The perils of processing
FoodNavigator-USA.com reports on a Brazilian writer's commentary that assigns three levels to food processing and blames the "ultra" level for much of diet-related obesity. It's a foreign idea to most people, I think, but shouldn't be.
The author, Carlos Monteiro of the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, defines ultraprocessing as combining two or more crushed, extracted, extruded, enzyme-released, or otherwise-manhandled ingredients, "perhaps with very small amounts of unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients," the report said.
“The purpose of type 3 food processing is the creation of durable, accessible, convenient, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products,” Monteiro said, and he's right.
The problem, of course, is that nutrition is nowhere on the list, not by Monteiro's omission but by great dollops of indifference from eaters. We get what we ask for, and we don't ask for good nutrition. In my observation, most people think nutrition is for sissies.
In a discussion of school-lunch programs that arose during my appearance last week on "Where We Live," the Connecticut Public Radio program, a caller asked what we're teaching kids when we try to get them, through whatever means, to eat more healthful food instead of something more exciting, a question that reflects the same deficit of understanding.
Food's primary purpose is to sustain, not to entertain — or to be durable, or accessible, convenient, or attractive. I'm not speaking against any of those attributes, which I value myself in varying amounts. I'm addressing the nutrition angle, which has to be listed first for any list to be complete.
Any of those other things can be good, but only if it serves nutrition; i.e., if you cook the goodness out of the broccoli so that it's a gray-green lump, what child is going to eat it? But to pound the goodness out of foodstuffs as a routine, so that it arrives attractive and convenient but not healthful? How can that be good for us?
Monteiro goes on to write that the food industry shouldn't be demonized but should be regulated, and I'm not sure I can buy into either one of those.
Re. the former, I harken to "The End of Overeating," in which author (and former FDA commissioner) David Kessler quotes food industry insiders who say that companies are deliberately deploying heavier and heavier layerings of fat, sugar, salt, and other ingredients that have been shown to be unhealthful, especially in excess.
Yes, they're only selling what people want, and isn't that the American way? But that's what the tobacco industry said it was doing, too, and we now know they were manipulating their products with the most unhealthful ingredients, even though doing so would worsen the health of their customers. We eventually decided to severely restrict tobacco companies in the public interest, albeit after decades of stonewalling — and profit-taking — by the companies.
If food companies are doing the same thing, and I believe they are (and not only because of Kessler's reporting), then they should be demonized — that's appropriate treatment for organizations that intentionally put profits ahead of the common health.
That gets me to point No. 2: I'm not sure that regulation is going to effective, for a number of reasons, including that the lines for food are vastly less clear than for tobacco, and that swaths of America are prepared to take to the barricades before regulations pass. Honestly, I'm not sure what those regulations would say, anyway.
The way to get the food industry to stop serving crap is to demand it of them. That's still a very tough path, even if it's easier than trying to regulate the food industry into compliance. We've seen changes in food marketing result from consumer demand — the success of Whole Foods, the growing presence of farmers' markets, the overdemand for CSAs, for examples.
If consumers insist on better food, we'll get it. That's a huge "if," because the bad stuff often tastes great at little effort. Whole foods taste great too, but we sometimes have to cook them, as opposed merely to heating them up.
But demand is the only way we're going to get the food we need and deserve.