The Paradox of Processed Food
Can we feed the world while also nourishing it?
In the 20th century, advancements in food processing and production made it possible to feed a rapidly growing global population. Fewer famines and less hunger have unquestionably been a positive development for human progress. But there is a growing dark side to food processing, a dark side that may catch up with us in the 21st Century.
Processed vs Ultra-Processed
In a recently published article in Wired, author Hannah Ritchie argues that, despite growing health concerns, we need to accept so-called “processed” foods as a necessity. In fact, she argues, we need more processed food to feed a growing world population.
She makes her case by arguing that we ought not to lump all such foods together as one singular group. Instead, she attempts to differentiate “processed foods” from “ultra-processed foods,” emphasizing that the former is a net good. She gives the example of mill-graining flour to make bread and pasteurizing milk as the “good” kind of processing. We will come back to mill-graining in a moment.
On the other hand, she claims that “ultra-processed foods,” like snacks and prepared meals, designed for convenience and long shelf life, are distinguishably different. Our health concerns should be primarily limited to these products, she claims.
I find this distinction difficult to draw against mounting evidence that factory farming and modern food production are affecting the nutritional content of even the least “processed” foods today.
The Problems with Processed Food
Modern food production, like just anything else, seeks to maximize profit. Food processors, therefore, tend to favor products that can easily and cheaply be produced, transported, and stored. Corn and new breeds of wheat, often heavily subsidized by the government, have become the new primary ingredient in most products.
As a consequence, 75 percent of agricultural plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900. The same is also true for the food we feed to our food. The fish and cattle that we consume are fed a similar feedstock consisting disproportionately of corn and wheat. Our diets, once flush with diversity, have become dramatically less diverse in the industrial age.
Further, food processing tends to strip nutrition from food. This is not a nefarious act by “evil” food corporations, but rather a necessity for enhancing shelf life. Bacteria, like any other organism, seek out nutrients. To extend shelf life, food needs to be unattractive to bacteria and insects, thus the nutrition must be removed.
For the same reason, modern food production has thrown our Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio woefully out of balance. Omega-3 fatty acids break down and spoil quickly, so food production and selective breeding began selecting against Omega-3 long before science had even identified its existence. In the meantime, the availability of Omega-6s fatty acids has exploded. We are getting far too little of the former and far too much of the latter.
This is important because Omega-3 fatty acids are generally thought to be anti-inflammatory while Omega-6s are thought to promote inflammation. It should be of no surprise then that the diseases of the modern world tend to be those associated with chronic inflammation, including Alzheimer’s, asthma, cancer, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.
Even “unprocessed” foods are not immune from this trend. In the book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan notes that since 1950 food quantity has exploded at the cost of quality. In 43 crops tracked by the USDA, Vitamin C content declined by 20 percent, iron by 15 percent, and calcium by 16 percent. It now takes three apples to get the same amount of iron as a single apple in 1940. In short, we are getting more calories, but fewer nutrients per calorie.
This all begs the question: if something like a simple “unprocessed” apple is no longer as nutritious as it would have been in the pre-industrial age, can we still reasonably differentiate between the health effects of “processed,” “unprocessed,” and “ultra-processed” food? This is a question for science, but science has a poor track record in nutrition.
The Low Fat Catastrophe
There will always be crackpot doctors, paid researchers, and other “experts” on the fringes who espouse radical views outside the general consensus. But the science of nutrition, or nutritionism, as it is often called, is one realm where the general expert consensus also has often led us astray.
Perhaps it is the nature of this science itself. Nutritionism attempts to take the study of nutrients out of the context of a broader diet. It strives to study one variable at a time, when many variables, some unknown, some known, render it near impossible to establish reliable control groups.
This has made for a great number of health conclusions that have later turned out to be dead wrong. Beginning around the mid-20th Century, for example, it was the scientific consensus that low-fat, low-cholesterol diets would prevent heart disease and promote a healthy weight. This view was held sacrosanct, despite study after study failing to establish any causal relationship between fat consumption and heart disease.
Based on weak science, food producers saw an opportunity to market “low-fat” products to health-conscious consumers. Since food consists primarily of three components; fat, carbohydrates, and protein, when you suppress one component, the others must rise for the food to remain palatable. Food producers subtracted fat and added sugar (carbohydrates), with catastrophic consequences.
