Best Before: The Evolution and Future of Processed Food

After so many popular books that take the food industry and the processed food to task, it is nice to read one that approaches the topic from a rational viewpoint. In Best Before Nicola Temple presents a much more balanced view than most contemporary books on food. Many of her points are easy for defenders of processed food like me to embrace. As expected, there are other aspects of the book that make it difficult for me not to roll my eyes. In my review using her words in bold as points of departure, I will focus primarily on the positive aspects of the book with respect to processed food. Don’t get the false idea, however, that the book embraces the perspective found on this blogsite. It does not.

“Despite what we are often told, processed foods are not always the money-grabbing, addiction-forming, obesity-causing products of the big food manufacturers.” Music to my ears! I completely agree with this statement as there are many processed foods that certainly detract from health, particularly when over-consumed. That said, too many products are demonized in popular books and articles. Early on in the book, Temple describes a very complex processing operation that involves “physical and chemical transformation” of ingredients. It turns out that the process is digestion of foods by humans. I tried a similar description in an earlier post, and mine fails in comparison. It is clear that she has an excellent grasp of chemistry and chemical processes throughout Best Before, but she seems to cast doubt on the benefits of chemical ingredients in foods.

“Governments around the world began implementing mandatory enrichment of white flour by B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin and thiamine), plus iron and sometimes calcium. This enrichment is credited with the eradication of pellagra, as well as beriberi, which is caused by a deficiency in thiamine.” Temple argues against the idea that bread is making us fat. She blames our overall eating habits and not a single food. She is not willing to scapegoat. One of the most important contributions of food processing to general health, as she points out, is the fortification of flour. The USA went from a nutritionally deficient population to nutritional adequacy with the simple addition of B-vitamins to bread flour at the end of the Great Depression. Fortification and enrichment are scorned by people in the food movement as unnecessary. We are now told that we only need vitamins is to prevent deficiency diseases like pellagra, beriberi and scurvy. Vitamins and minerals are more important than just prevention of debilitating, deficiency diseases, however. Fortified food products can contribute to overall health.

“To make waste matters worse, a shocking amount of premium muscle meat that does not make it into consumers’ houses gets thrown out because people get confused by ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates,” I am not sure what the author means by  “premium meat,” but I expect most people are likely to judge freshness of meat by its color and odor. She also points out that much food waste is in the home—many of her examples are fresh fruits and vegetables. The usual criticism associated with expiration dates is with processed foods. The idea that expiration dates are a cause of food waste is nothing new and is a difficult issue to correct. I will devote my post next week to that issue.

One advantage of processed food, of course, is that it extends the shelf life of foods and can thus prevent food waste. I have not seen data comparing food waste of rotting fruits and vegetables with expired processed food, but I suspect that rotting produce is a greater producer of food waste than expired processed food. She extols the benefits of processes such as canning, drying and freezing to prevent food waste, but she is not keen on extending life when not necessary. I happen to think that slowing the time clock for food deterioration a pretty good idea. Best Before suggests a “cut on” date in addition to a “best before” date for fresh items. The Bud “born on” dates ended up wasting beer as the drinkers were looking for the latest date leading to expired beer. I suspect a “cut on” date would make matters worse rather than better.

“I get irked by food additives that seem to do nothing more than mask and deceive the consumer.” Since she is so favorable to processed foods it is hard to be too critical here, BUT I just wish I could sit down and talk to her. At times she complains about needing a chemistry degree to understand a food label, but she gets into chemistry in depth—much moreso than I do in In Defense of Processed Food. The additives she is talking about are those that add color, flavor, smoothness and other characteristics to make the eating experience more enjoyable. I do not understand what is so deceiving about improving palatability. When a chef does the same thing, we call it presentation and culinary art. The ingredients in a processed food are stated clearly on the label. Are we better off just not knowing what ingredients the chef is using?  Why do we have this double standard?

Temple suggests that there has been an explosion of new additives recently, but most of those appearing on labels have been in use for a long time. The new thing is clean labels—replacing chemical additives with recognizable ingredients. Food companies are investing big bucks in research and development to chemically manipulate clean ingredients to be able to call them by a recognizable name even though they are not really the same as what is in our pantry. Remarkable “progress” is being made in redesigning the structure of water for example. What food writers like Temple do not seem to understand is that, rather than manufacturing demand, most food companies are more than happy to provide a product that consumers think they want than to actually meet their desires.

 “It will take a strong political will to extract sugar from its prominent place in our food system, but as consumers we can, no we must support this by creating the public acceptance to enable the decision-makers.” On the matter of sugar Best Before takes no prisoners. Not only should added sugar be curtailed if not outright banned, the author is against alternative sweeteners. Get rid of sweeteners altogether! Sugar would presumably only be available in its natural forms such as fruits, honey and maple syrup. Is such a move possible in a democracy? Great Britain and the United States are currently dealing with a backlash against over-regulation of their lives from Brussels or Washington. I suspect that getting rid of sweet food products would bring in corporate money and a super backlash. Elsewhere on this site I have advocated that we look for ways to reduce sugar in the American diet, so I am not trying to defend sugar, but we should be very careful what we ask for.

“We have tied the hands of the food scientists who are most interested in taking processed food in the direction we would like to see it go—healthful and sustainable—and have enabled multinational corporations that are keen to get their marketing departments to sell us what they most want to produce.” One of the major themes of this blog is that food scientists and consumers get caught between the marketing arm of Big Food and the food movement. Food scientists have the ability to improve the nutritional value of food products they design and incorporate more sustainable ingredients into those products. Consumers desire a more healthful and sustainable food supply, but the cacophony of competing information makes it impossible to make intelligent selections. Marketing is primarily interested in selling product. The food movement has its own agenda as well, flooding the media with often contradictory information.

To improve the healthfulness and sustainability of the food supply will need clear research based on scientific evidence and not ideology. Somehow, we need to come to terms that everything we put into our mouths is chemical. Chemicals are not inherently bad. Pronounceability of an ingredient should not be the among the criteria for its use in a product. Environmental footprints as determined by life-cycle analyses, as mentioned in both Best Before and In Defense of Processed Food, should be the benchmark for sustainability not food miles or similar concepts. Also, achieving acceptable flavor and other sensory attributes in a product is critical as it is in-the-stomach nutrition and not on-the-plate nutrition that affects health and prevents food waste. Finally, we must realize that there are no simple, single solutions to all of the problems in our food supply. There are no perfect foods—natural or processed. With our desire to consume a fresh, nutritious, safe, enjoyable and sustainable diet, there will be conflicts requiring tradeoffs in what we select to eat.

Bottom line: Best Before is an excellent book that helps put processed food products into a more realistic context. There were many things I liked about the book, and some issues that I would love to resolve with the author as mentioned above. It would make an excellent holiday gift for anyone who is skeptical of processed foods but not an active member of the food movement. I am pleased to recommend it.

Other books to consider as gifts this holiday season include:

Two on the history of processed foods

Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race By Shane Hamilton posted November 6, 2018.

Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry by Anna Zeide posted July 3,2018.

One in which a chef presents an enlightened, albeit R-rated, perspective on processed food

The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Andrew Warner posted February 9, 2018.

And one on how we perceive numbers and orders of magnitude

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies and Companies by Geoffrey West posted March 7, 2018. 

Next week: Expiration dates and how they are misunderstood

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