The typical American diet is filled with heavily processed foods, filled with high-fructose corn syrup, salt and preservatives. What is this costing us in terms of our health and the environment’s health?
“One of the most fundamental acts of being alive is eating,” says Melanie Warner, author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Warner speaks about her journey down the rabbit hole searching for the truth about processed foods.
“[During childhood] the stage was set for my curiosity about food and our food system,” says Warner. “My mom always had this kind of healthy skepticism about food. She would read ingredient labels long before people actually did such things.
“I first started writing about the food industry about 10 years ago,” Warner continues. “When I started talking to people in the field of food science, they started telling me all these crazy things about the incredible technical complexity that goes into making our food.”
One example, vegetable oil, a key ingredient in many of our foods, has to be processed in explosion-proof factories.
“I just knew there was a story to be told about what happens to our food after it leaves the farm,” says Warner. “This was all something that was very new within human history. We had only begun processing food in the last 100 years and this really intensive processing was really only in the last half-century or so.”
During her research, Warner discovered a lot of surprising information about the world of food processing.
“I was totally amazed at the world of vitamins and where they come from,” Warner says. “I think I just assumed they somehow came from natural things, like foods.”
But she found that wasn’t the case.
“They put these highly manufactured, artificial vitamins into our foods and then put a health halo around it,” she says.
You’ve likely noticed vitamins are added to many things, from cereal to water. Australian sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis coined the term “nutrition ism,” a focus on nutrients as the indicator of healthy food that can make even processed foods seem wholesome.
By filling our diet with processed foods, Warner says we are robbing ourselves of the real nutrition our bodies need.
“I think the biggest culprits are the abundance of sugar and refined grains in processed food,” says Warner. “In addition to giving us calories with no nutrients, it’s taxing our metabolic system and leading to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.”
Warner says there is probably also a link to heart disease with a lot of the fats that are used abundantly in processed foods.
“One of the unintended consequences of the processing of foods is that you are removing a lot of the healthy, life-giving properties, all these things that are in food that our bodies need to survive,” Warner says. “So we are just depriving our bodies of the things it needs to function optimally.”
And on top of the human health implications are the environmental consequences.
“First of all, you have tons of packaging, mainly plastic,” Warner says. “Then there’s lots of energy involved in manufacturing these products in factories and heavy water use as well. All that on top of the environmental imprint that food already has,” such as the massive amount of carbon dioxide generated by a large and constantly growing animal agriculture sector.
“There’s that aspect of it that you wouldn’t get if you were just consuming the raw, fresh ingredients,” says Warner.
Warner recently spoke at the Sustainable Living Fair in Fort Collins. When asked about the sustainability of processed foods, she says the food industry makes the argument that “the processing of foods helps food become more sustainable on a very basic level, by increasing the shelf life so that food can sit around for months.”
“So there’s an argument to be made that the processing of food is good in that sense and from an environmental point of view because we aren’t wasting all this food and throwing it away,” she says.
“The problem with that argument is that is only goes so far,” Warner adds. “It just doesn’t really carry with the massive array of processed foods that you find in the grocery store or at fast food restaurants.
“The lack of sustainability of processed foods comes from a health point of view. It’s just not sustainable to eat a diet heavy in processed foods and stay healthy. There’s always an effect on our bodies.”
What does it mean for food to be processed?
“It clearly exists on a spectrum of processing with the extent to which something is subjected to a disfiguring, a taking apart,” says Warner. “It’s the number and type of processes it is subjected to. It’s the difference between an ear of corn and high fructose corn syrup. You can call high fructose corn syrup natural because it comes from corn, but it’s all about all those many steps that disfigure this corn into what we know as high fructose corn syrup.”
Foods can range anywhere from minimally to heavily processed.
“It’s sometimes hard to pick apart what happens in the processing, but people can figure it out,” says Warner. “If it’s not something you could create at home or grow in your backyard, then it’s probably a highly processed food.”
Warner says she believes people generally understand what it means for food to be processed, but worries for those who aren’t concerned about the amount of processed food filling their diet.
“I think you have to think a little bit more skeptically about giving big corporations the power to feed us,” Warner says. “I don’t think you can just have that blind trust that it’s out there on the shelves, so it must be OK. So you have to take back some of that food preparation for yourself and your family. There are so many easy ways to cook with real, fresh foods in a way that doesn’t take a huge amount of time. The payoff is huge in terms of your health and how you feel.”