Mark Bittman may be the most important thinker in the food world. His number 1 bestselling book, VB6 6: Vegan Before 6, published in 2013, was one of the first moments when plant-leaning or plant-curious consumers felt they could take intermediate steps toward eating plant-based, without going the whole way. And like the benevolent uncle who patiently explains why you should try something new, Bittman guided his audience toward plant-based habits without judgment or recrimination. In the eight years since he wrote the viral book, the rise of plant-leaning eating among self-described “flexitarians” has grown exponentially. In Bittman’s world, you don’t have to be all one thing or another, you just have to try to do better–for yourself and the planet–over time, which means eating more plant-based whenever possible.
Bittman told us: When more people eat more plant-based, more of the time, then that’s the bigger win for humanity and the planet than trying to convince people to eat strictly vegan all the time. Just 3 percent of Americans call themselves vegan, a statistic that has changed little over the decade, whereas a just-released survey found that 54 percent of Millennials define themselves as “flexitarian.” And surveys find that more Americans than ever are trying plant-based foods, especially since the pandemic.
These shifts have not come a moment too soon, Bittman says. How we eat and the typical American diet laden with junk food and the agricultural systems that support it is killing us and our planet. This grim reality is the subject of his new book, out February 2nd, Animal, Vegetable Junk, which traces human history through the vantage point of our food systems, and leads us to the unvarnished conclusion that we are all hastening our demise with chips. Spoiler alert: With the sub-title, From Sustainable to Suicidal, the picture it paints isn’t pretty. His message: We need to change the way we think about food, farming, and fueling ourselves, or we are doomed.
This may be a “tough topic” to get people to love reading about, but Bittman has the chops to pull it off; with an author bio that reads like the ambassador of food politics, Bittman is squarely in the “foodie” world. He talks the talk of someone who loves delicious dinners, finding fresh, nutritious, locally-grown ingredients at local farmers’ markets, and relaxing by cooking. He doesn’t just want you to eat smartly but to enjoy it. As the author of 30 books, including How to Cook Everything, Food Matters, and his #1 bestseller VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6, Bittman is poised to teach us. An alternative title for Animal, Vegetable Junk might have been: Put down that potato chip: It’s killing you. Or: Junk Food? How About Never.
We video called Bittman, who shared his latest thinking, but of course, if you really want to know how to eat to change the world, buy The book, which comes out on February 2nd, is on Amazon and is sure to be another bestseller.
“The history of Homo sapiens is usually told as a story of technology or economics,” the description of Animal, Vegetable Junk says. “But there is a more fundamental driver: food. How we hunted and gathered explains our emergence as a new species and our earliest technology; our first food systems, from fire to agriculture, tell where we settled and how civilizations expanded. The quest for food for growing populations drove exploration, colonialism, slavery, even capitalism.”
Bittman took the time to answer how our food choices impact everything. Bittman says food is even more important than we believe it is since it touches every part of our lives.
The Beet: What made you want to write your new book?
Mark Bittman: I realized the current American diet is unsustainable and current agriculture is unstainable. Cooking and eating and enjoying food are all very important, but food is a bigger topic. It is as important as anything and when I started to think about that … in 2009 I started writing about food for the Times’ Sunday Review section and in 2010, I went to the opinion editor and I said, ‘if you have a columnist who writes about economics and about politics it’s imperative to talk about food.’ I convinced him
There was no one doing what I did. Nothing on opinion or news. I left the Times to write something longer than 1,000 words. I had written these columns of 1,000 words and the recipes, which are 400 words, and I wanted to write about something longer, that could address the big picture. So that led to me writing Animal Vegetable Junk.
The Beet: It used to be you had to be all-or-nothing when it came to being vegan. Your book, Vegan Before 6 changed that. You made it okay to be mostly plant-based. Now the world has caught up with that thinking. What happened?
