The problem with Big Food

Mark Bittman detests Big Ag. Robert Paarlberg defends it. Neither writer stops there.  When it comes to Big Food the two authors are in agreement. They contend that Big Food is the problem with the American food system. Let’s focus on their reasoning on specific aspects of the issue.

Obesity is a major problem in rich nations and a growing problem around the world. In Animal, Vegetable, Junk, Bittman blames ultra-processed products. He doesn’t define it but equates it to junk food. No mention of the NOVA classification of foods appears. He claims ultra-processed foods are “more akin to poison than to real food.” In Resetting the Table Paarlberg blames Big Food. He singles out food scientists for causing the obesity epidemic. Product developers manipulate food making it too tasty. He does know about the NOVA scheme. He describes ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substance extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar starch and proteins).”

Added sugars are on the hit list for the two critics of Big Food. Bittman focuses his attention on high-fructose corn syrup. He claims a rapid rise in per-capita sugar consumption in the country since 1970. I could not find data either to support or refute that claim. Sugar-sweetened beverages lead the list as sources of added sugars. Paarlberg notes that food companies add sugar to many more products than sodas. He mentions alternative sweeteners, but he doesn’t say if they are a healthy alternative to sugar.

Food additives make a food product less healthy according to both books. Animal, Vegetable, Junk condemns enrichment of white bread. We should eat brown bread. It is not that simple. Enrichment was one of the greatest advances in public nutrition in the 20th century. The book also paints a false narrative on Harvey Wiley and the Poison Squad. It claims that Wiley compromised on chemical additives in food. He agreed to let them appear on the ingredient statement and let the buyer beware. Wylie focused his attention on specific chemicals he deemed dangerous. He focused his attention on the presence of caffeine in Coca Cola. Caffeine is a natural component of a natural ingredient in the beverage. Thus, it is not present on the ingredient statement. I was happy to see that both authors understand that trans fats are no longer in processed foods.

Resetting the Table seems less concerned about items listed on the label. It points out chemicals make up all foods. The book cites me as its source. Pizza Hut removed “artificial flavors, colors, and monosodium glutamate” from its foods. This step represents industry progress for the author. Or is The Hut giving us permission to overeat food that is high in fat and refined carbohydrates? In the interest of full disclosure, pizza was my favorite food during my working years. The presence of these additives was of no concern to me.

Food addiction is a concern of both authors. They document the efforts of food scientists and engineers who make foods irresistible. These product developers search for the “bliss point” in every product. Not mentioned is that Howard Moskowitz developed the bliss point for canned tomato sauce. Not exactly in the Top 100 junk foods of all time. I value Howard as a colleague and a friend. Bittman notes “Sugar may not have precisely the same addictive properties as caffeine or nicotine.” He focuses more on the foods and the properties that induce strong cravings. Paarlberg emphasizes the processes that companies use to addict us. He appears more adamant on the dangers of food addiction than Bittman.

can of Rolling Rock beer
Green light. Drink as much as you want!
loaf of a high-fiber whole grain bread
NOVA gives it a red light. Would you?

Product labels provide too little information suggest both books. They recommend traffic light labels. Red signals avoid. Yellow tells us to eat these foods sometimes. Green foods have no limits. Resetting the Table provides other alternatives. Front-of-the-package labels can provide scores on nutritional availability or sustainability. Several European and South American countries are adopting versions of these labels.

Taxes on junk foods are part of the plans for healthier items. Bittman wants all ultra-processed foods taxed. He also calls for decreased marketing of such products. Paarlberg focuses his attention on soda taxes. The number one source of added sugar in America is sugar-sweetened beverages. Second place goes to desserts.

Access to healthy food is a point of contention between the two books. Animal, Vegetable, Junk advocates improving access to healthy foods in food deserts. He encourages establishment of urban gardens. These gardens can’t provide enough fresh fruits and vegetables for inner-city residents. Such efforts increase appreciation for the food system. SNAP (aka food stamps) is not a perfect solution. It does not address healthy eating, but it does acknowledge a “universal right to food.” Resetting the Table counters the argument. It calls them food swamps and not deserts. The problem is not one of “lack access to healthy foods.” It is one of “increased exposure to unhealthy foods.” One major source of unhealthy foods is “alas, from supermarkets.”

