Clarifying the Muddy World of Processed Foods

February 28, 2012 in Food Economics, Foodland, Health, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

On February 22, 2012, Caroline Scott-Thomas published her article called Processing is a dirty word – but we’ll need more of it to feed the world, in Food She begins her article by reporting on a speech given at the Global Food Safety Initiative conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier this month, by Penn State University professor John Floros. Floros established the past successes of food science and the future need to feed the huge growth in human population. Then he said, “Wherever food comes from, whether it’s local or industrial, to feed more people we will need more food science and technology, not less….Processing has become a dirty word, but we simply cannot have a safe food supply without processing.” Floros continues with, “Before we throw [the current food system] away – because some people do want to throw it away – we had better think very carefully about what we are going to replace it with. Our global food network is the way it is for a reason.”

Because consumers are increasingly demanding less processing, Floros goes on to address the need of the food scientists to address consumer fears.

I understand Floros’ focus – the need to produce more food with less water and the need for vast increases in food production. And certainly the solution is not throwing ‘the baby out with the bath water’ – throwing away the present food processing system, for no food processing. The solution could be couched as a reform of food processing: promoting responsible and ethical food processing and eliminating the irresponsible and unethical forms.

Where the problem resides

Is it appropriate to call an apple that has been washed and waxed a processed food, while referring to Cheetos as the same class of processed food? This is an area that we as consumers need awareness – how much processing do we need? Certainly, having a few Cheetoes once in a while is probably not going to kill us. But the problem is that many Americans are consuming diets filled with a soaring percentage of highly processed foods. And as my last article pointed out, it appears that eating a high sodium diet can actually lead to higher death rates. Processed foods are frequently high in sodium, not to mention too much fat and sugar and little to no whole grains, fruits or vegetables. The goal of food processing, unlike Floros’ implication that it is all about food safety, is to remove expensive and perishable components and replace them with less expensive components and additives that result in a long shelf life.  This adds up to higher gross profit margins. Research is also used to combine lower-cost ingredients, yet create high palatability for consumers; ideally, while instilling the desire to buy and eat more and more of the resulting substances. This adds up to more sales to multiply against that higher profit margin.

Scott-Thomas also wrote, Processed’ Foods are often high in sodium – but what’s a processed food?Reading these two articles inspired me to write about processed foods again. In this article she uses undercooked kidney beans, as an example of an unprocessed food being toxic. Scott-Thomas goes on to say that various processing affords us a year-round supply of nutritious foods, which of course, is true. Certainly we need to cook (process foods like kidney beans) and wash foods, and slice them, and so on. Where the problem with processed foods exists is that some are so highly processed that they hardly resemble anything that our ancestors have consumed over the centuries. I’ve used this example several times, but the tomato-flavored algae instead of tomatoes is such a good example. Each different ethnic group consumed and survived on a balance of nutrients from real foods. When we arbitrarily decide to replace tomatoes in a processed food, for example, with a highly processed algae product, it does not necessarily provide the same nutrients that were provided by the tomato. If we make this change without thinking about it (or studying it), as we have done in our move to eating more heavily processed foods, then we potentially position ourselves to consume less of nutrients that were part of a healthy balanced diet. Or maybe, in some cases, we get more of other components (like sodium and additives that later prove to be harmful) than we have historically consumed.

I talk a lot with Dr. Grandpa, a researcher and businessman, who thinks the problem resides in the ethics of too many for-profit food businesses.  He gets angry at the ethical lapses of the purveyors of highly processed foods.  He agrees with Floros that technology needs to be used to supply the needs of a growing population, but is more than aware of both the history of food processing, and the impact of fast and impoverished fudes on public health. Nutrients, especially perishable ones, are taken out to reduce ingredient costs, extend shelf life and to sell what has been taken out to another market, (e.g., extracting the bran and germ from grains for animal food). They also replace the nutrients taken out with cheap concoctions with healthy-sounding names, and add in preservatives, dyes and other potentially dangerous additives. When they achieve a large gross profit margin, it provides ample advertising dollars. Advertising and the dis-information of nutritionism (vitamin additives are also cheap) go a long way toward covering up the unethical impoverishment of foodstuffs. A strong believer in free enterprise must also see the necessity for a much higher ethical standard among food processors.

In addition to the examples in the section called How processed is processed? that I wrote last week, it may appear to be nit picking; but the following examples may help illustrate, my point.

