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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan

Published: 2006-04-11
Hardcover : 464 pages
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Make this your next book club selection and everyone saves.
Get 15% off when you order 5 or more of this title for your book club.
Simply enter the coupon code POLLANOMNIVORE at checkout.
This offer does not apply to eBook purchases. This offer applies to only one downloadable audio per purchase.

What should we have for dinner?" To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't—which mushrooms should be avoided, for example, and which berries we can enjoy. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

Pollan has divided The Omnivore's Dilemma into three parts, one for each of the food chains that sustain us: industrialized food, alternative or "organic" food, and food people obtain by dint of their own hunting, gathering, or gardening. Pollan follows each food chain literally from the ground up to the table, emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the species we depend on. He concludes each section by sitting down to a meal—at McDonald's, at home with his family sharing a dinner from Whole Foods, and in a revolutionary "beyond organic" farm in Virginia. For each meal he traces the provenance of everything consumed, revealing the hidden components we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods reflects our environmental and biological inheritance.

We are indeed what we eat-and what we eat remakes the world. A society of voracious and increasingly confused omnivores, we are just beginning to recognize the profound consequences of the simplest everyday food choices, both for ourselves and for the natural world. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a long-overdue book and one that will become known for bringing a completely fresh perspective to a question as ordinary and yet momentous as What shall we have for dinner?

A few facts and figures from The Omnivore's Dilemma:

  • Of the 38 ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, there are at least 13 that are derived from corn. 45 different menu items at Mcdonald’s are made from corn.
  • One in every three American children eats fast food every day.
  • One in every five American meals today is eaten in the car.
  • The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States—more than we burn with our cars and more than any other industry consumes.
  • It takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.
  • A single strawberry contains about five calories. To get that strawberry from a field in California to a plate on the east coast requires 435 calories of energy.
  • Industrial fertilizer and industrial pesticides both owe their existence to the conversion of the World War II munitions industry to civilian uses—nerve gases became pesticides, and ammonium nitrate explosives became nitrogen fertilizers.
  • ...

