10/29/2013 05:38 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Do Oreos Violate the Pollan Doctrine?

Michael Pollan writes that we shouldn't eat anything our grandmother wouldn't recognize. Well, Oreos have been around since 1912. Are they fair game?

I don't mean to pick apart the idea on a technicality or exception. And Pollan sets up other guidelines that, if we cooperate, will steer us away from milk's favorite cookie. Oreos do not live on the grocery store edges with the produce -- "real food," as Pollan says. Oreos contain preservatives that we can't pronounce, and definitely more than five ingredients. Oreos do not escape the full Pollan gauntlet.

But to dwell on grandmothers. Though Oreos have hardly changed since the first wave of Red Sox championships, they are no better for our health than any other snack produced today: Nilla Wafers, Teddy Grahams, Nutter Butter. They're all empty calories, charmingly packaged. And, you know, fun.

Still, there's something special about Oreos. They are, after all, the best-selling cookie of the last century. Oreos link us to our childhoods, our family, our fellow citizens. We twist them open and scrape off the frosting. As a little kid, my friends and I built quintuple-stuffed Oreos. My cousins would concoct Oreo cookie balls for Thanksgiving dessert.

A real jerk -- a culturally disconnected, overzealous health nut -- might argue for the vilification of all such foods. Oreos are no less nutritionally vacant, so they should be no exception.

But about grandmothers. While Oreos have never been healthy, our grandmothers experienced them as an exceptionally tasty treat. One hundred years ago, there simply weren't so many variations of high fructose corn syrup cum cookies. Just Oreos, and 20 years later, Twinkies. Oh, and homemade cookies, hot from the oven.

Due to the comparative scarcity of tasty junk back when Fenway Park opened (well before the uptake of industrial agriculture and resultant surplus of cheap corn), Oreos fit reasonably well into the American diet. Oreos did not cause an obesity epidemic then, and they have not caused one today. Sure, their substance and form stoked our appetites for the flood of similar products that now tumble from the shelves into our tummies, warping our diet beyond recognition. But Oreos alone pose no particular issue.

If we eat only foods our grandmothers would recognize, we will be just fine, even if some of the foods serve no nutritional purpose. That's the beautiful balance of Pollan's grandmother principle. Instead of fixating on the properties of individual food items, we can find our way to health through the proportions, the serving sizes, and the availability of food from days gone by.

Go on, dip your Oreo in some milk.

This post originally appeared on, where Leo Brown writes about food, nutrition, and health.