What's So Bad About Processed Food?
By Nancy Ziegler

About 75 million American children and teens set off for school this morning. We know eating breakfast improves their school performance and overall nutrition.

Nevertheless, about 15 percent of these children failed to eat breakfast; ten percent ate breakfast at school, but the remainder ate at home or grabbed something on the way. Whether a bowl of cornflakes or an Egg McMuffin, chances are those who did eat chose something tasty, cheap and ready to eat almost instantly this morning, thanks to the ingenuity of the processed food industry.

So why do processed foods have such a bad reputation? Unsweetened, fortified cereal is truly miraculous: it is easy to make, easy to eat and comfortingly consistent. Individual cornflakes may be as unique as snowflakes, but the golden contents of each box taste the same in Grand Rapids, Great Neck or Little Rock.

That Egg McMuffin is another matter. It is processed perfection too. The Canadian bacon is always precisely circular; the cheese brightly hued. Stuffed with fat, salt and inscrutable additives, a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich squats on the line between food and junk food. No one except the fast-food industry doubts that eating their processed food is unhealthy, perhaps deadly.

Yet culinary historians such as Rachel Laudan correctly point out that in the past, it was unprocessed foods that were dangerous—they spoiled, rotted and might be downright poisonous. Instead, a larder full of processed foods meant freedom from monotony and hunger.

Milled grain, cured meats, aged cheeses, preserved fruits, smoked fish and salted vegetables meant good nutrition during long winters and pest-free food to last until the next harvest.

Grinding, pressing, and leaching turned inedible plant products into fine flours and palatable oils. Elaborately processed foods like vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce gave piquancy to dull dishes. The ability to transform raw foods into something completely different was undoubtedly necessary. *1

Public health experts remind us that in the recent past some Americans had too little processed food to eat, not too much. Poor and isolated people suffered from deficiency diseases like pellagra and goiter because they lacked access to essential nutrients. Fortified and enriched foods combined with improved food distribution systems (as well as government supports like food stamp programs) eradicated these diseases and remain essential to Americans’ nutrition. *2

Still, somewhere along the way, the culinary chemists became too good for our good. Breaking down corn kernels, for example, generated corn meal, then corn oil, corn starch, and corn syrup.

Further alchemy yielded real gold: ingredients that would dramatically transform the American diet. Potent sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and shelf-stable fats like partially hydrogenated oil made tasty crackers and chips, beverages and biscuits that would stay that way for years and cost next to nothing.

Cheap, tasty food for all seems like a fabulous technical achievement. Yet critics complain that food processing often benefits the manufacturer first, not the consumer. Take trans fats, the fat additive now linked to higher levels of blood cholesterol and consequently heart disease. Manufacturers added trans fats to their products because it made them less perishable, but when health officials and consumer advocates complained (and hurt sales), they swiftly removed them.

Added salt, added sugars and added fats make food taste good, prompting purchases, even though energy-dense foods often lack proportional amounts of vitamins, minerals and other necessary nutrients found in whole foods. Are Frosted Flakes the same thing as cornflakes? Certainly not.

We don’t think twice now about even utterly artificial foods, but we should. “To trace the origins of Froot Loops that have no fruits, and chocolate creme pies that have neither cream nor chocolate would defy most adults” let alone children, writes nutritionist and critic Joan Gussow. *3

You might say we have a two-tiered food system: one level for people who can afford to buy fresh fruit, fresh fish, and fresh cream and another for people who can afford processed substitutes.

Low-income Americans tend to eat high-calorie, processed foods because they are relatively cheap compared to fresh foods. A recent study published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition linked obesity, fat and sugar consumption and the low cost of such “energy-dense” foods: fattening foods are cheaper. *4

The freshest foods are now luxury foods. Elite restaurants no longer serve caviar or choucroute garni to demonstrate their culinary sophistication. Instead, they offer discerning customers heirloom vegetables picked that morning or day-boat scallops just plucked from their shells. These days, we consider utterly unadulterated food to be both precious and good for us.

So for people who can afford to, rejecting so-called convenience foods in favor of minimally processed or whole foods is understandably attractive. They seek out stone-ground grains and eschew canned vegetables for fresh. The expansion of the upscale WholeFoods supermarket chain signals the idea’s broad appeal: brown rice isn’t just for the macrobiotic crowd anymore. WholeFoods supermarkets and a multitude of similar outlets offer high-quality food without sacrificing convenience. It’s easy to enjoy brown rice sushi or wheat berry salad if you don’t have to prepare it yourself.

Advocates intent on transforming school meal programs want to make such fresh, minimally processed food the foundation of every school meal, not the exception. *5

Serving processed, reheated food to children shows they are undervalued. We have been unwilling to invest in the cooks, equipment and ingredients needed to provide fresh food for them.

The school meal is typically a Hobbesian experience: “Nasty, brutish and short” says Janet Poppendieck, a Hunter College professor who studies school meals programs. We must transform it into something better. But change is slow and may not reach this generation in time. Even outstanding initiatives like SchoolFood Plus, a partnership between the advocacy group FoodChange and the New York City school system, must move slowly because staff training and equipment costs limit growth to just a handful of schools each year. Reproducing The Edible Schoolyard, the Berkeley program made famous by Alice Waters, in every schoolyard is laudable, but challenging.

Such programs are the gold standard, but myopic focus on adding whole foods, organic foods, or even local foods to school meals is a distraction. We don’t need to bridge the gap between an Egg McMuffin and that brown rice sushi. Instead, we need to work toward a more equitable food system that offers tasty, nutritious and convenient food for all children and adults. Is the answer as simple as a bowl of cornflakes? Let the debate begin.

The Issue:
Eating whole foods, local foods, and sustainable foods are admirable goals. But we love tasty, cheap and convenient food. What’s so bad about processed food?

The Summary:
All processed food isn’t junk food. Remember olive oil, wheat bread and soy sauce are processed foods. Food processing has long been essential for a safe, nutritious and dependable food supply. Feeding all Americans fresh, whole foods is unrealistic. Instead, we need a more equitable food system that offers tasty, nutritious and convenient food for all children and adults; processed food will be part of the solution.

Discuss This Issue:
» Go to our messageboard

1 Rachel Laudan, "A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food," Gastronomica the journal of food and culture 1.1 (2001).

2 J. Nutr. 131:2177-2183, 2001

3 Gussow, Center for Ecoliteracy 2004.
/rsl /joan-gussow.html

4 Am J Clin Nutr 2005:82(suppl):265S-73S

5 Marian Burros, "Fresh Gets Invited to the Cool Table," New York Times August 24 2005.

   Published: September 2005