The quick answer: Food Inc will continue to invent highly processed food-like substances as long as we’re willing to buy them. Invest your money in real food, as minimally processed and close to Nature as practical.
In the food jungle, it’s on the buyer to beware of harmful food. Emptor caveat, as they say. The perpetrators of junk food wear a dignified title: Food scientist. I’m acquainted with a food scientist. He earned a PhD in the subject and spent his career as a college professor and consultant. He’s one of the most dignified and honorable people you might ever meet. So they’re not all necessarily bad guys.
Yet food scientists brought us the processed junk foods and fast foods of the 20th century. You can’t blame this on any single person, it happened in small steps. But it’s said that future historians will look back on 20th century food in the same way we see the 19th century Irish Potato Famine, where a million people died of starvation while the world looked away I fear more have died of the modern American diet (MAD) though we do die with full stomachs. Small comfort.
Today wise people are turning away from the MAD and food scientists are on the defensive. They see themselves as feeding the world through the innovation of new foods and food processes. But others say their processes create today’s toxic food. Are they apologetic? Not that I can see—they defend their work and hope to invent even more processes and food-like inventions. They’ll only change their ways when we stop buying.
20th Century Food Processing Binge
We need a minimal amount of food processing. Milk must be turned to yogurt or cheese; cream to butter. It’s good, I think, that the seasons of crops have been extended through packaging and better storage. Processing, done within limits, can extend the shelf life of foods to get us through winter, or famine.
But there were no limits to the industrialization of our food supply—processing changed the very nature of food. Waste cottonseed was solvent-refined and hydrogenated to make Crisco, margarine, and then vegetable oil. Later soybeans were genetically modified to provide a cheaper oil supply. Nobody worried about trans fats, or the effects of refining and bleaching oil.
Animal-sourced gelatin and cheap sugar were combined to create a famous brand—Jell-O. The roller mill made white, long-lasting flour that weevils wouldn’t eat by removing nutrients—think Wonder Bread.
The Oreo cookie was a clever combination of refined sugar, refined flour, refined oil, and preservatives, plus a smidgen of cocoa. Yes, I know it’s the 100th anniversary of the Oreo but please remember that our love for Oreos is also a measure of a food culture gone awry. Whats more, no Oreo compares with Skip's Chocolate Oatmeal cookies (pictured above, recipe to follow).
In fact, many 20th century factory foods were just combinations of sugar, modified food starch (processed wheat, corn or soy flour), refined vegetable oils, and salt, plus emulsifiers, preservatives, coloring agents, and artificial flavoring. The ingredients were cheap and deficient of nutrients; we foolishly accepted Food Inc's siren song that the value was in the brand, not the nutrients.
Man’s willingness to redesign Nature’s bounty got so out of hand that Gerald Wendt, science director of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, made the block-headed claim that in the future modern food “will abandon all pretense of imitating nature.”
A further indictment of Food Inc is found in the book The Real Food Revival: “Industrially processed foods—convenience foods such as snacks, fast food, and heat-and-serve items that are processed by the vat full at a centralized factory—are the garbage dump of the food industry.” (Italics added.)
Limits of Food Processing
Some processing is needed. But the closer we can eat food to the form in which it was first created, the healthier we’ll be. That’s a statement worth repeating: The closer we can eat food to the form in which it was first created, the healthier we’ll be.
Or better said, the healthiness of food is related to how much processing is done by you, in your kitchen. If you process—cook—it yourself, you’ll always know what’s been done to your food. It’s the one place where we should be in control.
If you think long and hard about the proper limits of food processing, you might come up with rules like these three:
- The Creation Rule: Show reverence for the Creation by eating foods as close as practical to their natural form. I’ve commented on this before, but there’s wisdom in the guidance found in the first chapter of Genesis. In between the Creation of earth and man, the creation of our food supply is elucidated. Eating natural foods shows reverence for the Creation. This is not easy; humans hate boredom and love novelty. Food Inc preys on this vulnerability by regularly introducing new shiny objects. The key is a mature appreciation for natural food and a distain for Food Inc’s food-like counterfeits.
- The Century Rule: Wait three generations before eating man-made foods created from new processes. Thanks to the FDA/USDA, new foods rarely bring acute toxicity. But many are chronically unhealthy—harmful over the long term. The Century Rule would have protected you from eating hydrogenated food products. The first, Crisco, was introduced in 1911 and by 2011 just about everyone knew about the danger of trans fats, though many still ignore the problem. A new example is the butter-like spreads sold as margarine replacements. They aren’t hydrogenated, but they are made with a newly introduced process called interesterification. Is it healthy and wholesome over the long term? Maybe, but no one knows for sure. In our home, we’ll stick to butter. We likewise avoid the puffed breakfast cereals and chips.
- The Fiber Rule: Cereal foods must contain more natural fiber than added sugar. Fiber is a part of all plant products and processing generally removes it to make processed foods sweeter and whiter. This rule requires whole grains be used and strictly limits added sugar. It can be applied to breakfast cereals, breads, most snack foods, and bakery products. In fact, this rule eliminates almost everything in the typical supermarket bakery or bread and breakfast aisle.
Food Inc will continue to offer new food-like substances, using cleverly deceptive advertising campaigns that ignore or obscure the truth. It's how they make their money. Protect yourself from such shiny objects by applying this Healthy Change:
Please comment: Suggest foods you feel are appropriately processed, and healthy. Tell us about processes you have learned to do for yourself. Got a better rule for defining minimal processing? Please share it.