There is little doubt that trust in the American food industry is at a low, perhaps an all-time low. Wherever we turn we are urged to avoid processed food. Pushed by the food movement, Big Food does all that it can to meet its criticisms and pretend that the packages of food with ingredient statements and Nutrition Facts they manufacture are NOT really processed-food products. This week I continue my series inspired by the book Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry. In this book Anna Zeide clearly sketches the pattern of fault-lines between the food movement and Big Food. She also reveals herself as part of the food movement.
As a food scientist I support processed foods while being wary of some of the positions of Big (and little) Food. In critically evaluating arguments on food, I rely on my scientific background. Food scientists become caught between the passion of the food movement supported by a strong media presence and the cold pragmatism of the food industry with its carefully targeted marketing campaigns. The battle lines are drawn and anyone finding themselves in the middle is likely to get caught in the crossfire. Note that quotes in bold below come straight from Canned.
“A rallying cry of the food movement contends that knowledge will lead to social change: if the ‘public’ could simply see the messy truth, there would be a social and political push for transformation.” As a scientist I become immediately skeptical whenever a politician, scientist, religious authority or food writer invokes the word “truth.” Humans have few if any fool-proof measures of truth. Science does not prove something true although it can be effective in debunking false claims. I support the idea advanced by Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise that science helps us get ever closer to an elusive truth without ever getting there. In an era of fake news and alternate facts, why can’t we have rational discussions about things that are unknowable? Nutrition is not an exact science, but the food movement commands certainty and sees any questioning of cherished principles as heresy.We are now being told that since we eat food and not nutrients that much of what we think we know about Nutrition is wrong. It seems that we should ignore the falsehoods that dietitians and nutritionists have been telling us for years and evaluate individual foods based on a reputation for cultural-traditional experience and sensual-practical experience. Roughly translated, this means raw fruits and vegetables are good for us while meat and most processed foods are not. These thoughts are embodied in the book Nutritionism by Gyorgy Scrinis and will be the subject of later posts in the year on this site. The food movement, tracing its roots to the radicalism of the 1960s and 70s, is gaining momentum the world. Although the movement is not shy about its claims to the truth, it appears to be advocacy-driven rather than evidence-based.
Loss of trust
In Canned, Zeide points to the decades of the 1960s and 70s as the beginning of the loss of trust in processed food. That revolutionary era led to the rejection of “chemicals, pesticides, and food processing” by radical youth, but it has now entered the mainstream. Obviously, Rachel Carson’s masterpiece, Silent Spring, was a catalyst for much of this thinking. I must point out that many institutions lost trust during the Vietnam era and have not recovered. Strangely, one of the most detested institutions of those times is now one of the most revered—the military. Processed food has become a major target of the food movement as it relates to all three of these fear factors. Major perspectives on the food industry emphasized in Canned include:
- Big Food hides behind trade associations and governmental scientists to certify the safety of processed food,
- Large companies and more wealthy farmers squeeze out smaller operations expanding to produce an industrial food system,
- With the increase in corporatization of the food industry, hundreds of new chemical additives are produced and put into processed foods,
- Food research conducted in food science and home economics programs on university campuses show a bias for processed food, and
- Clean labeling represents a small but significant step to a safer food supply.
The rest of this article addresses these charges.
One of the major differences between food scientists and normal people is that food scientists believe that everything we put into our mouths is chemical, including all the food we eat. We believe that all colors and odors in natural and processed foods are properties of specific chemicals. All carbs, fats and protein are chemicals according to this theory as are all minerals and vitamins. Food scientists even go so far as to consider water to be a chemical, not potential contaminants but pure water itself. Furthermore, we suggest that every ingredient in a processed or home-cooked food reacts chemically with other ingredients to affect its quality. Dietitians and nutritionists accept the idea that during digestion the mix of food materials present are mined for the chemical nutrients present to perform specific functions in the body. Normal people appear to reject one or more of these propositions and consider chemicals in foods to be more harmful than beneficial.
Distrust in chemicals in foods goes back to the mid 19th Century. In Baking Powder Wars, Linda Civitello describes how cream-of-tartar companies were able to scare consumers from using the much cheaper alum powders by labeling alum as a chemical. Even the patron saint of food safety, Dr. Harvey Wiley, was skeptical of chemicals in foods expressing his concerns in articles in Good Housekeeping where he went to work after leaving government service.
Normal people appear to judge ingredients on the basis of the sound of their names rather than on their effect on the body. Thus, caffeine is a much more acceptable ingredient than trimethylpurine dione even though they are different names for the same substance. Likewise, vanilla extract, a complex mix of numerous chemicals produced by a chemical process, is more acceptable as an additive than vanillin, the chemical component of vanilla that provides much of the flavor of the bean. High-fructose corn syrup and honey are similar in the chemicals present, with honey preferred because it is natural even if it can be toxic to infants. Clean labels are a way that food companies can hide an objectionable-sounding chemical under the guise of a familiar-sounding ingredient. Once a food leaves the palate and travels down the gullet for its journey through digestion, it is doubtful that our bodies can distinguish between a naturally occurring chemical and one with the same structure that has been added, or so the food scientist believes.
Pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification of crops, heavy machinery, irrigation and other technological fixes have led to an industrialization of the food system. This food system, as described by Zeide, leads to the dehumanization of food production, environmental devastation, and a lack of transparency of where our food comes from. The extension of industrialization to the manufacture of processed foods has supposedly resulted in the loss of flavor and healthiness of the American cuisine in a desire for convenience. The scientific battle lines are drawn between environmental biologists who tend to reject food industrialization and chemists who tend to embrace it.
A critical juncture in this situation was the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. This relatively short book started the environmental movement around the world and significantly reduced the over-reliance of agricultural chemicals on food crops. For all the benefits we have derived from the publication of Silent Spring, it played a role in demonizing all chemicals we encounter on a daily basis. Carson, a biologist, starts her book by carefully placing chemicals in context. By the middle of the book, however, chemicals become demonized to the point that Better Living Through Chemistry could never recover. One agency that emerged from the movement Carson started was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency develops guidelines for “safe” use of pesticides and limits of residues on crops, but many in the food movement have zero tolerance for synthetic chemicals. “Natural” pesticides are approved for use on organic crops even though they are also toxic chemicals.
Supporters of an industrial food system point to more efficient growing of crops and raising of animals for food. As a result, the number of farm operators has greatly decreased and food prices have dropped for both whole and processed foods. Surviving farms have become more profitable, but they are still risky business propositions. Many of those farmers and their children displaced by the Industrial Food Revolution have moved on to more lucrative jobs in the city. Many others, however, have ended up in low-wage jobs in the food system as farm laborers, factory workers, truck operators, members of a restaurant crew or other manual occupations. Despite criticism by Zeide and others, the middlemen become critical links in whether or not we have access to food as became so apparent in Puerto Rico after the hurricane Maria struck.
In Cuisine & Empire, Rachel Laudan notes that processed food has been around for millenia, but it is only recently that we are being told in many types of media to avoid it. If the golden age of processed food in America was in the 50s and 60s as we learn in Canned, then the golden age of home cooking was in the first half of the 20th Century as we learn in Cuisine & Empire. Prior to that, the wealthy had a staff to prepare their meals and a small middle class was rich enough to prepare any food that was above a bare subsistence diet.
Food is processed primarily to preserve it—keep it from rotting. It seems strange to me that in an age where so much food is wasted, it becomes a badge of honor for a food to rot. Definitions vary as to what a processed food is. The most common definition of food processing as “Any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.” By this definition any food made at home from more than two ingredients would be considered processed. I prefer a more narrow definition to include “any food item for sale in a bag, bottle, can, or other package.” Many home-cooked meals would not be considered processed by this definition, but many ingredients used in the home are processed. Next, we need a distinction between processing and fabricating (formulating). Traditional processes include canning, curing, drying, fermenting, and freezing. Opponents of processed foods are not as concerned about these traditional processes as they are about products that contain many ingredients including high levels of fat, salt, sugar, and added chemicals.
In addition to food preservation, foods are processed to keep them safer. Food scientists are much more focused on microbes as agents of food poisoning than chemicals. Obviously, deliberate introduction of toxic chemicals to a food product is unacceptable. The disagreement between the food movement and food scientists hinges on whether deliberate (high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, and butylated hydroxyanisole) and incidental (bisphenol A) addition of chemicals are truly toxic at the doses currently consumed. Food is also processed to improve the palatability and digestibility of products. The food movement appears to be of two minds about the success of food processing in this area. On the one hand, processed food is held responsible for decreasing the quality, particularly flavor, of the foods we eat. On the other hand, Big Food is accused of selling hyperpalatable foods which cause food addiction. Possibly it is the traditional processes such as canning that cause loss of flavor while it is fabricated foods that are hyperpalatable.
The food movement has pronounced the current industrial food system broken and advocates a complete remaking of it. Major food companies are complicit every time they market new products that don’t look quite as processed. Big Food appears to think that tweaking the system is all that is needed to produce healthier foods. Food scientists have the knowledge and ability to make significant changes within the food system that go to the heart of the problem, but neither of the two major players seem to be listening. The food movement promotes myths about processed food and tends to reject any scientific findings that challenge its dogma. Big Food is more interested in marketing and selling product than in addressing the real challenges of obesity and chronic diseases that are related to food consumption. Again, is there a middle path?
Next week: Reimagining the American food system