Unknown at the time and probably not fully understood today, is the fact that our body weight is largely a function of our insulin production. To release and absorb the energy from carbohydrates/sugar, the pancreas must produce insulin. With modern diets consisting largely of carbs and sugar, the body produces too much insulin, too frequently.
Recall that Hannah Ritchie claimed that modern mill graining was an example of the “good” kind of food processing. Indeed, modern mill graining is faster, more efficient, and produces pure white flour that stores longer. But this neglects to admit that this flour stores longer because it is stripped of nutrients. Additionally, the fine powder produced by modern mills is absorbed into the bloodstream faster, creating a stronger insulin spike that appears to further overburden the pancreas.
Our cells, now bathing in insulin all day long due to unnatural diets, become insulin resistant. Consequently, the pancreas produces more insulin to compensate, and a vicious cycle begins. From there, pre-diabetes and eventually diabetes develops, along with all of the health issues that accompany it.
As Gary Taubes puts it in his book, Why We Get Fat, “You’ll also begin to manifest a multitude of other metabolic disturbances that accompany this insulin resistance…your blood pressure goes up, as does your triglyceride level; your HDL cholesterol (aka, the “good cholesterol”) goes down…And you’ll become increasingly sedentary, a side effect of the energy drain into the fat tissue.”
The consequences of subtracting fat from our diets cannot be understated. Today in the United States, one of every four dollars of healthcare goes to treating people with diabetes, or over $400 billion annually when factoring indirect costs. Additionally, older people with diabetes have a higher prevalence and intensity of cognitive impairments, including dementia, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
If this all was not terrifying enough, this may now be a multi-generational problem. Babies in the womb are supplied with nutrients from the mother proportionally to the levels of nutrients in the mother’s blood. This means that the higher the level of the mother’s blood sugar, the more glucose her child gets in the womb, thus the more insulin the child must produce.
This may be jump-starting insulin resistance at an early age, a problem that used to be limited only to adults. It may explain a recent startling rise in childhood obesity. Indeed, increased maternal weight is strongly associated with elevated neonatal weight gain. We may be passing obesity and concurrent health issues from one generation to the next; likely with catastrophic consequences for society.
Nutritionism’s other attempts to outsmart our biology have often ended disastrously. In the era of the low-fat diet, products like margarine emerged as an attempt to create “heart-healthy butter” without cholesterol/saturated fats. But again, margarine, like any processed food, is only as good as our understanding of nutrition.
It turned out that the process used to make margarine produced trans fats that were far more dangerous than the saturated fats they replaced. Indeed, a mere 2 percent increased consumption of trans fats is associated with a 23 percent increased risk of heart disease.
Similarly, “diet” soft drinks may actually be more unhealthy than their caloric peers. Daily consumption of health-conscious “diet” soft drinks is associated with a 43 percent increased probability of vascular events compared to their non-diet counterparts; merely salt in the wound as diet soft drinks also cause similar weight gain.
Many are likely prematurely dying by consuming these new processed concoctions. Likewise, many today are suffering chronic health ailments because they listened to the scientific consensus of the 20th century. These examples illustrate the limits of science and why the rush to promote yet more processed foods may be premature.
What is the Solution?
How do we feed the world without also endangering it? There is no easy answer here. The only answer I can offer is: if we have learned anything at all about the science of nutrition, is that we actually don’t know very much. For now, it probably makes sense to process foods as little as possible.
One idea is to nudge the market by targeting the negative externalities/internalities of ingredients that we are certain are harmful. This could come in the form of Pigouvian taxes and is already commonly done with cigarettes and alcohol.
Some jurisdictions are also now taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages. As I wrote here, SSB levies make a great deal of sense, both from an economic and social perspective. It might also be wise to expand this levy to include non-caloric sweeteners as they now appear to be just as harmful to our health.
Beyond this, the answers become less clear. Processed foods have given us more calories than we could ever need, but in a sense, they leave us chronically malnourished. We eat and eat, while our biology searches for nutrients that are no longer present. In essence, our technology may have left our biology behind. Perhaps our knowledge of nutrition will mature to such a point where it will become possible to provide truly healthy processed foods. In the meantime, it’s probably wise to process food less, not more, and use that food more efficiently.