Mark Bittman: I remember the first vegans I met who said I don’t care if you are pure or not, but we care that you are moving in the right direction. To not be dogmatic or strident is the point. To say: It’s in all of our best interests to be eating more plants. What matters is that you move on the spectrum toward eating more plants.
What changed was: The writing was on the wall. For the human race to survive and to have a diet that is better for us, we need to move toward a diet that is more plant-based. Let’s just work on people just eating better. But I want to say this: There is another evolution of how to achieve this. You can address individual behavior, but it does also go beyond this because a lot of our calories could be more readily termed “poison” than food.
The Beet: I recently read that 60 percent of our calories are from junk food. And this is not a new statistic, so likely, it’s even more than that by now. What can we do about it?
Mark Bittman: That is correct. The number one source of calories in America is junk food. Someone has to be eating that. For one reason or another, it’s being eaten, because economically, it’s cheaper to produce. Famers produce more soy and corn and wheat, and the majority of calories that are out there on shelves in our country are essentially poison. So as we talk about eating plant-based, we need to talk about not eating poison.
The Beet: You write that we take food for granted; why is that a mistake?
Mark Bittman: It’s a mistake because we have to think about how food is grown, how the soil is treated, how workers are treated, and what is left over when our food is created. You can’t just eat and not think about it. People are worried that if they look at where their food comes from, they may be unhappy about it. But, you can find out where your food comes from and feel good about it.
The Beet: Many of us think “I have to eat better,” and probably that’s true. You say that’s not enough. Why?
Mark Bittman: There is a human condition here and a social condition here. There is also a personal and planetary consideration. If you are in the right position or have the ability to do it, that is great, but not everyone is. If you have time and money, then better for you. If you can drive a Tesla, then good for you, but that way of thinking doesn’t account for people who can’t drive a Tesla and it does not account for people who can’t find food in their neighborhood to make it easier to eat better. If you’re asking me what’s good, I’d say of course treat your body as well as you can, but also think about how food affects the planet.
Mark Bittman: Five of the worst paying jobs in this country are in the food sector. The people who bring us our food usually can’t afford to eat as well as you or me. People say they don’t want to think about it: Where their food comes from. If you don’t want to feel bad about your food choices, then eat for the planet. People watched the Amazon fires and connected them to the agricultural systems there, but think about this: If there is pollution in Iowa then it’s partly because we are eating more junk food. What you eat is a political act, and impacts air quality, water quality, and you can choose to act with the choices you make.
The Beet: Why is “How can we feed the 10 billion?” the wrong question?
Mark Bittman: How can we feed 10 billion, or the world’s population? It’s not up to us to feed everyone on the planet. It’s up to us to get out of the way of them feeding themselves, their families, and their neighbors. And to do that we need to eat more plant-based foods. How are we going to feed the world’s 10 billion people as a question is a hidden code for how do we get people to raise food that is junk food. The question is how do we get out of the way and let people eat healthier than we do by not eating the American diet.
The Beet: Is it true that there’s not enough good food to go around?
Mark Bittman: Tricky question. It is true. To go back to the question before: There are enough calories right now to feed everyone on the planet. Are they all good calories? High-quality calories? No. They are non-nutritious. Is there enough food to go around? Yes, but it is junk food. Feeding people quality food means changing agriculture and what we eat.
What I call junk food, hyper-processed food or ultra-processed food, didn’t exist 150 years ago and could not have come out of your grandmother’s kitchen. Now, 60 percent of available calories in the US are closer to poison than nutrition. If X percent of calories are lucky charms and double cheeseburgers and Coke, then that is a percentage of what people are eating.
The Beet: Both hunger and the obesity crisis get attention in America. What doesn’t is how to increase the accessibility of good food to people who aren’t able to get it. Let’s talk about that.
