A Century of Progress Reconsidered

Here’s the short answer:  Processed and fast foods will shorten your life but there’s a solution—home cooking.  Home cooking, however, only happens if the family sits down to dinner together.   No cook is going to prepare a nutritious meal for itinerant grazers.  So it’s simple: dine together, get better food, live longer.


I grew up in a family of ten children; we lived in a happy home, but two events of my parent’s childhood cast a long shadow.  Our father, as a child, nearly died of an infectious disease that settled in his hip.  The doctors gave up all hope; he survived, I think, simply because his mother willed it.  From the disease came two defining marks: a pronounced limp (plus a few operations), and a strong belief in healthy food.  Our mother’s father was a hard rock miner; he had gone down into the mines at fifteen to support his family and consequently died of pneumonia at the young age of 32.  Without a man in the home our mom and her mom barely survived the Depression.  The hard times left our mom with a strong work ethic and a deep-rooted thriftiness.  My parents—pictured above—came of age in the Big Band Era and never lost their love of dancing to romantic music. 

A couple of decades ago mom mentioned—with a tone of surprise—that all her friends had given up cooking.  They had reared their families, cooked thousands of meals, and as their husbands were retiring, they did too.  Now they ate at restaurants, fast food joints, grabbed some take-out, or simply snacked.  And they died, first the husbands, then the wives.  My mom is in her early 90s now; she still cooks, drives, pays the bills, and never misses sending a birthday card to her children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.  But she misses her friends.  Want to live longer?  Cook! (A future post will discuss other benefits of dining as a family.)

Cooking is a process, and the big trend of the last century was the industrialization of food processing formerly done in the home.  My wife’s father grew up on a family farm where they did most of their own food processing using traditional methods.  The creamery where they churned butter and cultured cheese still stands.  Their town had a mill, by a stream, to grind their wheat.  Across the way, a relative kept a fire going to smoke hams.  They dried apples by spreading them in the sun under cheesecloth.  Pickling preserved the cucumbers.  When cabbage began to go bad, they fermented it into sauerkraut.  In retrospect, I see their processing had the sole objective of preserving their crops just enough to get them through the winter.

Industrialized food processing—whether milling flour, baking your bread, raising chickens in a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation), or serving up a fast food meal—has different objectives.  It’s all about costs, sales, and profits—the things you can quantify.  Nutrition, so hard to measure, doesn't stand a chance. 

As noted before, my first job out of college was for Procter & Gamble, a food processor (though better known for soap).  The P&G business model was to take a food commodity and apply technology to make a marketable change.  Their first success, Crisco, made with hydrogenated cottonseed oil and introduced in 1911, displaced lard as the preferred cooking fat.  P&G then used their hydrogenation technology to offer the convenience of cake mixes (Duncan Hines), peanut butter (Jif), and then a snack food (Pringles).  To save time in the kitchen, P&G bought Folgers and offered instant coffee.  These processed foods illustrate the food trends of the last century:  modernity (Crisco was pure white and odor free), convenience, time-saving, and snacking. 

Food Processing Revisited

The nutrition movement of recent years has made a good start at reforming the food processing mistakes of the past century.  Here are some processes revisited and the emerging consensus decision:

1. Production of white, bleached flour with roller mills?  Rejected.  Wheat should be made into flour close to the time of use, or frozen after milling.  Do it at home, or petition your health food store to add a wheat grinder (more on this in a later post).  Rejected also is the practice of artificial enrichment; better to preserve the real nutrients.

2. Production of vegetable oils (and trans fats) through chemical extraction and hydrogenation?  Rejected.  As noted here, use olive oil, butter, or cold-pressed coconut or sesame seed oils. 

3. Margarine?  Rejected; as noted here, butter is healthier and tastes better. 

4. Pasteurization of milk?  This one is more complicated; we’ll visit it in a later post.  In the past the raw milk people seemed a little weird; now they’re making more sense.  I have, however, stopped drinking reduced fat milks.

5. Genetically modified plants?  Rejected.  We should follow the example of the Europeans and avoid this practice because the consequences are unknown.

6. Baking bread in factories?  A compromise here: we buy whole-grain bread that meets the fiber-greater-than-sugar” rule but bake our own too.

7. Factory-made breakfast cereals?  Rejected, except for brands discussed here.  We can make a healthier whole-grain and fresh fruit breakfast compote and save money at the same time.

8. High fructose corn syrup?  Rejected, along with the excessive use of table sugar.  A prior post, recommended natural sweeteners like fruit and honey in moderation.

9. Sugary drinks like soda pop?  Restricted to one per week, though I feel good when I don’t have any.  Filtered water is the best drink of all.

10. Fast food?  Rejected.  Even when traveling we can find better alternatives.  Fast food can serve a purpose, but the menu must be totally revamped (deep-frying especially) and they will only do that if they see their business disappearing.

