Who can tell us which foods we should or should not be eating?

We all have a vested interest in what we eat. Some of us eat for pleasure. Others for health. A few for sustainability. Most of us want to feel good about what we eat. Too many of us eat what we want only to feel guilty afterwards. Eating is a personal activity. Food culture in America is hedonistic, contradictory, and often conflicted. Some of us want everybody to eat like we eat. Others only want to eat our food in peace. The media tells us what we should and shouldn’t be eating for pleasure, health, and sustainability. What are we supposed to do?

Last week I reviewed a book on novel food products that may be on our dinner plates in the not-too-distant future. It became obvious that the author and I have very different visions of the future of food. These differences relate back to our understanding of the value of what we eat now. When I read about such differences, I try first to understand. Then I try to explain my differences and why. That is my mission in this blogpost. Here are a few issues that Larissa Emberoff raises in Technically Food and my responses to them.

“Can we be healthy, respect food traditions, and save the environment all at the same time?” Early in the book, the author poses this question. It may be the existential food question of our time. Americans obsess over healthiness. How do we assess healthiness? By the individual foods we eat? By our dietary pattern? By our weight/BMI? By bloodwork readings at our annual or semi-annual visits to the physician? Both Emberoff and I are on special diets tied to past dietary patterns. She focuses on eating healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy ones. I focus on my bloodwork and changes over time. She senses a queasy feeling when she eats something she should not. I changed the foods I ate based on adverse changes in my health data.

Family meal patterns during childhood and youth set expectations for a lifetime. Emberoff’s diagnosis of diabetes came early, and she abandoned her love of cookies. She notes that her blood sugar rose anytime she consumed anything processed. Her dietary pattern underwent a radical transformation. My diagnosis of chemical diabetes (now labeled prediabetes) came in my 40s. I made major modifications in the number of sugared foods I ate. I excluded sugared snacks and high-sugar fruit like bananas, dried dates, and mangoes. By food traditions she means food cultures emphasizing whole foods and home cooking. By food traditions I mean the lack of deviation from habits I formed in my childhood. My meals as a child consisted of meat, potatoes, home grown vegetables, and processed food. My diet modifications as an adult work around these early family traditions.

Climate change is a more recent consideration for most of us. It appears that Emberoff was more conscious of the food environment earlier in her life than I was. I confess to being a climate-change skeptic before I became a believer. She views sustainability as individual acts to prevent waste rather than recycling. I view upcycling as a joint act by government and industry to decrease food loss. She is more skeptical of subtle attempts to save the world like alternatives to meats. I am skeptical of the collective will and environmental knowledge of Americans. Can we solve climate-related problems on our own?

To conclude, healthiness is a difficult concept to grasp. It is not enough to eat only healthy foods and avoid unhealthy ones. Bloodwork can help us learn about the effectiveness of our dietary pattern. But is our blood the only reliable indicator that we need? Food traditions are fine, but does America have a true food culture? Or does it come from a melting pot of ideas adopted from cuisines of many cultures? With the lure of processed and fast food, America has abandoned many of the foodways of the old country. Climate challenges are rising much faster than our ability to combat them. The future looks bleak for saving the world through individual or collective efforts.

Decisions by “informed choice rather than through government intervention or market pressures.” This quote comes from Ben Wurgaft, author of Meat Planet. This concept jumped out at me. It expresses an ideal solution, but is it realistic? His book looks at cell-based meats. The author explores whether it represents a technological advance or a culinary threat. Let’s start with informed choice and what that means. We live busy lives, but we have the internet in our pocket to help us understand any issue. There are so many sides to any issue, though, how do we know what we are reading is valid? My blogsite presents a very different view of cell-based meats from many other sites. Whom do we trust? How do we find credible sources of information? How many sources do we consult to make an “informed choice” before we move on to another issue? After our initial choice, will we change when confronted with new information?

Isn’t government intervention what nutrition and social activists rely on for change? What happens to government intervention when the administration changes with alternate views toward food regulation? Government intervention cut the water discharge of toilets and dishwashers. Household appliances are now more energy efficient. The effect of such advances are far beyond individual actions of informed consumers. Normal people get frustrated when their toilets don’t flush fast enough. Government could encourage consumption of cell-based meats by subsidizing prices. It could also make it illegal to sell these products in a country. Regulatory practices, such as naming of the product category, will also affect sales.

Then there are market pressures. To make a return on investment, cell-based companies will institute a marketing blitz. Be it Sunday Night Football or Jimmy Kimmel, expect commercials selling alternate meats. I am amazed at how few people will tell us how marketing makes a difference in their lives. Food activists fear the overwhelming power advertising has on gullible children and adults. Will Americans be unable to resist the power of marketing cellular agriculture?

I would like to think that most of us choose our foods and other items we buy based on informed choice. How many of us take the time to become an informed consumer? How many of us become victims of personal hopes, fears, and biases? How many of us will follow the advice of a friend or food journalist without checking their sources? How many of us will accept or reject the recommendations of our government? How many of us will succumb to slick television ads?

