Processed foods in the era of COVID-19

On Friday, February 28 I wrote in my journal, “Life is going so well right now; how will I respond to challenges?” Much has changed since then. I voted in the Florida Presidential Primary on Tuesday morning of March 17, went to the grocery store, and then headed home to shelter in place. That afternoon my wife was sent home from her library job. Dealing with everything that has happened since then has been a challenge, and I am in so much better a situation than most Americans. Here are some thoughts on my dealings with the effects of the virus with particular reference to processed foods.

blogger dressed up with mask and wearing a shirt with the periodical table of elements
Ready to roll

Daily life has changed dramatically for me. I used to work hard to make every day of the week different, but now almost every day is the same. Tuesdays stand out as that is when I publish this blog. I have abandoned all my regular activities, but I am getting some things done around the house that I had put off. I derive some sense of accomplishment, but I miss my old life. I am beginning to see some differentiation in my days now in my new life, however.

Home food delivery is a new thing to me. I am used to getting books delivered from Amazon and meal kits from Hello Fresh, but grocery delivery from a local store is different. So far, Wednesday has been my delivery date. The first week it took me ninety minutes to order groceries to be delivered two days later. The next week it was two hours online for a delivery five days later. I am now down to one hour to complete my order.

Several of the items were not filled each time. Some of my favorite brands were replaced by similar products in the same category. The store I deal with has many prepared foods, some produce, fresh meats, a good selection of frozen foods, and many household goods. We find that there is not much in the way of canned goods or staples like rice and beans, but I have loaded up some in shelf-stable goods just in case. We are hoping that we will be able to hold out for a few weeks, particularly if the store shuts down for any reason. I also note that there aren’t many gluten-free or lactose-free options available, but there are even fewer caffeine-free products. Takeout is not an option we have availed ourselves of yet.

5 large paper bags full of groceries and 3 fridge packs of soda
Wednesday is our home delivery day

And when I think my life is difficult, I reflect on challenges facing disabled people in this time of social distancing, sheltering-in-place, and quarantine. Their surrounding environment from the front doorstep to a kitchen not designed to meet specific needs may not be compatible with home delivery and other actions I take to cope with my situation. These additional barriers that are difficult to deal with in ordinary times become even more challenging today as described so eloquently by Jonathan Katz.

As far as food safety is concerned, I rely on the NC State website which is awesome. Scroll down to the section on “Food Safety, Dining Out and Grocery Shopping.” I also pay close attention to what Don Schaffner has to say on NPR and other outlets. Thus, I am not afraid of any foods coming from the supermarket or takeout.

Trying to explain an exponential curve to someone without a background in math or science is difficult. The statistic I am paying attention to is the number of days it takes in any location to double the death toll. The idea of looking at the country as a whole makes little or no sense to me as a virus does not respect national or state borders. I expect a continuing series of exponential growth, then a peak, followed by a drop-off in one state, region, city or county with a ripple effect across the country. Opening up areas because the case load or number of deaths is currently low doesn’t make sense to me as a linear curve can then become exponential. Discomfort, disease, and death accompanying economic deprivation will be with us for a long time, I am afraid.

Lipid peroxidation and its relevance to the spread of COVID-19. When walking my dog the other day, I was reflecting on parallels between lipid peroxidation and the spread of the virus. My PhD dissertation was on peroxidation in flounder muscle microsomes (1) and my research at Georgia involved its role in storage disorders of fresh fruits and vegetables (2,3). There are three phases of lipid peroxidation in the cellular membranes of plants and animals—initiation, propagation and termination. Initiation is the initial attack of a free radical to form an unstable lipid hydroxyl radical in a membrane. In a membrane it is difficult to block all initiation as many vital life processes produce free radicals.

The true threat, however, to a membrane is propagation where one radical can produce 10-100 lipid hydroperoxides through a free-radical chain reaction before the process is terminated. The membrane has both defense and repair mechanisms that can minimize the damage, but the process can become overwhelmed leading to leaky membranes and an inability of the cell to function properly. I think the parallels with COVID-19 are clear. Attention to preventing initiation or introduction of the virus across international and state borders as initial government actions attempted to do is unlikely to be effective. Social distancing, sheltering-in-place and lockdowns have been far more effective at slowing the propagation of COVID-19 also known as flattening the curve. Like any analogy, the fit isn’t perfect, but I was struck with the parallels between the two processes.           

