Sunday, February 9, 2014

End the War Against Preserved and Processed Foods!

As I was reminded by a recent article about the historical trajectory of orange juice in America's food supply, I am continually baffled by the war being waged against food "processing" and food "preservatives." If it can be shown that there are no adverse health consequences, and the product tastes rather good and people like to buy it, and it's much cheaper than "fresh and unprocessed" food, then why demonize a product for lasting a long time on the shelf or for being "overly processed"?

Some heroic highly processed and overly preserved foods

This "processing and preservatives" talk is always conflated with the problem of "the product contains too much sugar," or "the product contains too little nutritional value," which I definitely understand and sympathize with. I get it that orange juice naturally contains lots of sugar, regardless of the date and location the fruits were harvested, or whether aromatic citrus oils were added back into the juice to improve the flavor after a long storage time. I get it that Twinkies contain little in the way of nutritional value for growing children. But will the self-appointed food police concede that many foods can have a very long shelf life, be highly processed with many artificial industrial-scale steps, and yet still contain lots of nutrients and not very much sugar? How about a can of tomato paste that was processed in a factory and "boiled to death," or canned tuna "which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year"? Boiling food to death, putting it in air-tight cans or jars, and eating it over a year after it was harvested from the field or the orchard or the ocean is a supremely amazing achievement of human ingenuity. People ought to be tickled with joy each time they drink a glass of pretty-decently-tasting orange juice, in Chicago or Denver or Boston during a frigid February morning, for just the price of a few measly quarters. Instead they grumble and look out their window at the snowy landscape, and wonder why they aren't instead treated to the sweet nectar of a freshly hand-plucked and hand-squeezed fruit.

Some people complain that "processed foods" are chock full of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that they would like to avoid. However, the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in food has little to do with the number of processing steps required to make the product at a large cost-effective scale, or the desire to preserve and store food for a long time. Instead, corn syrup is put into foods because it is much cheaper than alternative sweeteners such as cane sugar, and people love inexpensive food. People crave sweetness because they are built by evolution to desire high-calorie sweetened foods, which were rare treats in prehistoric nature. No demonization of preservatives or demonization of complicated multi-step industrial processing need enter into this part of the food supply discussion.

Some people complain that they don't like processed or preserved foods because "they have no idea what's in it." I've got news for you, you probably have no idea what's in most of the things you ingest. Most people think of a "roasted coffee bean," for example, as a magical nature product provided by Mother Earth, rather than as a complex cocktail of chemicals in various proportions. Some of the natural chemical constituents of roasted coffee beans are toxic and carcinogenic (but they exist at very low harmless concentrations). If the scientific names of all the chemical components in your all-natural skinny hazelnut macchiato were listed on the back of the cup, they would make your head spin.

Highly preserved and industrially processed foods are simply amazing. They allow us to even out the food supply both geographically and seasonally, and provide low-cost sustenance to people who would have in ancient times suffered a lack of nutrition or even starvation. How quickly people forget that cheese, beer, and wine, those cornerstones of western food culture, were initially methods to "highly process and highly preserve" excess milk, grain, and grapes during bounteous times, in order to stockpile calories and nutrients for leaner times...even stockpile them for many years after the initial harvest. Why did ancient humans bother to invent these things? Why did humans bother to invent beef jerky, and bacon, and salami? It wasn't because some scary corporation thought it would be fun to feed children a bunch of "nitrates and nitrites."

Often, the alternative to eating a highly processed and highly preserved food, or the alternative to eating a food that has traveled hundreds of miles on a truck or on a boat, is to have no food at all. This has been the default situation for mankind for thousands of years, and a situation which has been all but forgotten by the snobbish foodies who complain that frozen concentrated orange juice doesn't taste quite as good as the fresh squeezed stuff picked that day from your very own backyard orchard. Now if you don't mind, before I go shovel the snow from my Chicago sidewalk, I'm going to go have a delicious glass of frozen concentrated orange juice and a mug of chemical cocktail coffee to wash down my Minnesota refined flour crepes spread with California processed cream cheese and a dollop of Montana huckleberry preserves.

1 comment:

  1. To summarise: all preserved and processed food has a bad rep because a lot of it is loaded with sugar, in various forms, but this doesn't mean preserved and processed food is bad per sae. Got it, and I agree. Until the sugar content is reduced to healthy levels in processed and preserved foods, unfortunately, they will still in fact be a poor source of nourishment.