Defending Processed Food: Are You Kidding Me?


Processed foods are blamed for obesity; the diseases of civilization such as cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease; lower heights of the typical American; and even increases in crime. Processed food is an easy target for blame even though the data leading to the conclusions are tenuous at best. Not to worry, as the case against processed food is so indelibly etched into the American consciousness, that no evidence to the contrary will be considered. Many writers whose work appears on solid and electronic bookshelves and blogs write their opinions about food in an echo chamber that is too often devoid of a background in the sciences associated with nutrition or food. Too many of these food pundits fill the media with half-truths and misinformation. What is even more surprising, however, is the behavior of Big Food who is frequently more interested in marketing products to consumers on the basis of exaggerated claims promoted by the pundits rather than focusing on producing safe, wholesome foods.

Elsewhere on this site, I describe different definitions of processed food such as something coming out of a bag, bottle, box, can or jar or any item altered from its natural form. Using either of these definitions all the products in the photo above would have to be considered processed. The least processed item would probably be the baby carrots even though they go through numerous handling steps such as

  1. harvesting,
  2. removing leaves in the field,
  3. transporting to the processing plant,
  4. washing to remove dirt,
  5. disinfecting with chlorine,
  6. chilling in ice water,
  7. sorting by thickness,
  8. cutting into uniform 2-inch pieces,
  9. rough peeling,
  10. polishing,
  11. weighing,
  12. packaging, and
  13. refrigerating.

Of course all of these operations precede stacking boxes on pallets and loading them onto a large truck for transportation to a central location such as a supermarket warehouse. There, the pallet load down must be broken down into smaller lots for transport to a local store where it is unloaded to a back storage room before being put on display for consumers to buy. At every step, refrigeration must be maintained or the carrots will start to become slimy and show other signs of rotting.

This post will be one in a series explaining why I believe that processed food is not nearly as bad as most Americans think it is. After eleven years of college education, four years serving in the US Navy, and thirty-one years as an educator in food science, I retired. In that time I became frustrated at the abuse poured on processed food. So much misinformation, and so little time left to refute it. What is even more frustrating is the complete lack of questioning any of the assumptions made by those writers I have called the food pundits. For anyone willing to read on, I will provide some counter arguments. For a more in-depth view, I encourage you to look for my forthcoming book In Defense of Processed Food: It’s Not Nearly as Bad as You Think. A source of inspiration came from a little blue paper tent that some of my students brought me from the dining hall on campus. It urged students to eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods. Among the whole foods recommended on the tent was low-fat milk and one of the processed foods was whole milk as if to imply that the preferred beverage came unprocessed from low-fat cows and that food scientists were adding fat to the natural product during processing.

Future posts will present a different perspective on new or proposed governmental regulations as they affect the food we eat, the latest food controversy or miracle food, and tricks used by Big Food and food pundits to manipulate the way we think about food. In addition I will occasionally provide a review of a recent book that discusses processed food for good or for ill. In her book Obsessed Mika Brzezinski proclaims that “It’s time we had a real and public dialogue about food and weight, and the threat they pose to the nation’s security.” This blog will attempt to provide another side of the conversation about food we are having in American society. My basic premise is that a conversation is more about an exchange of ideas than about who can shout their opinions the loudest.

Next week: Soda taxes


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