Are we eating real food or edible, foodlike substances?


Which of these products are real and which are mere foodlike substances?

We now live in the era of fake news. Even before being warned about consuming fake news, we were warned about consuming fake foods. Daily we are bombarded by food evangelists1 who are not shy about telling us which foods are real and which ones are not real. Obviously we are not real people if we don’t eat real food. Unfortunately there are few clear definitions of what distinguishes a real food from one that is not real. It turns out a real food is in the mind of the beholder. Among the distinguishing characteristics for one processed-food critic, Dr. Robert Lustig, are that real foods are not mass produced, not consistent from one purchase to another purchase, separate out, and rot in a relatively short time.  Most whole foods would qualify; many processed foods would not.

In his book, Food Rules,2 Michael Pollan introduces the concept of edible, foodlike substances. These processed foods tend to have more than five ingredients, make health claims, are cooked by a machine and are advertised on television. This vision conjures up a world in which Big Food makes edible, foodlike substances in huge manufacturing plants to appeal to our darker side. We crave such foodlike substances even though we know that they are unhealthy and will probably kill us in the end. To Pollan it is so much better to cook at home than to be seduced by processed food that is not real, because home cooking is so much healthier than anything that has been mass produced.

Are all whole foods real?

Whole foods are real as such, but is there a line that is crossed when they cease to become real? Take for example apples and tomatoes. A raw apple is certainly real when picked off a tree in the backyard, polished on a shirt sleeve and bit into. What if it is taken into the kitchen, peeled, cored and baked in a fresh pie? Consider the home-grown tomato plucked from the vine at peak ripeness and cut up into a salad. It is certainly real. Any gardener knows that ripe tomatoes come all at once and sometimes faster than they can be given away. To keep up, the tomatoes may be diced, crushed or liquefied before being canned. Are the apple pie and canned tomatoes still real food or have they crossed a line? What if these same steps are performed in the back of a restaurant, at a community cannery, or in a large manufacturing plant? Do the same rules for number of ingredients apply when made at home, in a restaurant or a processing plant?

Whole foods tend to be nutritious, but they also are not as convenient as processed foods. Preparing whole foods at home takes time and usually involves incorporating them into a dish with other ingredients before cooking to make them more acceptable and digestible. Along the way, sugar and salt tend to find their way into the dish and into our bodies. For example, the mouth-watering description of pork-shoulder barbeque in Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked,3 provides 44% of the daily value for sodium per serving without the sauce. Add the sauce and it comes to almost 60% of the daily value. If it is as tasty as he claims, however, most of us would be eating more than one serving at a meal.

Are all processed foods really only edible, foodlike substances?

The answer to this question depends on who is telling us which foods are real and which ones are not real. Dr. Lustig’s perspective appears to be more rigid than that of Michael Pollan. Other perspectives are offered by Nina Planck in Real Food4 and by Lisa Leake in 100 Days of Real Food.5 Lustig appears to rule out all processed foods unless they were processed at home or a very small local operation. Planck is mostly concerned about processed food made by Big Food and has less trouble with food produced by smaller, regional processors. Leake seems to allow for some processed foods, but she restricts baked goods to 100% whole grain, allows sweets only if sweetened with maple syrup or honey, and rejects animal products if they are grain-fed or factory-farmed. Pollan has his issues with Big Food but seems primarily focused on what food scientists refer to as formulated foods (items that contain numerous, unfamiliar ingredients, high in salt and sugar, highly tempting, and cleverly marketed on numerous media platforms).

It seems to me this whole guessing game as to what is real and what is not real becomes mind-numbing. Is the beer (yes beer is a processed food if you define a beverage as a liquid food) I buy at the supermarket real, or do I need to buy it from a microbrewery. Lustig’s principles would force me to a microbrewery. Planck might have some issues with 100% stone-ground flour milled by a Fortune 500 company. Even the delicious hummus in the back of the deli tray in my refrigerator would be disallowed by Leake and Pollan because it has more than five ingredients (it has 10) including potassium sorbate which is a chemical that keeps it from rotting so quickly. Thank goodness Michael Pollan would allow me to eat an occasional peanut-butter cup as Rule #64 allows me to break the rules occasionally. 2

The bottom line to tell if the food we are eating is real or not when we go out to eat at a restaurant or a neighbor’s home is to determine if that food was

  • made in a processing plant or prepared in the restaurant or home kitchen,
  • processed by Big Food or Small Food if not from a kitchen,
  • made with refined ingredients like white flour or white sugar, and
  • from animals that were properly fed and treated if we are eating meat or eggs.

Such a movement is NOT getting us back to simpler times. Must we investigate every food we are about to eat to see if it is really real? My grandparents who were all born before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 ate white bread and cakes made with refined flour and sugar. They lived through the Great Depression and were happy to get the foods available to them. One set lived on a farm and knew where most of their food was produced. The other set lived in the city and were at the mercy of manufacturers who were much less regulated than those today. It seems to be time to get beyond the rule making and develop strategies for healthy diets that incorporate both whole and processed foods in a rational way.

Next week: Superfoods

1 Egan, S., 2016, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are New York: Harper Collins.

2 Pollan, M., 2009, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, New York: Penguin Books

3 Pollan, M., 2013, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, M. Pollan, 2013, New York: Penguin Books.

4 Planck, N., 2016, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, New York: Bloomsbury USA.

5 Leake, L., 2014, 100 Days of Real Food: How We Did It, What We Learned, and 100 Easy, Wholesome Recipes Your Family Will Love, New York: HarperCollins.

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