Other issues abound in these two accounts. Bittman states “A survivable society must be cooperative, with goals of equality, justice, and judicious treatment of the earth.” When it comes to food that statement does not describe America in his view. The environment and health are not major emphases in our society. Paarlberg devoted many pages to discussing restaurant food. He notes full-service chains are as guilty of serving excess calories as fast-food ones. He also describes the potential of “faux meats” for decreasing farm animals. Such products would lead to advances in animal welfare. They are also ultra-processed. Is it a tradeoff we are willing to make?

package of Beyond Meat beef crumbles
Which is more important–animal welfare or avoiding ultra-processed products??

In defense of processed foods many of the criticisms of these products are inaccurate. Not all processed foods are junk. Rather, most of them are not. Change ‘industrial formulations’ to ‘home recipes,’ and we have homemade candies and baked goods.  The dietary guidelines do not distinguish between sugars in desserts added by a processor or added at home. Taxing high-sugar items without taxing sugars used as culinary ingredients makes no sense.

Ultra-processed products are not about health. NOVA supporters are reluctant to separate high sugar/high fat foods out from those that are not. Traffic light labels sound good, but who makes those decisions? Committees of registered dietitians and nutritionists? Critics of governmental health policy like Bittman and Paarlberg? Under NOVA standards all breads in the supermarket would receive a red light. All high-fiber/low-sugar breakfast cereals would show a red light on the front of the package. All beer, wine, and granulated sugar would be green lighted. Food addiction is not a use disorder in DSM-5, the Bible for addiction in the USA. More about processed food addiction here in July.

Is the glass half full or half empty? Use of the term food swamp emphasizes a surplus of unhealthy foods available. Use of food desert denotes lack of access to fresh whole foods. Researchers find that a supermarket is the most important factor in assuring access. Will these supermarkets survive if they remove all unhealthy foods from their shelves? Where do the poor access healthy foods when the supermarket leaves the neighborhood? Is a dysfunctional supermarket better than no supermarket at all? Intuitive Eating professionals warn us about the food police. By telling us what we can and can’t eat, the enforcers only make it worse!

In conclusion I give Bittman more of a pass than Paarlberg. Animal, Vegetable, Junk presents the standard argument of the new food movement. The author advocates avoiding processed foods, particularly those designated as ultra-processed. He wants ‘the food system’ to be local, organic, and slow. He advocates for more people on the land with less technology. He looks for fewer packaged foods. Big Ag and Big Food are causing the health problems in the country.

Paarlberg presents a nuanced defense of Big Ag. He turns his ire to Big Food. How could someone be so reflective on Big Ag and be so binary in his thinking on food processing? His assessment of chain restaurants and faux meats is superb. His understanding of food swamps and ultra-processed foods lacks adequate research. To be clear, I am not a defender of Big Food. I dislike their marketing efforts, particularly to small children. I detest the fads pushed by diet books and stories on the web. Food companies that take advantage of such fads are culpable.

Resetting the Table declares “perhaps tomorrow’s food scientists will devise craveable products that deliver positive nutrition benefits.” If it was only that simple! Product developers design functional foods that are nutritious and consumers crave. Critics condemn products that make health claims. Addiction researchers describe any food that consumers crave as addictive. New products that don’t meet sales targets disappear from the shelves. I do not defend products with artificial colors or high levels of sugar or fat. I do defend processed foods. They do not deserve the demonization they are getting. The emphasis on food additives by NOVA distracts from concerns associated high-sugar/high-fat products.

Paarlberg contends that we can’t supply the nation with food from hobby farms. Likewise, we can’t supply it with only whole foods. Packaged products fill important needs for convenient, affordable food for the American population. Food scientists bear some responsibility for the junk foods they design and Americans crave. They are as trapped in the bowels of Big Food as much as farmers are in the gears of Big Ag. Sniping at each other solves nothing. The road to a healthier food supply takes a common goal and teamwork.

Next week: Renegade Molecules of the Week: TBHQ and Titanium Dioxide

7 thoughts on “The problem with Big Food

  1. I like your site so much. There are things that bothered me about the movement against processed foods (and really, isn’t everything you didn’t personally grow yourself arguably processed in some fashion) and you have articulated these issues in a science-based way.


    1. Thank you. You just made my day! The movement against processed food has some valid points, but it is not balanced. It is too dogmatic and fails to appreciate the complexity of the issues.


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