April has been a busy month for stories about food. A strong defense of ultra-processed food emerged despite continuing challenges. Food waste and differences between safety and quality were topics of interest. And then there was an off-the-wall story on frozen nuts.
Food waste, we learn, is bigger than we ever imagined. In discussing food waste, it is important that we distinguish between food loss and food waste. Loss happens before the food ever gets to market. Waste occurs as it arrives at the market. Either way, all inputs into food production and distribution go for naught when it doesn’t make it into our bodies. Loss tends to be greater in less wealthy nations that lack major transportation infrastructure. Waste is more prevalent in richer nations. The last mile of food distribution incurs the greatest waste in inputs and economic value. Waste at retail amounts to 13% in stores, 26% at food service locations and 61% in homes. And yet, it is so easy to blame Big Food and the food system for the waste. Decreases in food waste in wealthier nations could have a major impact on global warming.
In his ConscienHealth post, Ted Kyle appeared to imply that food waste was an ultra-processed food problem. Processing and associated storage decrease spoilage and thus decrease food waste. Items such as fresh, whole foods spoil rapidly and are the greatest contributors to food loss and food waste. Marketing schemes and just-in-time delivery methods can lead to unharvested fruit or vegetables left rotting in the field. Lisa Johnson focuses on such losses, but such losses are much more about fresh, whole foods than about processed products.
Frozen nuts are now a thing. It is a great revelation that nuts stored at freezing temperatures maintain their “freshness” for a long period of time. The expert source for this article was Karen Schaich from Rutgers and her expertise in lipid oxidation. Talk about memories. Karen’s research was instrumental in helping me understand the mechanism of lipid oxidation in fish muscle during my PhD program at UMASS. When I went down to Georgia, a mentor, Kell Heaton, passed around some pecans just before he retired. Everyone raved about how “fresh” they were. Turns out he was throwing away some samples kept frozen for over 30 years. Sometimes we fail to appreciate the wonders of food technology.
Food safety and quality, how they differ from each other, was the subject of an excellent item posted by Faizah Almughamiri on LinkedIn. Like differences in food loss and food waste, it is important to keep the concepts straight. I have also heard of attempts to blur the lines between food safety and healthiness of foods. The more we blur these lines, the more difficult it is to understand the principles involved and ways to study them.
Ultra-processed foods continue to be in the news. In an in-depth, three-part discussion on the topic, Laura Thomas tells us the “Truth About Ultra-Processed Foods.” I tend to shy away from any truth-telling, as science is about discovery and not about “the truth.” However, the author has outlined a much more reasoned approach to the topic than what we see in so many articles on the web. Part One provides an overview on ultra-processed foods and the NOVA classification scheme. Part Two focuses on the mischaracterization of these products by the media. Part Three suggests that UPFs are not nearly as damaging to the environment as critics proclaim. Also, the British Nutrition Foundation has published a position statement on the topic. Anyone wishing a balanced, nuanced view of ultra-processed food might want to check these articles out.
There still are descriptions of how dangerous ultra-processed foods are to our health. We must be careful not to stigmatize consumers of these products who won’t eat healthier. Who is to blame? “Food companies purposely add high levels of sugar, fat and other components to highly processed foods to make them as addictive as possible.” Is America really made up of crazed, addicted, food zombies or do they enjoy too many, readily available snacks? Home cooks also add sugar, fat, and salt to make their offerings more palatable. How much is too much and where is the line that makes food addictive?
One thing about the more recent articles is that they identify synthetic additives as the major problem with UPFs. It is not about processing after all. The headline of an article in Food Navigator says it all, “Consumers don’t know what ‘ultra-processed’ food is, but they know they don’t want it.” Even most food professionals don’t know what ‘ultra-processed’ food is, but they are skeptical of it. It is clear that NOVA is winning the propaganda battle on the healthiness of ultra-processed foods, but what are potential consequences of a possible massive shift from ultra-processed food to healthier fare could have consequences. A scholarly article from Purdue University suggests that such a transition could lead to more food waste, a less healthy diet, and food safety challenges.
Not to worry, machine learning has identified ultra-processed foods as unhealthy, but Americans continue to eat them. So, we are now in the age of machine vs machine. Learning machines are telling us not to trust processing machines, but we still eat what these processing machines are feeding us. Maybe we could encourage these learning machines to become teaching machines and provide stronger warnings on what we should or should not be eating. Haven’t real people tried to use this strategy for years? It doesn’t seem to be working. How do teaching machines or smart humans make us eat better without shaming us? It is a conundrum.
Coming soon: The miracle of a whole plant-based diet
5 thoughts on “Food waste, frozen nuts, food safety & quality, and ultra-processed foods”
What do most Americans eat? Let’s assume the most recent Dietary Guidelines has scored Americans correctly. Our collective score is 59 out of 100. I recently came across an HEI assessment of school meals and those meals scored in the 80ties. Not sure of the date however. Granted I don’t eat like a typical American. My own recipes would probably score in the 80ties as well. Mostly palatable, occasionally hyper-palatable and occasionally healthy.
A side note. My home baked cookies are hyper-palatable at any size because the total sugar (>20% kcal) and fat (>20% kcal) grams are calculated as percentages of calories so the size of the cookie is irreverent to the score.
How do teaching machines or smart humans make us eat better without shaming us? The binary choices available in todays food’s narrative are brutal. Healthy = austere restrictions on those very ingredients that increase palatability. Because so many of the food products sold today off the shelf, at restaurants or takeout, qualify as hyper-palpable, my sense is that Americans have developed a taste foods high in those very same ingredients. And folks tend to like what they are used to. It’s a binary focus that results in shaming on one side and virtue signaling on the other. The middle ground has disappeared. Variety and moderation are disappearing from the conversation.
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Precisely the point I wished to make. The idea that hyper-palatability is only achieved by Big Food and never by home cooks is also myth. I was prime server for Pizza Club Wednesday evenings at our church. Attendees were from students either in Elementary or Middle School. A noticeable level of hyperactivity descended on the group after serving the sweet for the evening. Differences in the level of excitement was not noticeable between store-bought and home-made sweets. The binary distinction of processed bad and homemade good is a fairy tale spread on the web.
It’s actually not a myth. And now I have the recipe metrics to prove my point. Most of my own recipes fall in between hyper-palatable and healthy. Where you will find hyper-palatable levels are in imported classic French bistro cuisine aka Julia Child. Certain cookbooks written say 1970 – 1990. And curiously enough in the dozen or so recipes posted on Michael Pollan’s website from his book “Cooked”. Recipes in todays food environment from Saveur or Epicurean would also be fruitful places to look. What do Americans cook at home is the larger question. And that’s a question that is much more challenging to answer.
The myth suggests that all processed food is unhealthy and all home-cooked food is healthy. I suspect that most home cooks are not as careful as you are. Even your cookies become hyper-palatable when the second one is eaten at the same setting. Remember the Purdue study that suggests decreases in ultra-processed products in the American diet could lead to poorer health outcomes.