Scenario #3: Processed food in “Tomorrowland”—What I’d like to see

As we emerge from the pandemic, expect to see major changes in our food supply. Consumer choices will drive these changes. A war is breaking out between food advocates and marketers of processed foods. Two weeks ago, I presented a vision of the New Food Movement. Last week I painted a world taken over by Big Food. Both perspectives highlight extreme positions attempting to find certainty in an uncertain world. Is there room for a more rational approach to the food of “Tomorrowland?”

In my imaginary future, the concept of the healthiness of foods is changing. Nutritionists and dietitians reject binary choices offered by food journalists and bloggers. Nutrition is more than dividing all foods into healthy and unhealthy. These professionals steer us away from restrictive diets to more balanced ones. Healthy foods are more than packages of nutrients. They are also more than edible substances with no salt, sugar, or fat.  Recommended diets start with balanced meals to present a more rational way forward.

Processed foods lose some of the stigma they gained earlier in the century. Balanced diets contain recommended levels of essential nutrients with low levels of salt, sugar, and fat. These requirements are more important than whether a food is fresh or processed. Individual foods do not need to supply every nutritional need. Salt, sugar, and fat enhance the eating experience, but moderation is the key. Specialized diets are still tailored for people diagnosed with health issues.

bag of fries coated with mayo
Does the presence or absence of food additives change the healthiness of these fries?

Health professionals reject the concept of natural. They accept the role of food additives if the additive serves a useful function. Natural ingredients are no guarantee of healthiness. Food additives are no indication of unhealthiness. The healthiness of a deep-fried food is not enhanced if additives are absent. Likewise, the same food is not less healthy if additives are present. Sugar or salt added during cooking at home are not healthier than sugar or salt added in a restaurant or a processing plant. Algorithms suggest the appearance of neutrality, but they are unreliable in promoting health.

Doctors and dietitians place less emphasis on obesity. They place more emphasis health at different sizes. We no longer blame the person for being overweight or blame the food for causing it. The Intuitive Eating movement resists the notion that everyone must be thin. This perspective becomes more accepted in the dietetics community. New efforts to combat obesity, with an emphasis on children and youth, show modest success. Obesity rates in the country stabilize and decrease some with most progress in the younger generation. Efforts to recruit a diversity of medical professionals expand cultural perspectives. Success of these programs highlights the development of new dietary regimes for minorities.

Government policy continues to catch heat from both the food industry and the New Food Movement. Agencies continue to perform their missions despite political heat. For example, FDA’s mission statement states that its responsibilities include

protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.

FDA also helps “the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medical products and foods to maintain and improve their health.” The FDA does not function as a nutritional police force. It tends to be more oriented to food safety than to nutritional quality. Such oversight includes regulation of food additives.

The USDA continues to balance an apparent conflict of interest in its mission. The agency serves the interests of the agricultural community. It also provides nutritional information to the public. A Department of Food and Agriculture could improve the nutrition mission and help with food security. Heated debate surrounds the topic, but the decision gets bogged down in politics. Governmental agencies focus on guaranteeing safety and enforcing truth in labeling. They provide a balance in protecting the public and access to a wide array of foods. In 2018 FDA disallowed partially hydrogenated oils in formulated foods effectively eliminating trans fats. This policy serves as a guide to future decisions. These agencies may need to streamline their regulator protocols to adapt. Public safety, however, remains their most important responsibility.

Food distribution becomes more equitable across the country. More supermarket chains open stores in food deserts to improve access to fresh, whole foods. These stores hire more local residents to lower unemployment levels. Community activists, food pantry officials, and supermarket managers collaborate to improve food security. Corner stores and dollar stores stock more fresh, whole foods to broaden access in neighborhoods. Ethnic foods become more available in the supermarket and food pantries.  Community gardens encourage residents to get more involved with growing their food. Farmers markets also increase the amount of fresh food available. The bulk of fresh, whole foods comes from the supermarket.

Food companies recognize an obligation to get their product into these supermarkets. Junk food will always be part of the mix, but processed items not high in salt, sugar, or fat are also readily available. Junk food ads on children’s television and web sites decline. A new model for supporting children’s programming develops through public/private cooperation. Restaurants adopt more options for portion control. Calorie counts appear on menu boards in fast-food operations. They also show up on menus in full-service locations. Food delivery from restaurants and supermarkets continues at a lower level than during the pandemic.

Sustainability continues to be a watchword in society. Global climate change intrudes into American lives. Deniers diminish as adverse weather events occur with greater frequency and intensity. Industrial agriculture has the resources and economies of scale to achieve sustainable practices. We see less use of proxy words like organic, natural, and agroecology. This change leads to lower emissions and less nutrient runoff. Big Food extends these efforts to supply chains. Greenwashing becomes more difficult as certification by conservation groups becomes more prevalent. Companies use such certifications on their labels as marketing tools.

Bottom line. Which of these three scenarios presented is most probable? Only time will tell. Certain consumers will gravitate to Scenario #1 featuring more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food. Others will move to Scenario #2 where ultra-processed products become more prominent than today. Look for the trend to be dramatic to one way or the other. In this polarized environment we may see a sharp turn to both solutions. Prospects for Scenario #3 above are not good. A re-evaluation of a definition for healthiness of foods or eating is unlikely. Government regulation of foods may face many changes depending on the party in power at any given time. The chance that food justice advocates and the food industry will ever work together is poor. Food justice will continue to be a political football. Sustainability is a concept both the right and left embrace for different reasons. Getting beyond environmental buzzwords and marketing by industry may be too much to ask.

Next week: Food in the news

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