions that keep us from having to reenact the omnivore’s dilemma at every meal” (Pollan 4). In the U.S., however, over-reliance on ‘expert’ help as to what constitutes healthy eating has brought varied views that only serve to water down the native wisdom (culture) that Americans may have once possessed about healthy eating (Pollan 3-4).

Plainly put, the lack of deeply rooted traditions and a steadying culture surrounding food and eating in the U.S. is to blame for the confusion and anxiety engulfing Americans as they go along choosing what to eat and what may poison them.

The three food chains Pollan discusses in his book

The three primary food chains that Pollan intends to discuss include the industrial food chain, the organic food chain, and the hunter-gatherer food chain (Pollan 7). By far the biggest and longest, the industrial food chain follows a load of a commodity such as corn from the plantation field where it is grown, its ‘strange’ transformations and, eventually, its consumption as a product, maybe in a fast-food meal such as cornflakes (Pollan 8).

The organic food chain describes post-industrial food items nurtured using radically innovative biological farming techniques. For example, eating beef products from animals that were initially fed on poly-culture grass. The hunter-gatherer food chain entails tracing food items that have been hunted or gathered (such as fish and mushrooms) to their eventual consumption on the dining table. It is interesting to note that many of our health and environmental challenges generated by our food chain are a result of attempting to oversimplify nature’s complexities in sustaining a perfect food chain.

Humans seek to maximize food production by planting crops or rearing animals in huge monocultures, but these attempts conflict with nature, thus forming some of the root causes of the omnivore’s dilemma (Pollan 9).

The ways corn is tied to our meat and dairy production and consumption

The scientific name of corn is Zea mays (Pollan 8). Pollan opines that except for very few products such as table salt, many other edible food items that grace the supermarket shelves can be traced to corn (18). For example, corn is predominantly fed to the dairy cow that, through a process of the interrelated food chain, produces milk products. Corn is fed to the chicken that lays the eggs we consume and also produces the chicken nuggets that are greatly savored.

The process is even more complicated when it comes to processed foods. It is surprising how much corn is contained in the food products that we normally consume. For example, a processed chicken nugget not only contains corn in the meat itself, but most of its other constituents, including the flour, starch, citric freshener, and the oil used to fry the nugget contains corn.

Food (including beverages) and non-food items that appear to use or contain corn in some way

Some of the food items that contain corn include chicken nuggets, beer, soft drinks, candies, frozen yogurt, hot dogs, and meat products (Pollan 18-19). Some of the non-food items that contain corn include toothpaste, pesticide, cosmetics, batteries, fiberglass, and adhesives (Pollan 19). The extensive list of items containing corn is surprising, especially after the realization that a quarter of the numerous products on offer in our supermarkets contain corn.

The most abundant element in the human body and how it relates to photosynthesis and also the term “C-4” and “C-13”

The most abundant element, according to science, is a carbon (Pollan 20). The carbon atom is found in the air as a constituent of the carbon dioxide molecule. Pollan postulates that “…using sunlight as a catalyst the green cells of plants combine carbon atoms taken from the air with water [photosynthesis] and elements drawn from the soil to make the simple organic compounds that stand at the base of every food chain” (20-21).

Scientists have proved that while most plants during photosynthesis produces compounds that comprise three carbon atoms; the corn plant produces compounds that comprise four carbon atoms, thus the term ‘C-4.’ This capability is beneficial as it enables the corn plant to limit water loss during the process of photosynthesis by taking in extra atoms of carbon (Pollan 21).

To understand the relationship between the above and term ‘C-13,’ it is imperative to note that all carbon is not created equal as some carbon atoms known as isotopes bears “…more than the usual complement of six protons and six neutrons” (Pollan 22). For instance, some carbon atoms are comprised of six protons and seven neutrons, hence the term ‘C-13.’

The interrelation between C-4, C-13, and corn comes from the fact that corn, which is a C-4 plant, takes in more C-13 that other common C-3 plants, therefore ends up with a relatively high count of C-13 than C-12. As such, scientists can very well know if the carbon present in a human’s body came from corn by evaluating the ratio of C-13 vis-à-vis that of C-12. The summary point revolves around the fact that an average American consumes more corn than other populations by virtue of the C-13 count (Pollan 23).

Comparison and contrast the evolution of corn with other grain crops, considering the history of corn, as it is related on the North American continent

Corn is thought to have originated from Central America, and was known in the old world in 1942. However, long before the pilgrims arrived in North America, the plant was already commonplace, where it is thought to have been cultivated by the Indians by the year 1000 (Pollan 25). The plant was adopted in North America at pretty high levels due to its features that kept it at a distinct advantage over other cereals. Compared to wheat, corn was well adapted to the environmental conditions and soils of North America while wheat struggled for the better part to adapt to the continent’s unsympathetic climate (Pollan 25).

The corn’s yield was abundant, while wheat yielded poor returns. Corn’s versatility could not be matched to other cereal plants such as wheat. Also, while it is only the wheat’s grain that went into productive use, nearly everything that constitutes corn went into productive use. For example, its grains could be eaten when raw (green), used to produce alcohol, and the grass and dried husks could be used as animal fodder, heating fuel or woven into rugs. Excess corn could also be sold in the market.

The reproductive cycle of the corn plant, key terms (structures) and the processes involved in corn reproduction

Unlike maize which is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, corn must require the input of humans to reproduce since its seeds are trapped in a tough husk that is hard to break (Pollan 26). According to Pollan, “…the tassel at the top of the [corn] plant houses the male organs, hundreds of pendant anthers that…release a superabundance of powdery yellow pollen” (28). The female reproductive organ is located just about a meter below the male organ, and comprises numerous tiny flowers set in tidy rows along a petite, enclosed cob that sticks out in an upward orientation.

Each of the many flowers on a cob has the probability to grow into a kernel, but only if the pollen grain can muster its way to the flower’s egg – a task that is greatly limited by the distance factor and the tough husk. To overcome the challenge of tough husks, “…each flower sends out through the tip of the husk a single, sticky strand of silk…to snag its own grain of pollen (Pollan 28-29). This process coincides with the very day the male organ is set to release its yellow dust.

After the pollen grain has dropped down into the moisturized tip of silk, its nucleus splits in two, producing a pair of twins, each with a similar set of genetic material but an entirely distinct function to perform in the production of the kernel. The first’s pair function “…is to tunnel a microscopic tube down through the center of the silk thread…

Then its clone slides down through the tunnel, past the husk, and into the waiting flower” (Pollan 29). When this is achieved the second pair combines with the egg to generate the embryo – the seed of what will later become the kernel. Afterwards, the first pair follows, penetrating the already fertilized flower to become the basic structure of the endosperm – basically the starchy constituent of the kernel.

Benefits that the particular reproductive cycle of corn offer modern agriculture and humans

Since humans contribute immensely in facilitating the fertilization process, modern agriculture and science could be used to produce high-yield, pest-resistant, highly versatile corn that will satisfy its many uses. Second, the capability to inbreed corn has been known to facilitate mechanization (Pollan 31).

Lastly, in terms of modern agriculture, corn offers farmers more business in selling patented seeds to enhance productivity. I very much agree with these benefits since they have been thoroughly researched and scientifically tested to prove their authenticity.

Works Cited

Pollan, M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York, NY: The Penguin Press. 2006.

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