11. Restaurant chains?  Avoid most of them; we’ll visit the healthier ones in a future post.

12. Factory-made chips and crackers?  Reject most of them; we’ll visit the chip aisle in the next post and maybe find a few that qualify.  Like soda pop, they’re better as an occasional treat. 

What processed foods are okay?  Please comment and share your favorite but healthy processed foods. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change . Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (27)

I have been reading your blog since you began. I can't tell you how informative and wonderful I find it. I made your whole grain bread this weekend for my family. This post reminds me of my parents, both of whom were raised poor during the depression. Both said they didn't feel poor because everyone else was also and they ate well. My Italian immigrant grandparents ALWAYS had gardens, put food by and generally could make a delicious meal with next to nothing. Oh, and there were 11 kids in one family and 7 in the other. My Mom is 83 and is healthy, active and cooks everything from scratch still. Her grandchildren want to know how she makes everthing "so good". I tell them she believes in the best ingredients and then cooks with love.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarianne

One of my favorite snacks, both for myself and for my kids, is Stretch Island Fruit Co Original Fruit Strips. They have ½ serving of fruit, are 100% natural, have No artificial additives, are Real-fruit purée and have no added sugar – all sugar comes naturally from fruit. They are very tasty and super easy to transport. I usually keep a bunch in my car for when my kids get hungry and we won't be home for awhile to fix a snack. They were great for my baby as she was teething, also, as it gave her something sweet to suck on (and kept her quiet and happy) and chew as her teeth came in. Costco sells them. Great post!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

The conundrum for me isn't eating healthy at home it is all of the garbage at school, church functions, parties, and what grandma sends in the mail because she misses us! We live in South American - temporarily - and there are fresh fruits and veggies galore. Processed foods are so expensive and not as good tasting that we are almost free of them except for cake mixes. I love being better educated about food and our bodies. Thanks!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCherilyn

I'm looking forward to the post about chips/crackers. I'm not very good at navigating through all the processed snacks, so I just don't buy any and eat fruits/veggies for snacks. My husband loves saltines and pretzels, which I know aren't healthy. The only problem is that he has to be careful about what he eats, because he is prone to kidney stones (yes, at age 23.) How can one reconcile healthy eating and kidney stone prevention? The foods he's supposed to avoid are ones with lots of oxalate, which basically includes all the healthy stuff!

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Raw milk all the way! What's weird about drinking milk that's unprocessed and straight from the source? It retains more nutrients and tastes ten times better than pasteurized milk. Once I tried it, I couldn't go back. I'm interested in what you have to say about it in a later post, but if you haven't tried it yet, go for it!

Back to your question: my favorite "processed" food is peanut butter (made without hydrogenated oils), because there is no way I could ever get it that creamy on my own or with the fresh grinders that are in some grocery stores.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

The key to help identify the healthy or unhealthy choices is to keep a log for a month or so. Once you start tracking, you can challenge yourself to change the balance. A number of free smart phone apps exist to help track.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul H

Amanda, thanks for speaking up for raw milk. There is a current controversy over FDA action against a Pennsylvania Amish dairy selling raw milk in the DC area. Funny thing about raw milk: Government tends to be hyper-aggressive against raw milk farmers—it's easier in most towns to buy cocaine than raw milk. This will be a fun subject to post on. Best.

May 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

A processed food I really enjoy is Triscuits. The box says they contain whole grain winter wheat, soybean oil, and salt. I'm not sure how they mix all those ingredients up to create the crackers, but I love them.

I totally agree with this post. We have 2 boys, almost 3, and 10 months. I am working on slowly cutting out more processed foods from our diet (things like pancake mix, pancake syrup, and fruit/grain bars) and as much as possible, we have dinner altogether with my husband every night (his schedule permitting). It isn't always the most convenient to make foods from scratch, but the more I learn about food (a lot from your blog), the more I think it is important. We are no saints, but we're getting better slowly but surely when it comes to eating.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

trying to find snacks for my kids that aren't highly processed is a true challenge. currently, i'm a fan of "simply fruit roll ups" made by fruit roll ups.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Simply Fruit Rollups are better than regular Fruit Rollups in that they have no corn syrup or added sugars. But, they still hold no real nutritional value. I think it would be better to just cut up some apples and strawberries for the kiddos. :) Or, if they really like fruit leather, make your own with pureed apples and strawberries. No added sugar and you'd probably get far more fiber out of it as well. You can dry them in a dehydrator or in your oven.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I'd like to know what some good alternatives are when traveling rather than fast food. Bring your own or are there other options?

I'm looking forward to the chips and crackers post and I love the idea of making fruit leather mentioned in the comments!


May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Rachel, I'll share what we do, and invite readers to add their best practices. We've done travel food poorly, and we've done it OK. Bringing our own in-car snacks is both healthy and economical. For meal stops we've used Subway (whole wheat rolls are available and there are some healthy choices in added items) but the wife tired of that. (Yes, most guys can eat the same thing longer than most wives.) The beautiful wife currently likes Cafe Rio and they have reasonably healthy choices, though they could do better. Best.

