It’s one of the unwritten commandments of “healthy living”: Avoid processed foods. Yet half of it is blind faith and the other a lack of concept.
It’s Better, Live With It
Open any book on healthy living and you are greeted with the mantra of buying fresh and locally made foods, that have been treated in only the smallest of ways when they arrive in your hands. Walk across a farmer’s market for the first time and you can’t help the feeling that you are in some aspects an adept to a sect that adopted a certain set of beliefs and you will be left out if you don’t accept it.
Much too often we willingly embrace this with open arms, glad to have found a guiding light in a sea of uncertain lifestyle choices we could make on our own. But at the heart of it, we accept this in much the same way industrial food production forces their products down our throat with the help of a big advertising budget. It always takes two to tango: the persuader and the persuaded.
What Is Processed Food?
We should first of all ask the question what “processed food” actually is. A dictionary definition describes it like this:
Any aspect of the operations in the preparation, transport, storage, packaging, wrapping, exposure for sale, service, or delivery of food.
If we follow this definition, then the farmer taking his cabbages to the farmer’s market is processing them and if we wanted truly unprocessed foods arriving in our hands, we would have to grow the cabbage ourselves, which might induce a problem for those of us that a) lack a garden, b) lack the time or c) both.
Another example: the tap water you might be drinking from the faucet in your home has undergone quite a journey of processing. After raining down or making its way in from a glacier, the raw water is accumulated in a reservoir. At this state it is very much alive, containing a multitude of microorganisms, with possible human-made pollution on top of it.
Both can have an unsavoury effect on the human body and to make the water fit for consumption, it is, among others, filtered, chlorinated and aerated. If you ever visited a less-developed country, drank water from a pond and lived to tell the tale about the explosive diarrhea you had, you probably appreciate “processed” water.
A Question Of Scale?
At this point I can hear the criticism I will get for this: “This is not what we mean by processed foods! It’s industrialized food production!”
Is it? Most people imagine unprocessed foods as home-made with self-grown ingredients. If we take tomato sauce as an example, we may envision Mamma Lucia sitting in her kitchen, making it from tomatoes and herbs from her own garden.
But what if I put 500 Mamma Lucias in one room and give them a garden 500 times as big? They’ll still do the same thing, just on a larger scale. Will that make what they do “unnatural”?
This isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound: The Romans used a fermented fish sauce called “garum” in much the same way we today use catsup. This demand required production on a large scale, done in massive workshops with standardized procedures. It was all manual work, yet reading descriptions about it leaves one with an image of an antique version of the H. J. Heinz Company.
If it isn’t the scale, is it the way industrial food production treats foods? Do the used preservatives, colorings, emulsifiers etc. make it vile? The truth is, we have pretty much tried to preserve food and change its flavor ever since we discovered fire.
Our forebears not only found out that cooked meat and fish are easier to digest, but also that they won’t spoil as easy. Following in the footsteps of this discovery came sundrying, salting and fermentation. And the lettuce you today buy at your local farmer’s market is the product of hundreds of years of human-induced hybridization – lettuce’s natural, “unprocessed” relative, lactuca serriola, has a rather unpleasant, bitter taste.
Is this to say that whatever industrialized food production puts out these days is good? No. Some treatments and additives clearly should raise concern. Carrageenan, for example, is often used as a thickener or stabilizer, but leaves a big question mark.
On the other hand, a 2006 study reported that the bioaccessibility of beta-carotene from raw tomatoes was very low, while vitamin E from white bread was high – yet one is a raw fruit, while the other is a highly processed food item, in certain circles despised like few others.
In her excellent article “In Praise of Fast Food“, Rachel Laudan writes:
What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it; (…) an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.
Which is what it comes down to: Making conscious and informed choices, without accepting anything as dogma, no matter from what camp the message heralds.
Many thanks to Mark Haub for tipping me off on the Reboul et al. study.