Something that I encounter out in the Intertubz on a regular basis is the fantasy that all health issues, especially obesity, can be prevented, avoided, healed, resolved, etc., by eating “real” food and avoiding “processed” food. So, curmudgeon that I am, I started asking what exactly makes something not “real” and what does it mean to call something “processed?”
When these terms are bandied about, the speaker is usually so confident, rather like the people promoting food regulation, that what they mean is perfectly obvious, with our diets falling on the side of virtuous real foods or else plummeting into the circles of processed foods hell. If someone is fat, they are earnestly counseled to start eating “real” food, and Pollan’s diktat about “don’t eat something your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” (or whatever the exact quote is) will be trotted out to explain what real food is.
Since one of my grandmothers cooked tomato soup cake, using a can of condensed soup, and the other considered jello salad one of the four major food groups, and neither of them had any patience with vegetables, canned, fresh or frozen, I’m not sure relying on their culinary expertise is the way to go. (Though tomato soup cake is amazing. Seriously.) How about we peruse this week’s grocery shopper from Ralphs and see what we can recognize, shall we?
OK, front and center, USDA Choice Boneless Top Sirloin Steaks. Nice red meat, no gluten, no added sugars, works with paleo diets. But it’s not organic beef. And it came to the store in a vacuum pack hunk of cow, which then got chopped into pieces and shrink wrapped on foam trays. Then there’s fresh chicken, whole or drumsticks. If it’s been plastic wrapped, isn’t that a kind of processing? Also, the chicken can be stored at a temperature that is cold enough to freeze the water in the packages. Oh, and what about saline/brine solutions added to poultry? Ditto for the Fresh boneless pork loin chop. Then there’s Fresh Wild-caught Copper River Salmon Fillets (which, quite seriously, will probably be our dinner on Sunday) – these I don’t think have even been flash frozen for transport, but I may be wrong. There are no specials on frozen meat or seafood. What about ground beef, is that processed? I mean, it’s a fine grind of various bits and bobs of (we hope) cow.Several kinds of fresh sausage are on special this week; Italian sausage, Brats, breakfast sausage, Kielbasa. Bacon is on sale, turkey and pig. Fully cooked chicken breast in the service deli is on special, plus conventional lunch meat and organic lunch meat. Oh, and hot dogs, Oscar Meyer wieners.
So my question about meat in general is what is going to count as not processed? Every one of these items has been handled, cut up, trimmed, and packaged. Some have been cooked, smoked or cured. All have been shipped in from a processing facility somewhere, and some have been subjected to more processing on site (quarters of cow and pig cut up, deli meats sliced to order, fish defrosted and cut up into smaller portions, etc.).
There’s grapes on special. They will be sold pre-portioned in bags. The broccoli, peaches and nectarines will probably be loose in their bins. Plastic cartons of organic salad? Bags of mini bell peppers? Cartons of cherry tomatoes and berries? None of these are from local producers, though some are organic. They were harvested somewhere, packed into shipment containers, and brought to the store. Kind of how the produce at the farmers market is harvested, packed and trucked in. Is organic frozen fruit processed?
Cheese. There’s a number of kinds of cheese on special this week. Is cheese a processed food? It kind of is by definition, and is nothing either of my grandmothers would have tried to make at home. What about yogurt? Ice cream? Cream cheese? Sour cream? Milk itself? Some of the Spousal Unit’s family were dairy farmers in the Central Valley until fairly recently. Milk is definitely processed, as is everything derived from it.
Oh, canned beans are on sale. Those are already cooked, so they’ve been processed. They may even have had preservatives added! But they are organic. No specials on dried beans. Is rice processed? (I bought some red cargo rice just the other day. I have to confess I feel very virtuous right now.)
Potato salad prepared in the service deli? Potato salad out near the cheese and lunch meat? Hot Pockets! I know they’re processed ‘cuz Fed Up told me so. Stouffer’s entrees, Pringles, and Kashi cereal, they come in boxes so they must be processed, right?
Sodas, fruit juices, bottled water, coconut water, bottled tea, bottled coffee – is the bagged coffee processed? The boxed teas? Bottled water? Seriously, it’s just water, right?
All of this is processed. All of it is real.
All of the food listed above has been touched, many times, by human hands and by machines, to prepare it for sale to you in a hygienic condition and at an affordable price. Some of it takes more steps to prepare than others – things that are baked or ready to eat by definition will be “more processed” – and there will be someone for each of the foods listed above who will find it delicious and someone else who will find it unpalatable. I’d take an Oreo over a Lofthouse cookie any day of the week, for example, and you can’t get me to eat yogurt for love nor money (though I will cook with it). I plan to dine on the salmon this Sunday, look forward to grapes, and think Hot Pockets are the spawn of Satan. If a friend offered me frozen pizza, I’d eat it, but I’d never buy it for myself. And so forth. I will confess I have my doubts about Velveeta and Jello as being real foods, but that has to do with their food status, not their undeniable reality. OTOH, everyone else in my family loves those two things like nobody’s business, so I may just be acting out unresolved childhood conflict.
For pretty much all of the shelf-stable packaged food, I can think of a home-cooked version that is usually a pain in the ass to prepare and doesn’t taste as good. I wouldn’t buy a frozen lasagne when I can make better myself, but I’m not at all shy about buying the Del Real pork carnitas and zapping them in the microwave if I’m having a bunch of people over.
The hysterical distinction between “real” and “processed” is usually little more than a value judgement on what the speaker finds appetizing and unappetizing, and is usually accompanied by a big serving on unacknowledged class privilege. I have time to wander around a farmers market for hours picking out the perfect this or that and getting hand-cut slices of gourmet cured meats and hand-harvested honey. How can you people bear to go into one of those chain stores? (shudder)
It’s also buying into a nostalgia for “local” and “specialty” that blithely ignores the cost (in time and money) to shop at this cheese shop and that bakery and the adorable organic vegetable market, and what kind of health and sanitation horrors these local shops were back in the halcyon days before the big supermarkets got going. Milk is pasteurized for a reason, kids. Ask my brother, an epidemiologist in public health. (Or don’t, because if you do, you may never want to eat again.)
What this arrogant, sneering down your nose at the supposed bad eating habits of fat and poor people overlooks is how much of what we all buy is a mix of minimally and significantly processed foods – the pork shoulder to be roasted on the grill, but also the hamburger buns on which to serve it, the heads of cabbage for making coleslaw, but also the condiments that are mixed to make a dressing. Most people I know eat a variety of different things according to their tastes and budgets, drawing from both the virtuous and the damned sides of the food ledger.
I am, as I keep reminding you, fat. Most of my food would be considered “real” by the food police. I got fat eating a pound of fresh green (and red and yellow and orange) vegetables a day, along with real butter, real eggs, real milk, real beans, real cheese, and so forth. If it had all been organic produce and from local craft producers, I’d still be fat.
People have lives. They eat what appeals to them, what fits in their budgets and what fits into their schedules. This is how real food is really consumed.