A roundup on news of processed food during the COVID-19 era includes:

  • Crops, including many fruits and vegetables, are going unpicked in the fields due to the collapse of restaurant table service. The problem expands into dairy and eggs as well with farmers having no ability to get their food items to the people who are hungry. Food banks and food pantries are unable to keep up with the demand, particularly in hard-hit areas like New York City. Like Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria, the supply chains are not flexible to handle the magnitude of the problem.
  • At least one commentator envisions a retreat to production of most food on small, local farms after the crisis is over. Maybe that will work in Europe, but I think that it will be very difficult in the United States, particularly if the farm-to-table link is broken as small farms and restaurants go under.
  • Many of us crave comfort foods in this uncomfortable time, and what could be more comforting than chocolate or Cheetos and Campbell’s soup? Companies who have been losing market share are ramping up. Is this a trend or will we be back to “eating healthy” again after the crisis?
  • When we would ordinarily go to a restaurant and don’t really want takeaway, are we going to go back to cooking from scratch even if we bend the rules a little or will we rely on more processed products and meals? Are working from home and home cooking compatible?
  • America seems to be eating more meat while in social isolation, and that includes more plant-based meats.
  • The resistance to breaking the rules is still out there and guidelines to prevent the temptations of stress eating are being provided. Although some of us are slipping into old habits that violate our sense of wellness, others are adapting such as designing quarantine soup. Now that is a real husband for you! Woe to the mother who shares photos of sugar-filled foods to feed to her kids, however.
  • Citrus fruits, red bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, and yogurt are among the foods recommended to bolster our immune systems, but it may be too late for those of us who want instant deliverance. And does consumption of food additives and to too much sugar really compromise the immune system? Where is the scientific evidence?
  • The governor of Nevada has shut down health food stores for concerns about overconsumption of dietary supplements much to the dismay to the natural products industry. In New England the governor of New Hampshire has banned reusable bags in grocery stores to promote food safety.
  • The food industry is thriving in this crisis which could provide some lessons for the health-care business. Canned foods appear to be making a comeback, particularly among consumers who fear that food delivery may not be available in the later vestiges of any lockdown.
  • And finally, we are being asked to skip the toilet paper for health, sanitation and the environment. I am old enough to remember the Sears-catalog solution when I went at grandma’s house on the farm. It turns out that the run on toilet paper might not have been strictly a hoarding problem, but a supply-chain problem. OK, TP is not directly related to food although it functions at the ultimate end for some processed and unprocessed food components.
kitchen island full of foods delivered to the house
Whole and processed foods for a week or longer

Bottom line. The real question behind all of these stories are which changes are going to stick and which ones are not? Chances are that it will be based on a series of individual choices with some consumers trending one way and others trending the other. But existential crises like the current one shape trends as attitudes shift. As we come out of the dark hole that we currently find ourselves in, look for a war of ideas to emerge. Big Food, particularly traditional brands, will be advertising the comforts of home, togetherness and nostalgia. The health-and-wellness movement, including powerful business interests, will in turn welcome us back from a time of waywardness and a call to come back to a healthy lifestyle. One view will predominate, as consumers make their collective choices.

The other question that will need to be answered is how will our response to this crisis affect our response to the impending crisis of global climate change? Will we come together to truly address it in ways that will mitigate the changes that are likely to occur or will we breathe a sigh of relief and go about business as usual? It is the collective will of citizens in each and every country that will set those trends.

Next week: Who are the best dietary advisers: doctors or dietitians?


  1. Shewfelt, R.L. and H.O. Hultin, 1983. Inhibition of enzymic and non-enzymic lipid peroxidation of flounder muscle sarcoplasmic reticulum by pretreatment with phospholipase A2. Biochim Biophys Acta 751: 432-438.
  2. Shewfelt, R.L. and M.E. Erickson, 1991. Role of lipid peroxidation in the mechanism of membrane-associated disorders in edible plant tissue. Trends Food Sci. & Technol. 2:152-154.
  3. Cowart, D.M., M.C. Erickson and R.L. Shewfelt, 1995. Susceptibility of microsomal membranes isolated from bell pepper fruit to peroxidative challenge at different temperatures. J Plant Physiol 146:639-644.




9 thoughts on “Processed foods in the era of COVID-19

  1. Hi Dr. Shewfelt,

    Glad to hear that you and your wife are safe and sheltering in place (and also glad to see that you have a face mask!).

    I’m living in LA now, staying home and working from my living room since mid-March. Grocery shopping is a real treat these days – I only go once every two weeks, and I miss the days when I could leisurely browse the aisle for new food products!

    Stay well!


    On Tue, Apr 21, 2020 at 7:41 AM In Defense of Processed Food wrote:

    > processedfoodsite posted: “On Friday, February 28 I wrote in my journal, > “Life is going so well right now; how will I respond to challenges?” Much > has changed since then. I voted in the Florida Presidential Primary on > Tuesday morning of March 17, went to the grocery store, and then” >


  2. I enjoyed these thought provoking questions, especially, “Are working from home and home compatible?” I already worked from home, and in some ways, it’s advantageous for home cooking, as in taking meat out to thaw or not having a commute, which is time I could be using to cook.


    1. Great to hear from you again, Elise! It has been a while. Almost all the people I have connected with lately are happy that they are able to work from home. My heart goes out to mothers who are working, helping out with school and doing meal preps without much support. Stay safe!

      Liked by 1 person

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