Formerly Known as Food (How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture)

In Formerly Known as Food Kristin Lawless completely rejects the current American food system. She calls for a reformation if not a revolution. She concludes her book with a 9-point New Food Movement Manifesto. The author identifies as a nutrition educator. Without a formal degree in Nutrition or related field, I conclude that she is primarily a journalist provocateur. Formerly Known as Food does not nibble at the edges. The radical nature of this book rejects major changes identified by the new food movement as too little too late. The author calls out food and social critics such as Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Bernie Sanders for lack of bold proposals. Her contention seems to be that the industrial food system is to blame for more than food inequities. It appears to be at the heart of almost everything wrong with America.

Lawless calls for dismantling current agricultural, food manufacturing, and food distribution systems. She seeks to replace them with a new vision of how we produce, transport, market, prepare, and eat food in the country. To achieve this vision current institutions will fall and new structures will rise. Responding to her own words in bold:

“An egg is a perfect food. It is a rich source of nutrition that is balanced and complete. After all it holds all the nutrition needed to develop a chicken. Humans have been eating eggs for at least four thousand years—since we domesticated the chicken.” (p.8) The author begins her quest by outlining her Whole Egg Theory. Nature designed eggs to meet our nutritional needs. Egg Beaters, designed by Big Food, are a poor substitute. She rejects the “demonization of eggs in general.” Then she proceeds to demonize specific processed foods and all industrial foods in general. A short summary of the book would be whole foods good; processed foods bad. Such a perspective is a clear example of binary thinking.

Industrial ingredients from a meal kit and industrial foods in a home pantry

Her Whole Egg Theory is referenced throughout the book. I contrast it with my Human Digestion Theory. It contends that any food—whole or industrial—is broken down in the human body to its component parts. The stomach adds digestive juices to make most whole and processed foods unrecognizable. Think vomit. A complex chemical process converts this mass to specific molecules. Our intestines absorb these molecules into the bloodstream which transports them to cells in need of them. The colon collects the undigested material and ejects it in the form of human waste. OK, in the interest of full disclosure, this theory is not my own. Find variations of it in any textbook on Human Nutrition. For an excellent description of how our bodies process foods read the opening paragraphs of Chapter One in Best Before by Nicola Temple.

chemical structure of cholesterol

“Cholesterol does not clog arteries. On the contrary, cholesterol is an antioxidant and a repair substance that appears when arteries are damaged by some other factor. When researchers find cholesterol in damaged arteries, the underlying cause is often inflammation in our bodies.” (p.33). It is hard to know where to start with this quote. First, cholesterol does NOT function in the human body as an antioxidant. At least, not as a traditional antioxidant like vitamins A, C, and E. My academic research focused on lipid oxidation of cell membranes in fresh produce. Nothing in the scientific literature I read suggested that cholesterol is an antioxidant.

I contacted Dr. Ron Pegg for a more recent perspective from a fine lipid chemist. He responded that “Although cholesterol has a free hydroxyl group on its A-ring, the ring is not aromatic. In other words, if the hydrogen atom could be donated to quench a ROS [Reactive Oxygen Species], the resulting cholesterol radical would not be of lower energy and stabilize itself.” Then his explanation gets more complex. Suffice it to say that cholesterol can theoretically be an antioxidant, but it does not function as one in the human body.

Then Lawless tells us that inflammation is caused by “Diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and an overall poor diet” as well as “hundreds of chemical additives in our foods” causing “an imbalanced gut.” We are also informed that cholesterol is an essential component of our cell walls. Animals don’t have cell walls. We have cell membranes of which cholesterol can be a stabilizing component. Plants have cell walls. They also have cell membranes which contain phytosterols but very little cholesterol. I don’t seek out mistakes to shame an author, but these are fundamental principles and key points.  The statements cast doubt on other points in the book. Blaming the hundreds of chemical additives in processed foods as a primary reason for imbalanced guts is oversimplistic. Research on our microbiome is a fascinating area of study. Definitive recommendations on how diet affects gut health are premature.

bottle of canola oil
Source of omega-3s

“The more unsaturated the oil, the less stable and more susceptible or oxidation it is. Bear in mind that eating a lot of processed foods, even organic processed foods, often means eating a large quantity of refined grains too—both the grains and the vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which appears to be problematic for our health.” (p.49) The simplistic solution boils down to saturated fatty acids good; omega-6 bad. Dietitians warn us about overconsuming saturated fatty acids. Dietary recommendations also suggest that we decrease omega-6 fatty acids and increase omega-3s. We need to understand that both omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. The omega-3s are more unsaturated than the omega-6s.

This situation calls for the addition of antioxidants to processed foods containing unsaturated fats. Addition of antioxidants to processed foods containing unsaturated fats reduces oxidation. Vitamin E is a very effective antioxidant in plant and animal tissue but not in food. Synthetic antioxidants such as BHA and BHT are much more effective in processed foods.

Whole foods are also susceptible to oxidation of fats. Oxidation leads to rancidity. Unfortunately, once a whole food becomes rancid, it is now in an advanced form of oxidation. I once bought a jar of peanuts that were so rancid they tasted almost like paint. I kept the jar in my office for months to illustrate the odor of rancidity. Freezing of a whole food slows down oxidative processes. Not all plant-based oils are high in omega-6. Canola, flaxseed, soybean, and walnut oils are good sources of omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids are also added to certain processed foods such as bread, chocolate, margarine, and yogurt. Hens fed diets high in omega-3s increase the level of them in their eggs. Be forewarned. Any whole or processed food high in these unsaturated fatty acids is more susceptible to oxidation of its fats.

box of Cheerios breakfast cereal
Just another bland white food

“Those bland white foods made from refined and processed grains, added sugar, and poor-quality fats in the form of vegetable oils—products like bread, pasta, crackers, and cereals—industrial foods that deprive children of nutrients critical to their mental and physical development.” (p.92) I get tired of blaming all the ills of society on industrial foods. Yes, capitalism has its flaws. Yes, we need to regulate businesses. But blaming industrial food for nutritional imbalances goes too far. In the Great Depression, children suffered from malnutrition. Fortification and enrichment of processed foods provided those children the nutrients they needed.

