The Call and Times, Column 31 – Processed Foods: A Recipe for Disaster

11 10 2015

(October 11, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Processed Foods: A Recipe for Disaster

Go into your pantry and pick up any box, or bag, or jar of food that you didn’t make yourself, and take a look at the ingredients. Chances are, there’s lots of high fructose corn syrup, “vegetable” (seed) oils, FD&C colorings, artificial flavors, and a whole slew of names of chemical additives that you don’t recognize. If you found vials of these ingredients sitting on a shelf, would you consider them food? If not, at what point do they stop being their individual “bad” selves – sugars, rancid seed-oils, carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), and toxins, many of them derived from petroleum – and start being nourishing food? I guess it’s when they’re put for sale on the supermarket shelf, for us to buy and consume. And that’s unacceptable.

My columns have often dealt with the environmental considerations of agriculture, both in our own backyards and on a global scale. Now, I want to change gears a bit. While agriculture’s effect on the environment is of the utmost importance, the benefits of ecological health are diminished if we don’t also consider the effects that the food we eat has on our own health. That is why today, and through many of my columns this winter, we’ll be discussing food from a very different perspective – human health and wellbeing. I want these columns to give you an idea of which foods to eat and which to leave on the shelf, to suggest my idea (and increasingly, the scientific community’s) of the ideal human diet, and to explain how this diet fits perfectly into the mold of local, sustainable agriculture.

Today, we’ll start on the topic of the unhealthy additives in processed foods (basically, every ingredient), which I think is a great kicking off point for this wider discussion. I want to thank my friend Amanda, who suggested this column in response to a recent food recall.

Before we begin, I want to make something very clear: I’m not asking you to be afraid of “chemicals”. Everything that we see, touch, and eat – everything that exists in the universe – is some mixture of chemicals. This is true of the safest things we consume: water is dihydrogen monoxide; air is a mixture of chemical gases (mostly nitrogen and oxygen); we use esters of butyric and oleic acids (butter and olive oil) as cooking fats, and long-chain carbohydrates called cellulose are responsible for the physical structure of vegetables.

Everything on Earth, from the geochemical cycles that move water, air, and minerals, to the processes that generate topsoil, and indeed all of life on this planet, is an intricate set of wonderful, sustainable chemical reactions. And considering the huge number of chemical compounds that make up the bodies of vegetables, fruits, nuts, animals, and fungi – whole foods that we’ve been eating safely for our 2.5 million years on Earth, that our bodies know how to process in order to get energy and nutrients – we shouldn’t fear “chemicals”.

But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. We shouldn’t be afraid of chemicals “that our bodies know how to process”. Sadly, however, in the last century or so, we went from eating primarily locally-grown, minimally-processed, whole foods, to consuming what food writer Michael Pollan expertly calls “edible food-like substances” – processed foods, with ingredients that won’t kill us instantly, but which are totally foreign to our bodies.

I broadly categorize these ingredients into two groups – highly-concentrated forms of otherwise neutral, “natural” ingredients, and artificial, potentially-toxic ingredients.

An example of the first is fructose – a short-chain sugar, present in very small amounts in fruits like berries, and in much larger amounts in both table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup, common sweeteners in almost all processed foods.

In berries, fructose is rendered basically neutral by the fiber and micronutrients, as the small amount of harm that it can cause is far outweighed by the health benefits of the whole fruit. However, when highly concentrated in sweeteners (sugar and HFCS), the consumption of fructose causes insulin resistance (precursor to diabetes), high blood triglycerides (precursor to heart disease), weight gain, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The second group is a little harder to define. This includes artificial chemicals that do not exist in significant amounts in nature, and which our bodies are therefore not really able to process healthfully, or that are otherwise actually toxic to us. These include additives like artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and various “agents” (anti-caking, emulsifying, thickening, etc).

These are added to processed foods in order to make whatever raw “food” ingredients they contain (though I would hardly call bleached wheat flour and soybean oil “food”) shelf-stable for long periods of time, and to make them appear, taste, smell, and feel more like actual food. There is a Wikipedia page, “List of Food Additives”, which gives a concise breakdown of these various types of ingredients, and a pretty exhaustive list of specific additives.

Many countries have regulatory agencies which (at least on paper) determine whether any particular food or cosmetic additive is safe for public use. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is tasked with this job. Shockingly, they often rely on research performed by the manufacturer of the additive (and in a related case, the companies responsible for a genetically engineered variety of seed) in making their assessments of safety.

Between these food additives, cosmetics, and agricultural chemicals, there are thousands of chemicals that are banned by the food safety departments of the European Union for failing to meet health standards, but which are not banned by our own FDA.

There are far too many additives to give a complete list here. But a good starting point is the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives”, a list of the worst of them, which it has deemed worthy of avoidance despite the FDA’s approval ( This list includes: nitrates and nitrites, potassium bromate, propyl paraben, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate, theobromine, secret flavor ingredients, artificial colors, diacetyl, phosphate food additives, and aluminum additives.

To quote a meme that I’ve seen floating around Facebook, “there are too many people counting Calories, and not enough counting artificial chemicals.”

This statement frames the issue perfectly. Governmental (that is, politics-driven) nutritional advice has been to view Calories – the measure of energy in food, which is the most basic reason we eat it – as evil. We must eat as few Calories and as little fat (another unscientific sham, which I will discuss in the future) as possible, and in doing so, we will be healthy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. This advice leads to low-fat “cheez” crackers and reduced-calorie margarine being considered health foods, while minimally processed whole foods, like olive oil, eggs, coconuts, and high-quality meats are demonized as being unhealthy.

In light of all of this, my first suggestion to eating more healthfully: shop on the outside of most grocery stores. Here, you will find fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, dairy, and eggs, and will minimize your exposure to the harmful food additives that have somehow become part of a healthy diet.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.