The Second Version

05/08/08

Anti-Processed-Food Jihad

This is another thing that is slowly getting on my nerves. If you read a bit around the internet, you will find blogs and websites accusing processed foods of being the root of all evil - obesity, a list of diseases, unhealty lifestyles and so on. I think that soon they will be accused of causing global warming too.

In my opinion, there is convincing evidence that a diet rich of processed food is worse than one rich of fresh food, but many authors cross the border between being cautious and being paranoid. The paranoia here is the one of evil monsters hiding in our dinner plates.

Anti-corporate rants often follow: food corporations are accused of deliberately selling harmful food because they do not care about health, or even because they want customers to become addicted to their food in order to sell even more of it.
Customer manipulation is part of marketing techniques - which includes pandering to base instincts with taste-rich food. But provoking a deliberate addiction stretches credulity; besides, can anyone point to one single clinically recognized case of addiction to monosodium glutamate for example?

In any case, the main and initial reason to process food rather than have it fresh is conservation. Fresh foods and ingredients often have a short shelf life and will spoil soon - becoming not only unpleasant to eat, but actually toxic.
True, we have freezing which is an excellent method of conservation, but it is not appropriate for all foods and it requires a rather reliable energy supply.

Instead, processed and properly packaged foods will last for many months at room temperature without any special precaution. Packaged food can also be handled and stored in less than ideal cleanliness conditions with no risk of contamination. These may seem trivial successes for us affluent westerners with enough money in our pockets to have a fridge and pay the electricity bill, and drive to a supermarket and buy fresh food to store in the aforementioned fridge, and enough clean water to wash our stuff before use.
But until sixty years ago - and in a pretty large fraction of the world still - fridges were rare, electricity not so diffuse, and the water supply intermittent and of scarce quality. In Jakarta, the rather modern and liberal capital city of Indonesia, tap water still has to be boiled to make it safe for consumption, and in that hot and humid climate food spoils at a prodigious speed.

But even in developed countries, packaged food represents a practical "emergency" solution for when one lacks the time or inclination to prepare fresh meals - or for more real emergencies like natural disasters. Because it can happen here too.
Just to make another example, you could buy a whole smoked salmon fillet and slice the required amount off every time. In the process, stinking up your whole flat or house and being stuck with the blasted thing, unable to finish it off before it goes off.

Some packaged foods only undergo a minimal amount of processing: I know the case of tomato quite well, and sieved/chopped/whole tomatoes are pure berry, mechanically treated, slightly cooked and sterilized. A little of citric acid can be added to lower pH (because bacteria do not grow well in acidic media), and tomato paste is sometimes salted, but there are no secret ingredients.

However, other foods contain a number of chemicals with a function unknown to laypeople. Some of those are there to optimize characteristics such as viscosity: a sauce should not drip out of a sandwich so it has to be thickened. Also, food processing machines handle better food having rheologic properties within a certain range.

Commercial foods must not undergo segregation (separation of liquids and solids or of a oily and aqueous phase), and that requires emulsifiers. They should also have a pleasant colour, and that requires appropriate additives - this is one of the most controversial points, because colour of food is largely an aesthetic preference with no great correlation to actual quality.

Moreover, while sterilization alone will ensure long shelf life in most cases, packaged foods must have a shelf life also after opening, and preservatives/antioxidants provide just that.

We could also discuss thei mportant issue of free water content, but I think you get the idea by now.

So there are rational explanations for many of the chemicals that can be found in processed food. Another bottom line is that very few customers are willing to pay high prices for common packaged foods, so corporation necessarily have to cut costs, and that entails the use of second-rate meat, nondescript cheese, intensively-grown vegetables and so on.

What is harder to justify is the liberal additions of salt (assuming that excess salt can be actually harmful, something that is at least debatable) and monosodium glutamate to some processed foods. Here, the answer is that the bland ingredients need a kick in order to actually taste of something.

To recap... as usual, it's the dose that makes the poison. And while corporations are hardly saints, they neither are the devil incarnate. Eating baked beans, wurstel and snack bars everyday is not something I can recommend - but having a dinner from a can occasionally won't hurt anyone.

As doing a lot of things that the health (and safety) nazis will scream bloody murder about.

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