If there is one thing that every food writer, chef and campaigner can agree on it is that eating processed, factory-produced, industrial food products is wrong. In order to maintain maximum health, we must focus on eating real, whole foods and ditch the manufactured junk that has made us fat and sick. It does not matter if you are a clean-eating, new-age health blogger , a celebrity chef or a renowned and highly published researcher like Tim Spector, the message is the same. For maximum health, we should be eating real food.
And here is where I make myself unpopular. It is my belief that in demonizing processed and manufactured food products, not only are we falling for an oversimplified and flawed narrative, we are in real danger of alienating the very people that need engaging the most. In vilifying manufactured products we are attempting to classify foods as either good or bad, and in doing so we are damaging our relationship with what we eat.
Even ‘good’ foods are processed
Processed foods are broadly defined as any food that has undergone a process to alter its flavour, composition or shelf life. So processed food encompasses a wide variety of foods that even the most self-righteous health blogger would not suggest we avoid: pulses, beans, lentils, quinoa, rice, flour, gluten-free flour, organic gluten-free flour, milk, yogurt, pasta, olive oil, virgin coconut oil, spices, dried herbs, chocolate and couscous. They are all processed in some way.
For all but the most crazed of fanatics, it is not sensible or practical to avoid every single processed food. We would have to spend our time pressing oils, grinding flours, desperately drying and preserving ingredients in order to sustain a balanced diet. In doing this you would be processing these ingredients and so, presumably, if you are opposed to all processing of food, this would be unacceptable. Cutting is a process, cooking is a process. Heating, chilling, drying and pickling are all processes. It could be argued that chewing is a process. If you have a fundamental opposition to the consumption of processed food, you need to find food that can be swallowed raw. I would suggest that water is your best option, and if you want to drink unprocessed water then good luck to you, because water processing is perhaps one of the greatest life-saving innovations in the history of humanity.
Ah, I hear people cry. This is just semantics, when people say avoid processed food they don’t mean lentils and coconut oil, they mean processed junk. That’s what people should be avoiding. This may be true and I am not suggesting for a moment that your average health blogger is advocating the consumption of contaminated pond water, but the line must be drawn somewhere. We all eat processed foods, so it is surely just a question of which ones are allowed.
How about tinned goods? Are they okay? Are they morally acceptable? Tinned tomatoes are processed by heating (something known in the business as ‘cooking’), in order to destroy microbes that would contaminate and spoil them. This extends their life and alters their flavour, but it is just heating, so surely that is fine. The preservation of tomatoes enables them to be stored and shipped around the world and consumed out of season by people who would otherwise not be able to enjoy them. They are packed full of micronutrients, contain only a low level of naturally occurring sugar, are fat free and, more importantly, completely delicious. For some uses, the flavour of tinned tomatoes is superior to fresh. Surely tinned tomatoes pass the test, something that campaigners opposed to processed and manufactured goods would approve of. Something very much made in a plant that we can happily, guiltlessly consume.
But what if I told you that in order to preserve the life of most tinned tomatoes, manufacturers add something called an acidity regulator, namely 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid, a chemical additive that most third graders would struggle to pronounce. Is that still okay? Is it okay for manufacturers to take a perfectly natural food, add chemicals to it, risk toxic contamination by placing it into a can, and process it to such an extent that its shelf life will be eighteen to twenty-four months? When looked at this way, maybe tinned tomatoes are a vile, needless Frankenfood with no place in our diets.
Maybe the real argument is about ‘ultra-processed foods’? Are those the ones we should be avoiding? Ultra-processed foods are loosely defined as any packaged foods comprised of several ingredients, including substances not generally used in cooking. Again, the definition is quite loose and will most likely encompass a number of products of poor nutritional value. But is it really sensible to classify all foods in this category as unacceptable? What are we really saying in making that broad classification? That a jar of pasta sauce is harmful to our health? That we should never eat a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps because they are somehow ‘unnatural’? That we should never eat in a restaurant? That we should never buy a loaf of bread?
The health-giving properties of the food we eat are determined by their chemical composition
Throughout any day we will consume thousands of different chemicals in the form of food. All food is composed of chemicals and most of these chemicals will be unpronounceable by a third grader. Just because that combination of chemicals comes from a natural source does not imbue it with some sort of magical health-giving powers or ensure that it is completely safe. When they are swirling around in our digestive system, our body has no way of telling if the 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid molecules were added in a factory as an acidulant to extend the shelf life of a pasta sauce, or came from a squeeze of lemon juice, where this chemical is known by its common name of citric acid.