Belasco triangle: convenience-responsibility-identity. Emberoff introduces us to the Belasco triangle from Meals to Come. The idea is that we can have a meal meet two of these three criteria abut not all three at the same time. In this model convenience encompasses affordability. This is the area where processed/ultra-processed foods shine. A class of processed foods, prepared foods, is emblematic of the concept. Prepared foods are either ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat-and-eat. Restaurant meals are convenient but not always affordable.

photo of many different processed foods
Can you distinguish the ultra-processed foods in this picture from the processed ones?

Responsibility includes nutrition and sustainability. One position is that personal health and environmental responsibility interlink. What is good for one is good for the other. When we understand the benefits of each path we travel in a virtuous circle. Another position is that life is not that simple. When it comes to food, we often face tradeoffs. Foods that deliver on nutrition may not always be good for the earth and vice versa. If plant-based meats are good for the environment, can we sacrifice some nutrition? If cell-based meats deliver on nutrition, can we live with less effect on the environment?

Identity relates to hedonic pleasure. How much satisfaction do we derive from a food or a meal? Dedicated chefs may claim that true pleasure only comes from fresh, whole ingredients. Others label ultra-processed foods as hyperpalatable. Does each pathway take us to sensory nirvana? Or is the reception of these signals in our brains different? Can we declare one sensation good and the other bad? Who sits in judgement?

Fast—good for us and the environment—ultra-satisfying. We may not acheive all three goals. Can we get two out of three if we work at it? Are our options limited to only whole foods or to only processed foods? Or can we achieve a balance between whole and processed foods? Emberoff steers towards whole foods with limited exposure to processed products. A combination of whole and processed foods provides convenience, health, and satisfaction. Such a dietary pattern can also respect the environment. Or can it?

Intact and fractionated ingredients. Linn Steward and I discussed this issue earlier. She favors “quality” ingredients like whole tomatoes rather than tomato puree. It is mixing and matching ingredients from many different sources that causes disagreements. Intact ingredients come from whole foods with minimal processing. Fractionated ingredients involve the decimation of a whole food to remove part of it to become an ingredient in an industrial formulation. I fail to see the distinction between an industrial formulation and a home recipe as both are mixtures of ingredients. Yet, we still have civil conversations about food after two years of interaction.

We use the term, intact ingredients, for lack of a better one. It minimizes the separation of the components of the whole food. Whole foods consist of a structure known as the matrix (1). Many steps in processing and home-food preparation break up the food matrix. Disintegration of whole foods induces chemical interactions not encountered in the whole food. External factors such as heat or atmospheric gases affect intact and fractionated foods. Compare a scrambled egg to a hard-boiled one or a steak to ground beef.

The question here is how important is it to maintain structural integrity? Structure disruption somewhere in the life history of a food is inevitable. It can occur in a processing plant, kitchen, mouth, or digestive system. Will the point of premature disruption affect flavor, health, and digestibility? The answer is yes to all three, but in what direction? Linn Steward would argue that the less disintegration before preparation, the better. I counter that it depends on many nonobvious factors that are observable. More on this discussion between the two of us later on this site.

Where this discussion matters, though, is in the context of ultra-processed foods. Linn and I agree that NOVA classification of ultra-processed foods is too broad to be useful. Both of us would like to break up Class IV (ultra-processed) into subcategories. Ultra-processed foods combine many ingredients from many sources. These products need additives to maintain stability and preserve integrity. She is not convinced that foods with such additives are a good idea. I have no problem with the use of these additives.

NOVA and other critics state that use of most food additives poses a health hazard. Many studies that show correlations of chronic disease and large databases. Two recent ones relate ultra-processing to dementia and colon cancer (2,3). Critics of ultra-processed products declare these studies conclusive. But correlation does not mean causation. Correlation suggests further research with particular emphasis on establishing mechanisms (4). Defenders of ultra-processed foods contend that these products provide more food to more people at lower prices.

It is the distinction between intact and fractionated ingredients that separates Emberoff and me. She sees no benefit of upcycling ingredients. Fractionated ingredients are no longer considered healthy. Her perspective is that we should eat only healthy ingredients. I don’t see these ingredients as unhealthy. I also contend that foods do not need to have a health halo to provide sustenance in a person’s diet. Her focus is on individual foods. Mine is on meals and dietary patterns.

Who can tell us which foods we should or should not be eating? It seems that we have many people telling us what we should or shouldn’t eat. Different individuals and groups may have different values from us. For some it’s health. For others it’s the environment. Some value hedonic pleasure. Others value safety. Still other voices emphasize value for money. There is room for many opinions on food. Expressing a point of view is fine. Shaming is not. Listening to a different perspective and holding it up for comparison is admirable. Being willing to change when faced with contrary information is admirable. Am I guilty of confirmation bias at times? Yes, but I try to practice objectivity. My underlying pre suppositions include:

    • Processed foods are not nearly as bad as we think,
    • Processed food can be a part of a balanced diet, and
    • Individuals should be able to decide what they want to eat and what foods they want to avoid without pressure.

