Canned revisited: A dialog between the author and the blogger

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After the four-part series on this blog about the meaningful book Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry earlier this summer, the author Anna Zeide and I engaged in a productive dialog via email. She raised some questions for me that led to a conversation, which I’ll reproduce here on the blog over the next three weeks. Can these two professionals engage in a civil discussion on the relative merits of their perspectives? Did the blogger exaggerate the author’s role in the food movement? This post represents the first session in our three-week dialog.

Dr. Anna Zeide: I’m very interested by your comment that the book should be required reading for food science students. I would love to know more about how such historical content might fit into the standard food science curriculum.

Dr. Rob Shewfelt: I liked to get my students outside their silo to see how their work fits into a broader context. Your book helps place food processing into that context better than any other book I have read. My food processing course was one of those undergrad/grad courses (FDST 4010/L–6010/L). If I were teaching the class today, I would probably assign your book to the grad students as part of the extra work they would need to earn graduate credit. Then each one of them would prepare either an oral or written report that would be made available to the entire class with at least one question on the final related to that discussion.

Anna: You strike me as unusual in your intellectual curiosity in food topics beyond your discipline–are many of your colleagues interested in similar questions? Does history strike food scientists as relevant to their work? What do you think reading books like mine and other books you review on your site could add to food scientists’ training? 

Rob: I confess to being the strange one. I can think of maybe one member of the faculty and a few of the students in Food Science at Georgia were the least bit interested in history of food and its broader context. Some were foodies, including chefs who could not make decent money for long hours in their chosen profession. Graduates with both a food science and a culinary background are highly valued in the food industry. There are other strange food scientists out there, but not very many. I like to think of my courses as providing ‘education’ in the true sense of the word and not ‘training.’ Tech schools and short courses are for training. College is for an education. My philosophy was that you can’t really think critically about a topic until you have built a knowledge base. Undergraduate education, in the sciences at least, is mostly about building a knowledge base, but it must be about much more than that or it becomes mere dogma. Although I did read food books outside my discipline when I taught courses, I did not read nearly as many. I am truthfully not sure whether I would have read Canned if I were still teaching today.

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Anna: It’s interesting that you see as one of my main premises that the food industry has “largely failed” in retaining consumer trust. I don’t think I’d characterize it that way. For although it’s true that there are certain detractors who bemoan the rise of processed food in our society (to whom your work and blog are a response), it’s also just clearly true that there’s way more trust than a lack of it; after all the vast majority of Americans eat “processed food”–both according to the expansive definition you subscribe to, and the narrower one of “junk food” that many in the food movement think of–on a daily basis. The trust is clearly still there, even if some of the detractors’ voices are being amplified in certain sectors.

Rob: Au contraire, corporations have lost the luster they had in the 90s and 00s. The food movement has done a number on food companies who are running just as fast as they can to catch up to the latest health trend. We are told processed food is to be avoided, but it is much easier to demonize something when being very vague about defining it. Then, every food that one thinks is bad or unhealthy is considered to be processed and every food that is good or not so unhealthy is not considered to be processed. They simplify by making only a few representative demons–Twinkies, Snickers, Coke. Talk about having your home-made cake and eating it too! Yes, many consumers buy and eat processed food, but they eat unhealthy processed foods when they cheat or reward themselves. They normally eat other foods that they don’t consider processed.

Many anti-processed food writers don’t consider canned foods to be processed or label them as minimally processed and thus OK. For example, I have just finished reading a book right now that talks about the initiator of the clean food movement who avoids all processed foods and reads labels very carefully to decide whether she will buy them or not. What part of processed food does she not understand that anything with nutrition facts and an ingredient statement is a processed food?

Anna: My story is definitely a triumphalist one on the part of the food industry, and food science. I hope it’s clear from your reading of my book (and other pieces, like the Smithsonian Magazine article), that I totally agree with you that the “that processed food in general and canned food specifically is much safer today than it was a century ago.” Now, I do think the words “safer” and “healthier” are not equivalent, given that the latter takes much more into account (nutrition, effects on the environment, toxicity, etc.) than the former. 