Editorial Review

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What should we have for dinner?
This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly
simple question. Along the way, it also tries to figure out how such a
simple question could ever have gotten so complicated. As a culture we
seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may
once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and
anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities—figuring out what
to eat—has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help. How
did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell
us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner
For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall
of 2002, when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human
life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of
course about bread.Virtually overnight,Americans changed the way the
way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia
seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia
18407_OMNI_01_1-434_r2ss.qxp 11/28/05 10:51 AM Page 1
dating to the Carter administration. The latter was when, in 1977, a
Senate committee had issued a set of “dietary goals” warning beefloving
Americans to lay off the red meat. And so we dutifully had, until
What set off the sea change? It appears to have been a perfect media
storm of diet books, scientific studies, and one timely magazine article.
The new diet books, many of them inspired by the formerly discredited
Dr. Robert C. Atkins, brought Americans the welcome news that they
could eat more meat and lose weight just so long as they laid off the
bread and pasta.These high-protein, low-carb diets found support in a
handful of new epidemiological studies suggesting that the nutritional
orthodoxy that had held sway in America since the 1970s might be
wrong. It was not, as official opinion claimed, fat that made us fat, but
the carbohydrates we’d been eating precisely in order to stay slim. So
conditions were ripe for a swing of the dietary pendulum when, in the
summer of 2002, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on
the new research entitled “What if Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat?”Within
months, supermarket shelves were restocked and menus rewritten to
reflect the new nutritional wisdom.The blamelessness of steak restored,
two of the most wholesome and uncontroversial foods known to
man—bread and pasta—acquired a moral stain that promptly bankrupted
dozens of bakeries and noodle firms and ruined an untold number
of perfectly good meals.
So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of
a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a
culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and
eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august
legislative body to ever deliberate the nation’s “dietary goals”—or,
for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise
design of an official government graphic called the “food pyramid.” A
country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for
the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It
would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or
fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutri-ent and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse
protein bars or food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with
medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed
fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely
would not be nearly so fat.
Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are
other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions
on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure
and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and, lo and behold,
wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are.We
show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French
paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic
substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and
healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to
speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy
people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.
TO ONE DEGREE or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails
every omnivore, and always has.When you can eat just about anything
nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir
anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable
to sicken or kill you.This is the omnivore’s dilemma, noted long ago by
writers like Rousseau and Brillat-Savarin and first given that name thirty
years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named
Paul Rozin. I’ve borrowed his phrase for the title of this book because
the omnivore’s dilemma turns out to be a particularly sharp tool for
understanding our present predicaments surrounding food.
In a 1976 paper called “The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans,
and Other Animals” Rozin contrasted the omnivore’s existential situation
with that of the specialized eater, for whom the dinner question
could not be simpler. The koala bear doesn’t worry about what’s for
dinner: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be
dinner. The koala’s culinary preferences are hardwired in its genes. But for omnivores like us (and the rat) a vast amount of brain space and
time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential
dishes nature lays on are safe to eat.We rely on our prodigious powers
of recognition and memory to guide us away from poisons (Isn’t that the
mushroom that made me sick last week?) and toward nutritious plants (The red
berries are the juicier, sweeter ones). Our taste buds help too, predisposing us
toward sweetness, which signals carbohydrate energy in nature, and
away from bitterness, which is how many of the toxic alkaloids produced
by plants taste. Our inborn sense of disgust keeps us from ingesting
things that might infect us, such as rotten meat. Many anthropologists
believe that the reason we evolved such big and intricate brains was
precisely to help us deal with the omnivore’s dilemma.
Being a generalist is of course a great boon as well as a challenge; it
is what allows humans to successfully inhabit virtually every terrestrial
environment on the planet. Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety,
too. But the surfeit of choice brings a lot of stress with it and has leds
to a kind of Manichaean view of food, a division of nature into The
Good Things to Eat, and The Bad.
The rat must make this all-important distinction more or less on its
own, each individual figuring out for himself—and then remembering—
which things will nourish and which will poison. The human omnivore
has, in addition to his senses and memory, the incalculable
advantage of a culture, which stores the experience and accumulated
wisdom of countless human tasters before us. I don’t need to experiment
with the mushroom now called, rather helpfully, the “death cap,”
and it is common knowledge that that first intrepid lobster eater was on
to something very good. Our culture 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.
One way to think about America’s national eating disorder is as the return,
with an almost atavistic vengeance, of the omnivore’s dilemma.The
cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering
food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. (Perhaps not as quickly as a
poisonous mushroom, but just as surely.) Certainly the extraordinary
abundance of food in America complicates the whole problem of choice.
At the same time, many of the tools with which people historically managed
the omnivore’s dilemma have lost their sharpness here—or simply
failed. As a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant
populations, each with its own culture of food,Americans have never had
a single, strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us.
The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable
to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer, for
whom the omnivore’s dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity.
It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate
our anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with
new products. Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the
return of the omnivore’s dilemma has deep roots in the imperatives of
modern food industry, roots that, I found, reach all the way back to
fields of corn growing in places like Iowa.
And so we find ourselves where we do, confronting in the supermarket
or at the dinner table the dilemmas of omnivorousness, some of
them ancient and others never before imagined.The organic apple or the
conventional? And if the organic, the local one or the imported? The wild
fish or the farmed? The transfats or the butter or the “not butter”? Shall I
be a carnivore or a vegetarian? And if a vegetarian, a lacto-vegetarian or a
vegan? Like the hunter-gatherer picking a novel mushroom off the forest
floor and consulting his sense memory to determine its edibility,we
pick up the package in the supermarket and, no longer so confident of
our senses, scrutinize the label, scratching our heads over the meaning
of phrases like “heart healthy,”“no transfats,”“cage-free,” or “range-fed.”
What is “natural grill flavor” or TBHQ or xanthan gum? What is all this
stuff, anyway, and where in the world did it come from?
MY WAGER in writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma was that the best way to answer the questions we face about what to eat was to go back to the very beginning, to follow the food chains that sustain us, all the way from ... view entire excerpt...

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by Meagan P. (see profile) 06/22/18

  "A Life Changing Read"by Lynn M. (see profile) 06/05/15

This was one of the best book discussions we have ever had as a book club (going on 5 years). This book really makes you examine what you are eating and where you are buying your food. Even members who... (read more)

  "Ominvores Dilemma "by Suzanne M. (see profile) 05/09/15

Everyone of our members thoroughly enjoyed this book. We had a long discussion, over three hours and all were enthusiastic about the information learned. Michael Pollan writes in a funny way and the information... (read more)

  "Now I see corn everywhere..."by Elissa P. (see profile) 11/09/10

  "The Omnivore's Dilemma"by marianne d. (see profile) 06/10/10

The people in the group that read the book, liked it and it was full of information about the foods we eat. Try to go to farmers market and buy local foods and also try to buy grass fed beef and poultry.... (read more)

  "Omnivore's Dilemma"by Donna D. (see profile) 05/05/10

The omnivore's dilemma, as defined by Michael Pollan is the need to choose from among the many potential food sources available, the ones that are safe and life-sustaining. The reader's dil... (read more)

  "A Must Read!"by Katrina K. (see profile) 03/15/08

I highly recommend this book for everyone! This book has completely changed the way I think about the food I eat and will certainly change they way I buy food. I think it's important to know what we are... (read more)

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