The processed food tribe

I recommend this Vox explainer on the scientific evidence behind the how and why processed foods aren’t great for us.

Having grown up eating a lot of boxed, frozen fried chicken, this is a conclusion I’ve resisted.

But the evidence is mounting that preservatives, sugar, and emulsifiers are truly bad for our bodies and brains.

I wonder how much politics influenced my resistance to the anti-processing idea. I looked into it, and there is some evidence that party affiliation influences food choices. You can even take a quiz to see whether you eat more like a Republican or a Democrat. I wonder how much of my processed-food apologia was driven by the fact that I associated the criticism with other things I disliked, like anti-capitalism, the precautionary principle, and the naturalistic fallacy.

I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how widespread this is. But I do think processed food isn’t great for us, but is very great for our food corporations. And this is a problem that people who care about wellness and who believe in the efficiency and morality of free enterprise should grapple with. How do we make whole foods as profitable as processed foods? How do we make even telling the truth about processed foods profitable?


  1. Grant Gould

    For me, as someone who cooks at home a lot, the thing I find most maddening is the word “processed” and the weird naturalism and moralism of the standards. Like, the Vox article you link defines processed in terms of _where_ ingredients were manufactured (“in a laboratory” / “in a factory”). Now leaving aside the question of whether I know where the flour or baking powder or whatever I buy at the store was manufactured (I don’t), the notion that factories are emitting factory particles into my food seems silly.

    And that’s just the study Vox is linking to. Of the food standards systems I’ve read trying to puzzle out if kneading my bread dough is “processing” according to the latest panic-study, one of them goes so far as to use the _intention_ (for profit, eg, or in order to improve palatability) of the food processor in determining if food is merely “processed” or sinisterly “ultra-processed”.

    What these articles need to do is to say “bread flour” or “baking soda” or “ascorbic acid” or “sodium benzoate” — actual things with real definable meanings that I can choose to add or not to add to my cooking — rather than “processed”, which nobody has any idea whether they have sinned against or not, but which vaguely tars “food that comes in bags” and “ingredients with long names” and “people who know how fermentation and canning work” but adds a fancy UN imprimatur to those old mystical dietary purity dictates.

    One gets the impression that nobody writing these standards has ever baked at home or worked in agriculture.

    I wish they would ditch the whole “processed” “factory” “chemical” “natural” schtick and just say, citric acid good, tartaric acid bad, sodium benzoate good, sodium chloride bad, lactobacillus good, bread crust pH acceptable in the following range, etc… Then I’d have some clue what they were getting at.

  2. Brian

    Another significant factor I see in highly processed foods that is not in the label is plastic contamination. The ingredients all get mushed around plastic conveyorized production lines before the ingredients get mushed together for their final ride to packaging which is also thoroughly laden with plasticizers which mimic hormones that throw your endocrinology into a tailspin, in addition to population changes in your microbiome. PTFE, bisphenol-A and surely many other contaminants are slowly boiling our guts.

    • cathyreisenwitz

      That’s true. That’s another thing I’ve resisted believing. But there’s SOME reason that sperm counts are decreasing and girls are going through puberty early and even animals are getting fatter.

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