PROCESSED FOOD ISN’T YOUR ENEMY
Anthony Warner, our Hearst Big Book winner, explains why demonising factory-produced meals is dangerously irrational
If there is one matter on which almost every food writer, campaigner and chef can agree, it is that eating processed, factory-produced food is wrong. To maintain maximum health, we should focus on wholefoods and ditch the manufactured junk that has made us fat and sick. It doesn’t matter if you’re a cleaneating, New Age health blogger, a celebrity chef or a renowned, widely published researcher – the message is the same. The healthiest option is to eat “real” food.
And here is where I make myself unpopular. By vilifying manufactured products, we’re making exactly the same mistake that underlies every food fad 1 : we’re attempting to classify food as “good” and “bad” and, in doing so, damaging our relationship with what we eat.
Processed foods are broadly defined as any food that has undergone a process to alter its flavour, composition or shelf life. Yet such a definition would encompass a far wider variety of foods than is commonly acknowledged, many of which even the most self-righteous health blogger wouldn’t suggest we avoid. Pulses, beans, lentils, quinoa, rice, flour, gluten-free flour, milk, yogurt, pasta, olive oil, virgin coconut oil, spices, dried herbs, chocolate, couscous – all of these are processed in some way.
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 homecooked (or maybe “home-processed”) meals better for you than any made in a factory. The key to improving the quality and healthfulness of the food that 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 improve people’s diets. They can offer sensible, realistic solutions that fit into modern lives. Although the industry should certainly be held to account for its transgressions, it would make my heart sing if, just once, a chef or campaigner commended it when it did something positive. I long for a time when campaigners and manufacturers can present a united front, happy to praise each other for jobs well done but free to hold each other responsible when disingenuous claims are made. Imagine what a force for change this could be, offering and endorsing sensible solutions to improve people’s lives 2 .
Convenience foods are already with us, thoroughly integrated into our lives, invigorating them, enlivening them and allowing us to live them to the full 3 . To reject them and the modernity they represent is completely unrealistic. To attach guilt and shame to them – to make moral judgements about those who choose them – is a dangerous path. At best, it will create the sort of guilt cycle that pushes people towards negative behaviours. At worst, it will permanently damage our relationship with food.
“There is no fairy dust of naturalness that makes home-cooked meals better for you”
INDUSTRIALLY PACKED WITH GOODNESS