Food marketers push their products on us. Food journalists advocate restrictive diets or tell us which foods to avoid. Those of us who are intuitive eaters face skepticism. “Listen first to understand, then speak to be understood.” Then respect and accept chosen dietary patterns of those around us.

Next post: Everything we think we know about healthy diets is wrong!

References:

(1) Fardet, A. and E. Rock, 2022. Chronic diseases are first associated with the degradation and artificialization of food matrices rather than with food composition: calorie quality matters more than calorie quantity. European Journal of Nutrition 61: 2239-2253. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02786.8

(2) Li, H. S. Li, H. Yang, Y. Zhang, Y. Ma, Y. Hou, X. Zhang, K. Niu, Y. Borné, and Y. Wang, 2022. Association of ultraprocessed food consumption with risk of dementia: A prospective cohort study. Neurology 99:1056-1066. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000200871

(3) Wang, L., M. Du, K. Wang, N. Khandpur, S.L. Rossato, J-P. Drouin-Chartier, E.M. Steele, E. Giovannucci, M. Song, and F.F. Zhang, 2022. Association of ultra-processed food consumption with colorectal cancer risk among men and women: results from three prospective US cohort studies. British Medical Journal 378 (8350):1-10. https://doi.org/10:1136/bmj-2021-068921

(4) Tobias, D.K. and K. Hall, 2021. Eliminate or reformulate ultra-processed foods? Biological mechanisms matter. Cell Metabolism 33(12):2314-2315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2021.10.005

6 thoughts on “Who can tell us which foods we should or should not be eating?

  1. Interesting and relevant post. Here are my observations.

    One. Processed means different things to different disciplines depending on context. I understand the reference to processed in the context of convenience and affordability. And I agree that this area is where processed/ultra-processed foods shine. Convenience and affordability are not the attributes I usually associate with processed food however. What comes to my mind is tradition, durability, and food safety. That is why when I read the criteria for NOVA Group 3, it made sense to me. “Products made by adding salt, oil, sugar or other group 2 ingredients to group 1 foods, using preservation methods such as canning and bottling, and, in the case of breads and cheeses, using non- alcoholic fermentation.”

    Two. I am going to suggest there’s is a distinction between an industrial formulation and a home recipe because it’s absolutely true that both are mixtures of ingredients. Industrial formulations are weight based. The American Standardized Recipe is a formulation in volume measure. The recipes used by home cooks on the other hand are far less demanding. In the hands of an experienced cook, these recipes are not followed with the same degree of precision as an industrial formulation.

    Three. We are in complete agreement that a focus on meals and dietary patterns is more important than a focus on an individual ingredients. Our Dietary Guidelines use a food group pattern model, a useful and relevant model to follow focusing on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish. Monteiro and Scrinis recently published a Comment “From ultra-processed foods to ultra-processed dietary patterns” in the journal Nature. The gist of their observation is that two distinct dietary patterns have emerged. One is comprised of NOVA Groups 1,2,3 and the second NOVA Group 4.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. Let me respond to each point.

      One. Tradition, durability, and food safety are not described as attributes of processed foods by most food journalists these days. They also apply to ultra-processed foods thanks to advances in food technology.

      Two. You have tried to explain to me the difference between an industrial formulation and a recipe many times, but I just don’t get it. The weight-based vs. volume-based addition is interesting, but how does that affect nutrients, flavor, or other sensory attributes? I still don’t understand why precision is considered a detriment to a formulation. I know that it gives the experienced cook a feeling of greater freedom and creativity. The lack of predictability of the outcome may or may not please the diner.

      Three. Thank you for pointing me to the Monteiro and Scrinis comment in “Nature Food.” I appreciate your assistance in locating it. It is an interesting article. I am glad to see that they are thinking now more along the lines of good and bad dietary patterns rather than good and bad foods. It also seems to be interested in mechanisms than strictly processes. The co-authors are still hung up on food additives and ingredient numbers rather than food composition. If we take the extremes of ultra-processed food consumption from 15% in Italy to 60% in the US, most of the rest of the Western world appears to be consuming a hybrid dietary pattern. That might be a more optimal pattern for nutrition and food access.

      I look forward to continuing this discussion.

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  2. I’m concerned with why people so eagerly follow popular images, avoiding or twisting the numbers as needed. Popular images don’t stay popular without good reasons. I see a need to resist the laws of science as science must reject the impossible and unexplainable (miracles, magic) which we depended on for comfort and power in infancy (when no explanation is possible) and now get them through other forms. This is not new from me, but I don’t see it openly discussed.
    Human ability to select, grow, store, mix, cook and preserve foods is the basis of the agricultural revolution. Other animals have to go where the food is or live there. Why are we demonizing the processing that feeds us?

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      1. I’ll say it a different way. Does anyone agree that we start life as miraclists and this fuels both later-life resistance to evidence- and number-bssed science, and comfort with concepts like natural, fresh, whole, etc?

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      2. There is a sharp divide between scientists and naturalists. I am not sure that one side is right and the other is wrong. Each group starts with different underlying assumptions and has difficulty understanding the other perspective.

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