The health-giving properties of the food we eat are determined by their chemical composition, not by some magical origin story. There is no fairy dust of naturalness that makes home-cooked (or maybe ‘home-processed’) meals healthier than anything made in a factory. At their most basic definition, fruits, vegetables and meats are complex combinations of different chemical substances.
In creating arbitrary rules around food, based on the story of its creation, we are moralizing about food choices. The moment we do that, we risk shame, alienation and damage.
The golden age is now
The truth is that our food supply is safer than it has ever been. There is less contamination, and there are fewer cases of poisoning, and far fewer health problems caused by diet than at any point in history. If we dropped in on our great-grandmothers at a typical meal time we would find people scraping an existence with nutritionally poor, unbalanced meals and food scares that make horsemeat contamination look like a pyjama party.
Most of our great-grandmothers probably lived much of their lives in the first half of the twentieth century. Diets at this time in the United States and the UK were largely starch- and meat- based with over fifty per cent of calories coming from bread. There was little understanding of the concept of vitamins, meaning that deficiency diseases were rife. The lack of safety checks and awareness meant that gastrointestinal disorders were also far more prevalent than today and far more likely to have serious consequences. There was no cold chain for the storage and delivery of foods, meaning that fresh fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs were scarce, and at certain points in the year virtually non-existent. Our great-grandmothers could expect to live around two-thirds as long as we do, largely because we enjoy an increased awareness of dietary health, increased safety and integrity in our food supply, and industrial processes that have made our lives easier, healthier and richer. By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now, and yet we remain convinced that we are broken.
Processed food is a feminist issue
Little has done more than convenience food to liberate women from servitude, freeing them from the time and cognitive effort required to create an endless stream of home-cooked meals from scratch. Processed convenience food has set women free, and every time we criticize convenience choices, we are showing our desire to drag women away from the workplace and back into the kitchen. Nourishing family meals cooked by a loving mother and eaten together around the table have become a symbol of all that is good, their decline the reason for all of society’s ills. Yet for many these demands are unrealistic.
To campaign for healthy eating based on the assumption that the only option is a life-time of scratch cooking is profoundly unrealistic. It does not meet people where they are, it sets unreasonable goals and expectations and drives unhelpful associations. It attaches guilt and shame to perfectly reasonable food choices.
Some things are more important than food
If guidelines and advice about healthy eating are too far away from the way people live, they are more likely to ignore them completely. People are living busy, stressful lives, balancing thousands of complex decisions every day, and in telling them to cook every meal from scratch you might as well be asking them to jump to the moon. When you are not sure how you are going to make it to the end of the week, being worried about your saturated fat and fibre intake doesn’t really make the list. We are trying to impose aspirational middle-class food values on people who don’t want them, and in doing so we are marginalizing those who need help the most.
It pains me a great deal to admit this, but many people are just not that interested in food. To cook from raw ingredients may be simple and effortless for a chef or food obsessive, but for many it is stressful, joyless and difficult. It is not just about time. Although some meals can be made quickly – and the repertoire of a celebrity chef is not complete until they have made a book titled Real Fast Food or similar – these ignore the sheer cognitive effort required by many people in order to put food on the table.
After a hard and stressful day, we may still have the time available to cook, but sometimes putting a pizza in the oven is just easier. This is not stupid or illogical, and it is certainly not immoral. Perhaps it allows us to spend time and effort on some- thing more enjoyable or important. There is (for some) more to life than the food we eat. To believe that we will always have the time to cook is to misunderstand what it is to be alive in the modern world. Convenience food enhances lives because it frees people to live how they choose.
The key to improving the quality and healthfulness of the food people eat lies in an engagement with food manufacturers, not a rejection of them. Food manufacturers and retailers have great power, far more than any celebrity chef, to help and improve people’s diets. They can offer sensible, realistic solutions that fit into modern lives.
Although the food industry should definitely be held to account for transgressions, if just once a chef or campaigner praised them when they did something positive it would make my heart sing. I long for a time when campaigners and manufacturers present a united front, happy to praise each other for jobs well done and free to hold each other to account when disingenuous claims are made. Imagine the power and force for change that could be created, offering and endorsing sensible options to improve people’s lives.
Convenience foods are already with us, thoroughly integrated into our lives, invigorating them, enlivening them and allowing us to live them to the full. To reject them and the modernity they represent is completely unrealistic. To attach guilt and shame to them, to ascribe moral values to those who choose them, is a dangerous path. At best it will create the sort of guilt cycling that pushes people towards negative behaviours. At worst it will permanently damage people’s relationship with food.
Anthony Warner writes as The Angry Chef . This is an extract from The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner, published by Oneworld. Follow Anthony on Twitter here