  • Does orange Kool-Aid deliver the same nutrients as an orange? (Note: an orange has scores of nutrients, not just vitamin C.)
  • Do Cheetoes nutritionally equal a cornmeal muffin with a little cheese?
  • Does a WhoNu? cookie equal a whole grain muffin?
  • Is a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup nutritionally equivalent to a bowl of homemade soup?
  • Is a chicken nugget equal with a slice of chicken?
  • Is a fast food, deep-fried apple pie the same as an apple or even a piece of homemade apple pie? Let’s face it; in my apple pie there are lots of slices of apple – in one of those fried pies, lots of starch, sugar, saturated fat and a few slices of apple.
  • Are Froot Loops nutritionally the same as a bowl of old fashioned oatmeal?
  • Is Captain Crunch nutritionally equivalent to Shredded Wheat?
  • Does spraying vitamins on a product equal all the nutrients found in the natural product?
  • Does adding protein isolate to sugar, white flour and fat (protein energy bars) equal the same nutrients as found in natural protein (like yogurt, milk, egg, meat, fish, beans, nuts)?
  • Do you get ingredients that you’re not sure you want in many of the highly processed foods?
  • Do you know what the ingredients are?
  • Are we ready for synthetic meat instead of hamburger? (stem cells grown in a laboratory, mixed with blood and artificially grown fat) Yum!

As to Scott-Thomas’ challenge to “stop being sanctimonious about how whole, unprocessed foods could automatically solve the problem” is strong language coming from an apologist for processing. Responsible, ethical processing is needed, but processors have difficulty facing the fact that processed foods are one of the biggest sources of sodium. It is just the way it is. In addition to adding a lot of salt, it is well documented that processors use a branch of food science called food hedonics research to find what makes foods palatable to the human taste, even to the point of inducing craving for more and more. This has converged on different mixtures of fat, salt, and sugar. (Refer to: The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by former FDA commissioner David Kessler.) The food scientists’ food hedonics research, discussed in some detail by Kessler certainly raises concerns of questionable ethics.  They study how to add to the impoverished remainder (after processing) those mixtures of fat, sugar, and salt to produce high palatability and even craving. Craving in turn leads to overeating, all for higher profits. We can’t turn a blind eye to the problems of unhealthy mixtures of salt, fat, and sugar in processed foods. These additives have known effects on obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other problems. The extent to which food hedonics research has produced products that induce craving is an important issue. This is true whether or not the challenge of food addiction to such substances becomes fully accepted or not. Foods designed to promote craving need to stand up to ethical questions, not just to the fulfilled monetary dreams of marketers who have found another way to get around the body’s defenses against overeating. Another important issue is the effect on public health of additives and new molecules that so-called food scientists have developed and gotten approved without adequate research. Yes, we need more and better food science and technology.  Like all science and technology, it can have serious consequences on the public, for both good and ill. It must be self-restrained by corporate ethics, and especially, by consumer refusal to continue to purchase offending foods. We need to improve government regulations as well, but they can be manipulated and can have spotty and even boomerang results. Those of us, who are trying to help the public understand information in order to be better nourished and healthier, have a responsibility to inform of the public to increasingly turn away from unhealthy fudes and favor companies who display thorough and sincere corporate ethics.

It is true that the lifestyles of many of us preclude us from growing all of our own food organically year round. Many don’t have the ability to plant, harvest, and process our own food; so we must rely on the food processors to do much of it for us. But if we realize that we can buy a can of properly cooked beans with less sodium, for example, we impress the food processors with our buying power. If we begin to eat fewer overly processed foods, cook more foods at home, the food processors will take note, because the bottom line of their financial sheets is their mandate.

Many of us who challenge the status quo of food processing are carefully looking at the research evidence. This evidence tells us that eating a diet of highly processed foods leads us to early heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and death. Some of us would like to avoid that, if possible. Let’s not buy into the food processors’ smokescreen that the major function of food processing is food safety, rather than corporate profits at our expense in dollars, nutrition, and health. We recognize the need for basic processing. We, who are striving to improve our health, know what we mean by highly processed foods and assume that the food processors know it too. So I will choose a few tablespoons of peanuts, instead of Cheetos, knowing more precisely what I’m really eating and feel a little more comfortable with my choice. And lastly, I may be alerting the food processors to design fewer highly processed foods and favor foods closer to nature. That food processing has become a “dirty word” is evidence that many more of us have been moving away from highly processed foods for some time now.