May 4, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Larabars are a processed snack I recently found. They are sweetened with dates and have (depends on the flavor) 2 to 9 ingredients which are whole and natural. For example, Ginger Snap contains the following: dates, almonds, pecans, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves.

I recently took a flight on Air France and was amazed at their standard snack - a bag of mini shortbread cookies. The ingredients (including whole wheat flour) were limited to normal cookie ingredients: whole wheat flour, sugar eggs, butter, etc. NO preservatives or unnatural ingredients. And they tasted SO GOOD. Why is it so hard for American companies to create processed snacks that follow these guidelines?

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenae

I can't wait to read your post on pasteurized/lower fat milk. Does this mean that whole milk is a better alternative than the lower fat versions?

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerb

Skip, my wife has been encouraging me to post a comment on your blog just to let you know how much we appreciate all that you are doing to make this information available (she also thinks it will help the men/women balance on posts that you get). I am working on Duty to God with the Young Men in my ward and I am using the information from your blog to help me with the nutrition portion of my Physical Health project. I recommend the site to all who will listen. I know our Stake President is now a follower. When working with church welfare recipients I ask them to review the blog to ensure that they are making health food choices for their families. You are doing a great work and I believe that this is just the type of thing that President Uchtdorf was referring to when he said this last conference, “perhaps the Lord’s encouragement to `open [your] mouths’ might today include `use your hands’ to blog and text message the gospel to all the world!” Thank you, you are blessing many lives with your good work.

Over the last several months I have had many thoughts on the posts you have been making. I am on the board of an environmental publisher (Watershed Media) that has been focusing on food issues (we have worked several times with Michael Pollan as a contributor). Our family has two family cows which we milk so that we have raw milk (along with cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream, etc . . .) and we raise our own pastured chickens which give great eggs. The best comment that I can make is that I think you are right on. Keep up the good work.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Snyder's brand pretzels are made from simple ingredients: unbleached flour, water, salt, yeast, and soda. I know what all those things are! I love the sourdough hard pretzels. Not nutritive, but not horrible.

I also like ak-mak wheat and sesame crackers. They are the perfect thing to eat with hummus, and they are fairly healthy.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterqueenann

wondering if you could explain all the basic health arguments behind full-fat dairy (milk esp). i have read a few different things about this, and have implemented it in our home but i want to know all the WHYs. thanks

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Kate, you and others have asked for comments on two milk topics, benefits of raw milk, and healthiness of reduced fat mils. We have been led to believe that a traditional food product, butter fat, is unhealthy and reduced fat products are therefore healthier. I have seen no scientific study that supports this. We'll get to both these topics in a later post. (And I'm putting half-and-half on my breakfast compote these days. Tastes great. Have also been trying raw milk.)

Greg, thanks for your kind comment. Please contact me at for further discussion.

Lisa, eating dinner as a family, and minimizing processed foods? Good for you.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Hi! I always love the information you post. This one is important to me because I have 4 boys in my house who are very busy and constantly hungry! Dinner at home (and breakfast and lunch- since my husband works at home and my kids aren't in school yet) is an every day event, so I'm always looking for fast but healthy meal ideas, and healthy snacking options for our family. We love Trader Joe's! They make a lot of things fresh but fast for busy people who want home-cooked meals. I buy their refrigerated whole wheat pizza dough and pizza sauce, and their arugula to put on top- the kids love it, it's fast, and really good. I also recently found their whole wheat pita crackers that meet your fiber/sugar rule. They are awesome!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHolli

Here is a recipe that is faster than a cake mix. It does have sugar in it and white flour but is healthier in some respects. We make it on occasion and everyone likes it.

Olive Oil Cake with Orange Marmalade and Almonds

This is a one bowl, one spoon cake. The olive oil makes it extra moist ant its flavor accentuates the other ingredients.

In large mixing bowl stir together:
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ t. baking powder
¼ t. baking soda
¼ t. salt
1 cup sugar

In a 2 cup glass measuring cup combine and whisk together:
½ c. olive oil
¾ c. milk
2 eggs
¼ t. McNess orange oil (or finely grated orange peel)

Pour the liquid ingredients over dry ingredients and either stir with a spoon or a mixer until everything is combined. Pour the batter into a 9” lightly greased pan (use cooking spray) and bake 350º for about 25-30 minutes.

To finish the cake:
Toast about ¼ to 1/3 cup sliced almonds. The easiest way to do this is in the microwave. (But I like them done in the oven better. I roast them whole and then slice them) Put the nuts in a single layer on a plate and microwave in 30 second increments until the nuts are fragrant. Unmold the cake, and coat the side and a rim around the top (about an inch) with orange marmalade (oranges should be the lst ingredient on the jar). You will need about 2 tablespoons warmed in the microwave. Sprinkle the almonds onto the sticky top rim. Lightly dust some powdered sugar over the top. (I have used apricot spread – no sugar)

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

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