Mark Bittman: There just isn’t enough good food to be available right now. It’s not that there is a geopolitical area that supermarkets could not go into those areas where we associate food deserts, but that people don’t want to spend on those foods. If you can afford to buy good food then you can go anywhere and buy it. But if you can’t then you can’t. Rather than food desert, I think of it as “Food Apartheid.” There are places where people have money and can buy good food and places where people don’t have enough money and a Whole Foods can’t afford to go in there. When Whole Foods sees an opportunity it takes advantage. If it doesn’t think it can make it in a certain area it won’t. Not just Whole Foods but any major supermarket.
In places where there are support programs, there is no incentive for people to only use their SNAP dollars for good foods. They want it to be used for everything sold in the supermarket. There are programs encouraging people to use it on vegetables and fresh fruits and it is easier to use them on farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture. SNAP is an essential program and allows people to eat but there is room for people to buy better food. It starts with the government and what we subsidize.
The Beet: We’re subsidizing the production of bad food; how do we subsidize the production of good food? How do we get people to rethink food?
Mark Bittman: This is the easiest question you’ve asked so far. We all know that it’s hard to change our diets, so how do you go to the root of that problem? You teach children about it. Untitl you teach 4-year-olds to eat good food, we are never going to have a generation of 40-year-olds or 30-year-olds eating good foods. If we want people to eat better in the future we have to have a new generation brought up on good foods.
That means discouraging sweetened baby foods and sweetened cereals, which are dessert foods that are masquerading as breakfast foods. It’s a 20-year project, at best.
Kids learn from other kids and they learn in school. Changing diets one person at a time is great. But your have to change the foods that are available. How much do you have o fight with your kids? They are begging to go down that cereal aisle. How many times did you have that fight with your kids to not buy Lucky Charms? The idea is to not have to have that fight. Your kids were told Tony the Tiger was a hero. Some countries have banned hiim.
How do we teach children to eat better? You should talk to Alice Waters about this. She is the most articulate and passionate person about this. How do we teach our children? Everybody knows it is better to eat this way. We start at the beginning of their lives.
Our country is in crisis when it comes to our health. Every other person has heart disease, A heart attack is nature’s way of telling us to eat more plant-based.
The marketing for convenient food began with our mothers. They were told: “There’s no need to cook, You can just mix in Campbell’s soup and chicken and have dinner ready. Historically it has not changed much. There were attempts in the ’70s and ’80s to change that. Thanks to Ronald Regan, they tried to reign in the food companies and failed. There are 350 million people in this country. And the Federal Government, this branch of this country, has an impact on every single person and what we eat.
Good government would support food that is good for us and the planet. We have to convince the government it’s worth doing agriculture better. The food lobby is the highest spending lobby after the defense lobby. The food lobby spends money to influence what our government subsidizes.
The Beet: Can we do agriculture without harming the environment?
Mark Bittman: Animal agriculture and farming is the second-largest emissions created by humans after power. Those crops, which are heavily subsidized, emit greenhouse gases. And industrially produced animal products, which may or may not be as bad for us as junk food, are certainly as bad for the planet.
In Europe, the crop that creates junk food, like corn, is not grown for the people but for animal feed. If junk food were more expensive, if it cost the actual amount it costs for producing it, we wouldn’t eat it as readily.
And if we take into account the climate costs of junk food we certainly wouldn’t eat it.
The majority of calories available in the US are junk food. We can make regulations so that added sugar and processed food are not as cheap and are not marketed as effectively.
People around the world have figured it out. In Chile there is no Tony the Tiger. They killed him. But here its a freedom of speech issue. We need to make changes in the way food is grown, sold, and consumed.
The Beet: What is a typical day of eating for Mark Bittman?
Mark Bittman: Breakfast: Toast and I bake my own bread. It’s whole grain.
Bean soup for lunch. I am pretty hungry. Pasta with clams for dinner. I always cooked a lot at home.
Now I cook 21 times a week. I live on a farm. I am an avid gardener. The farm produces a lot of stuff. There are no good supermarkets nearby. We go to the farmers’ market. I get fish from him. There is a winter CSA. I eat a lot of root vegetables in the winter.
Cooking is how I relax. I don’t recommend my habits to anyone else. I am extreme.