Rob: “Safety’ is the main concern of a food scientist in any product during development, manufacturing, quality testing and distribution. “Healthiness” is not a term I particularly value. An extreme example is the case published in Lancet of a young boy who would eat nothing but tomato soup. After a while he turned orange and was hospitalized with carotenoid poisoning. He could have achieved his mission quicker if he had stuck to raw carrots. Does that make tomato soup or carrots healthy or not healthy? I know that critics of processed food go nuts when food scientists and nutritionists say it, but there are no healthy or unhealthy foods just healthy and unhealthy diets. Everything in moderation. I don’t believe that most mother’s homemade brownies are any healthier than most snack cakes you can buy at Seven Eleven or Wawa. Ice cream is about as decadent as we can get with food, but it is rarely mentioned as unhealthy.

Anna: Although you suggest that I see “no parallels in today’s media” to the sensationalized reporting of the early twentieth century, I think I remain fairly neutral on that topic–I really don’t say much about it in the book. I do think, though, that while there’s certainly more attention drawn to the ills of some kinds of processed food today than there was 20 years ago, as I said above, the general attitude toward industrial food is pretty darn positive, in many aspects of the media, certainly in advertising, and most importantly, in just the products that are on the grocery store shelves and in our restaurants, and that the vast majority of what Americans continue to eat.

Rob: Yes, you don’t say much about the modern media, but that is precisely my point. I contend that today’s media is just as sensationalized about processed food now as they were back then. One-hundred years ago the muckrakers had good reason to sensationalize the dangers of processed foods. Today with much safer food there is so much less to sensationalize in my view. I put as little faith in food advertising as I do in much of what passes for food journalism today. That is why I thought you were brilliant in stating “But the kinds of research that canners have embraced in the last half century focus less on the technical than on the social—less on the problem itself than on the managing the perception of the problem.” Advertising is managing the perception of the problem—highlighting the presence of certain nutrients while hiding any potential negative characteristics.

My perception of the food industry is that Marketing runs food companies rather than technical expertise. Food scientists provide the technical expertise. Management through Marketing directs product developers to develop new products that meet the standards set by critics of processed foods to provide items with clean labels. Such products look less processed even if the new products may be less healthy. To achieve such ends, developers may even have to use techniques that are more likely to compromise safety. Consumers appear to think that sit-down restaurant food is whole, unprocessed and cooked from scratch. That is not what my former students who have worked in restaurants as line chefs tell me. Much of what is prepared in many restaurants comes into the kitchen in pre-prepared form.

Anna: On the whole, it’s fascinating to me that you see my book as such a central pro-food-movement piece. Although there’s no dispute that I support “the food movement,” I felt like Canned took a really light touch in engaging the contemporary moment, and I often wished I could take a stronger stance. So, it’s interesting that you picked up on that as a central thread when I found it to be a relatively minor point in the larger context of exploring this history of canned food and processed food.

Rob: I confess to being overly sensitive to any criticism of processed food. I probably went overboard in identifying you with the food movement. I am extremely sensitive to any mention of the industrialized (or industrial) food system. That, to me, a vision appears of a monolith of an agriculture/food industry complex that is out to exploit the consumer. My work in the food industry as a college student rejects that characterization. In looking back in your book, I find your criticism of the “industrialized food system” to be muted and much less emphasized than it was in my mind when reading your book. I apologize if I set you up as a straw person so I could knock you down to make my points. This dialog suggests that both of us are looking for common ground and a way forward. I do suspect, however, in an all-out war between the food movement on one side and Big Food on the other, you would retreat to the lines of the food movement, and I would run to that of Big Food to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

Next week: To be continued

Anna Zeide is a Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. She received her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. In her 2018 book Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, as in all her work, she explores the ways that food offers a lens onto environmental change, consumption, technology, and the economy. She is also the co-founder of the OSU Food Studies program, and is committed to connecting her work with interdisciplinary interests, community engagement, and pressing contemporary issues. 

 

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