Processed food critics now proclaim that “No one dies of scurvy anymore.” Today’s nutritional problems in America are not from too few vitamins and minerals. Our problems stem from too much—too much food and too many calories. Yes, industrial foods may be too tempting and contribute to overeating. But it is not the vegetable oils in bread, pasta, crackers and cereals that are to blame. Refined and processed grains and added sugars are just as prevalent in home-prepared meals as they are in processed foods.

a bottle of Dasani brand water
Bottled water–Is it safe?

“And as long as toxicologists continue to test at high doses and operate under the notion that the dose makes the poison, not much will change at the regulatory agencies and we will fail to be protected from the low-dose exposures we are exposed to–whether it’s the trace amounts of pesticides on apples or bisphenol A (BPA) in a water bottle.” (p.173) And the battle goes on between “the dose makes the poison” advocates and the “let food be your medicine” folks. Count me in the-dose-makes-the-poison camp. Industrial foods encompass crops with pesticides or anything in a plastic container.

I read two books with opposing views on the health dangers of plastics. Chemical Food Safety (2002) takes the toxicology position that the dose makes the poison. Is It Safe? (2012) argues that trace amounts of BPA disrupt the endocrine system and lead to birth defects. Sarah Vogel, representing the endocrinologists, makes the more compelling case in Is It Safe?. A battle erupted between the toxicologists and the endocrinologists. It became so heated that the FDA set up The Clarity Study to see which side was right. Toxicology and endocrinology labs around the country received blind samples for testing. Independent scientists evaluated the resulting data. It turned out that “BPA did not elicit clear, biologically plausible adverse effects . . . at levels even remotely close to typical consumer exposure levels.” That statement is as close to absolute as any scientific pronouncement from a governmental agency ever gets.

BPA does not cause birth defects at low-dose exposures. The FDA conducted an extensive test. The results were clear. Yet, the myth of the dangers of BPA persists. The results of The Clarity Study became public about the time of the publication of Formerly Known as Food. It is possible that Lawless was not aware of this finding. Myths about trans fats and MSG still persist despite thorough debunking of the claims. Once a myth becomes popular in modern media, it becomes impossible to expunge. It recalls Raymond Donovan’s quote “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

“Demand easy and affordable access for all chemical-free, healthy whole foods by creating a federal urban farm program.” (p.271) This statement is point Number 5 in the author’s New Food Movement Manifesto. Another aspect covered in the manifesto include constraints on the marketing of industrial foods. Warning labels about the health hazards of these foods must also appear on the packages. I question where we are to find chemical-free foods. No foods are chemical free. Whole foods are derived from living materials that require oxygen, water, and nitrogen. Vitamins and minerals are essential chemicals for human growth and sustenance. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are chemicals. The response to these statements will be something like “Well, you know what I mean.” No, I refuse to acknowledge that food can be chemical-free. Words matter and the use of the term ‘chemical-free’ outside a vacuum is misleading. 

box of fresh lettuce, red peppers and bagged tomatoes

Chemical-free foods?

I have nothing against urban farms. I am all for growing and eating more fruits and vegetables. Urban property sees multiple uses. We need soil testing for any urban farm in a federal program. High levels of toxic, heavy metals in urban soil represent a safety hazard.

Bottom line. I have reviewed many books critical of processed food on this site. Formerly Known as Food is the most radical of the ones on that list. The only redeeming feature I found in this book is a discussion of diet and inflammation. It is a topic that needs more discussion. Future posts this month will focus on the topic. We need to listen to people who don’t think like us. There are places I am just not ready to go, however. The American population could not feed itself without industrial foods. Not all processed foods are junk. Not all junk foods are processed.

Next week: My experience with an inflammation diet by Cynthia D’Amico-Graham

9 thoughts on “Formerly Known as Food (How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture)

  1. It is stated in the original post that “Canola, flaxseed, soybean, and walnut oils are good sources of omega-3s.” Flaxseed oil is a very good source of omega-3s. Walnut oil is an intermediate source. Canola and soybean oils are sources of omega-3s, but being a good source may be an overstatement.


  2. I just made some hash brown potatoes from a frozen bag, and they were delicious. They were still potatoes, just cut in a way I’m not able to cut them because I don’t have the tool or the time. If we didn’t have varied ways to sell potatoes, farmers would be at a disadvantage.


  3. Thank you for Lawless review.   No, she doesn’t understand food, doesn’t see impracticality of nonindustrial foods, relation of preservation to where we now can live, but no matter, she understands and feeds the people’s fear of science and resultant angelization of “natural” (predictable) which I’ve mentioned before. She errs in putting BPA in a water bottle, which is made of PET, a plastic that has no relation at all to BPA.  No matter, her audience doesn’t care.  Chemicals are bad even if we are them. *W**hy* people need to believe this is what interests me the most — the distrust of ourselves, anything added, and underlying it all, the need to deny science to hold on to the comforts of belief in impossibles learned in infancy.


  4. Although I haven’t read her book, I watched an interview she did on the book. I had I hard time sitting though the session but I knew I didn’t want to buy the book so I gritted my teeth and watched to the bitter end. My frustration comes from the opposite direction. I’m all for holistic nutrition and cooking with whole minimally processed food but my views are not reflected in either book reviews or during the interview. How ironic! We’re using the same words to mean two completely different things.


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