A while back I said I had a big question to ask Lunch Tray readers. I’m a few weeks late in posting, but here it is:
When we talk about “processed food,” what do we really mean?
As someone who writes daily about food and healthful eating, this is a question I think about often. I toss out the term “processed food” on this blog with abandon, holding it up unfavorably to “fresh” or “whole” foods, berating my school district for serving too much of it, blaming its widespread availability, in part, for our rising obesity and disease rates. But even as I use the term freely, as a writer I recognize with some discomfort how imprecise it is.
“Processing” could mean everything from washing, peeling and slicing a piece of fruit to turning it into this:
We may be fine with the former and recoil from the latter, but you have to admit that somewhere in the middle things do get a little fuzzy. Is it “processing” to squeeze a lemon over the apple slices to keep them fresh? Is it “processing” to use ascorbic acid as a preservative, which is what makes the lemon juice effective in preventing browning? What about drying the slices into apple chips? Is an apple “fruit leather” the result of too much processing? What about these organic green apple “twists”?
When we cook down apples into a delicious applesauce at home, we might feel good about our efforts, yet the end result is not so different from this product, which many parents might spurn as “too processed”:
And even as we struggle to define what we mean by “processed” food, there are those who argue that processing (however that is defined) should not be feared but instead embraced.
For example, several months ago I shared with you an article by historian Rachel Laudan entitled “In Praise of Fast Food.” In it, Laudan takes issue with the prevailing ethos that “[m]odern, fast, processed food is a disaster.” She writes:
For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.
So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.
Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.
More recently I came across an interview with Fergus Clysedale, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Food Science Policy Alliance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, that’s likely to raise a few eyebrows with this readership. He laments the fact that health professionals and governmental bodies are reluctant to promote processed foods as a means of stemming the obesity epidemic. He believes such foods provide an excellent means of “controlling portions, providing low-caloric density, decreasing waste, increasing safety and decreasing preparation time,” and he questions consumers’ “paranoid distrust of anything ‘artificial,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘mass-produced’or ‘industrially-‘processed.'” Interesting. (I did note that Dr. Clysedale’s department has received significant endowments from large food manufacturers, although it’s unfair to assume bias here without more information.)
And then there are the socio-political ramifications of processing food. A month or two ago, Michelle Hays, blogger at Quips, Travails and Braised Oxtails, shared a link on Facebook that introduced me to the extraordinary work of artist Judith Klausner. Klausner has created a series of pieces entitled “From Scratch” in which she juxtaposes the traditionally female handicrafts of old — embroidery, sewing, and the like – with modern, processed foods. Believe it or not, this “mold” was actually embroidered by the artist onto commercially produced bread:
(Be sure to look at Klausner’s other works in this series, including some astonishing Oreo “cameos” and a sampler stitched onto Corn Chex cereal.)
Klausner tells us that her intent in creating these pieces is to remind us that in our nostalgia for our culinary past, we fail to take into account the freedom such processing has bestowed upon all of us — but particularly women, who previously struggled under the considerable burden of cooking three full meals a day from scratch.
[T]he temptation to romanticize the past is strong. Yet, the availability of packaged foods is what allows us the time to pursue careers, to develop new technologies, to create.
The food on our tables may not be as tasty as it once was. It may not even be as wholesome. But it is important to take a step back and recognize the trade that has been made, and that what we have gained is not to be undervalued.
My work is about choice. As a woman in the twenty-first century, I can choose to spend my day baking a loaf of bread, or to grab a package off a grocery store shelf after a long day at work. I can choose to spend my evenings embroidering. I can choose to combine these things and call it art.
If you agree with any of these positions, then you recognize that there are at least some aspects to processing food which are beneficial to us as individuals and as a society. Yet we still haven’t defined with precision how much “processing” is too much.
The best analysis I’ve seen is found in this piece by Marion Nestle published last year, summarizing a Journal of the World Public Health Nutriton Association article written by University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro. As Nestle summarizes Monteiro, there are three types of food:
• Type 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods that do not change the nutritional properties of the food.
• Type 2: Processed culinary or food industry ingredients such as oils, fats, sugar and sweeteners, flours, starches, and salt. These are depleted of nutrients and provide little beyond calories (except for salt, which has no calories).
• Type 3: Ultra-processed products that combine Type 2 ingredients (and, rarely, traces of Type 1).
Quoting now from the journal article itself, Moneiro writes:
The issue therefore is not processing as such. It is the nature, extent, and purpose, of processing, and in particular, the proportion of meals, dishes, foods, drinks, and snacks within diets that are ‘ultra-processed.’ . . . .
Ultra-processed products are characteristically formulated from ‘refined’ and ‘purified’ ingredients freed from the fibrous watery matrix of their original raw materials. They are formulated to be sensually appealing, hyper-palatable, and habit-forming, by the use of sophisticated mixtures of cosmetic and other additives, and state-of-the-craft packaging and marketing. Further, ultra-processed products are ‘convenient’ – meaning, ready-to-eat (or drink) or ready-to-heat. . . .
From the public health point of view, ultra-processed foods are problematic in two ways. First, their principal ingredients (oils, solid fats, sugars, salt, flours, starches) make them excessive in total fat, saturated or trans-fats, sugar and sodium, and short of micronutrients and other bioactive compounds, and of dietary fibre. Taken together this increases the risk of various serious diseases. Second, their high energy density, hyper-palatability, their marketing in large and super-sizes, and aggressive and sophisticated advertising, all undermine the normal processes of appetite control, cause over-consumption, and therefore cause obesity, and diseases associated with obesity.
Does Monteiro’s three-tier classification of food “processing” work for you? How do you personally draw the line when buying “processed” foods for yourself and your family? Do you believe that all processing of any kind should be avoided and, if so, do you find it hard to live out that principle?
I’m so interested in hearing what Lunch Tray readers have to say.
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