The New Food Fight: Big Food Vs. Big Organic

Have the elite hijacked healthy eating?

Craig Cutler for Reader’s Digest

Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty. But at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) for a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences.

Nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not. Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I could stomach only about a third of the oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It went for $7.95, and I waited ten minutes for it.

I finally hit the sweet spot just a few weeks later, in Chicago, with a delicious blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that rang in at a relatively modest 220 calories. It cost $3 and took only seconds to make. Best of all, I’ll be able to get this concoction just about anywhere. Thanks, McDonald’s!

If only the McDonald’s smoothie weren’t, unlike the first two, so fattening and unhealthy. Or at least that’s what the most prominent voices in our food culture today would have you believe.

Next: What the foodies get wrong »

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42 thoughts on “The New Food Fight: Big Food Vs. Big Organic

  1. McDonald’s was using pink slime in their ‘meat’ and only stopped when the word got out and consumers were up in arms about it. They also used to put meat extracts in their french fries – without bothering to inform those avoiding meat. They will feed you anything – they really don’t care – and they will tell you as little as possible about it. I don’t trust them at all, because I’ve LEARNED not to trust them. Meanwhile, their employees are paid so little that many of them qualify for welfare. . . . a bad deal all around.

  2. Insane. Can I take a dump on a plate and become a contributor to Readers Digest. And the cover story no less??? This is literary terrorism.

  3. I cannot believe this article was even published!!! This is one of the most ignorant pieces I’ve ever read. How can you say that whole foods are not healthy and processed foods are really not that bad? Do you even live in the real world? Let’s get one thing straight, you can make anything unhealthy. It seems to me that he actually prefers ‘chemicals’ instead of something real. This is what did me in, and I quote…”I also visited Tic Gums in White Marsh, Maryland, a company that engineers textures into food products…Tic served me an under-development (an experiment) version of a low-fat salad dressing that was better than any I’d ever had.” Also, to put obesity in a box. According to him…overweight people must be in the lower classes, therefore they can only afford to eat fast food and processed food. Ultimately, he’s saying they have no other option! Then goes on to say mostly the privileged are healthy. Such ignorance and discrimination. I wonder of this article was a joke to get all of us riled up…this guy can’t be serious.

  4. I agree – this is obviously written by someone biased for the junk food industry. Even if there were more fats in some natural foods they would be healthy fats our bodies need, not bad saturated fats which most people are consuming too much of. The person fails to mention the huge amount of processed sugar, for example, that goes into McDonald’s smoothies and is linked to weight gain and illness, and you could go on and on with the misinformation they spew.

  5. Obviously there are foods that are good for you and ones that aren’t. This article at the least, tells the familiar tale of media hype and reminds us to think for ourselves. As a scientist in the horticulture and crop science profession, I can say there are pros and cons for both. Organic farming, done improperly, can have very negative environmental consequences (excess manure runoff into bodies of water due to the fact they do not use chemical fertilizers). Conventional farming, if done improperly, can lead to herbicide resistance in plants and degraded soil. There are many scientists working on combining the best of both worlds. Also, one random comment about chemicals: the USDA sets limits on the amount that can be present in produce before it goes to market. The LD-50 is typically set by mice (how much of a chemical would kill 50% of a test population of mice). With “local” agriculture and farm stands, they are often not regulated at all by anyone except maybe the local health department in some cases. Many local farmers have been busted for selling produce or meat that contains higher than allowed limits of chemicals or bacteria. The bottom line is WE the consumers drive the industry. If you want to buy local produce and are concerned about its properties and the way it is grown, talk to the farmer about his practices. Write to your local representatives about legislation that may require regular inspections of farmers markets. But don’t go all one-sided. One-sided is simple minded :) and as always…PLEASE CONSULT SCIENCE before you make comments that are founded in raw emotion.

  6. Oh yeah, you cannot let the sTores/franchises themselves dictate what to eat, or make the decision for you based on what they are packaging. You must use your own knowledge to decide what to put into your body. Those inner peas are crap, but Trader Joe’s does have a few really good foods. I like Henry’s better. (“Wild Oats”). Making your own smoothies is cheaper of course. Ps my profile pic is not me lol it’s a work avatar. I’m a 40 year old guy often mistaken for late 20’s and shredded ;))

  7. Dang. Guess it’s time to unsubscribe and stop purchasing ANYTHING put out by RDA. Anyone can spin things to their favor, good or bad, just ask the politicians. Not buying this article, author, or magazine anymore. Thanks for the heads up.

  8. Great article, but it tended to prevaricate – much of the “organic, local, etc.” arguments are heavily influenced by anti-corporatism, rather than health consciousness; much of their “argument” is luddite filler for their alternative agenda.

  9. I am not wealthy. I was not educated on the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in my diet. Yes I was told to eat my vegetables but did not know how very important that really is. Nor did I know what eating processed food as the majority of my diet was doing or not doing for my health. I want to teach my kids to eat well. I don’t need to be rich to buy fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, whole wheat flour, nuts, etc. I actually save money by not eating at fast food places often. This article was so disappointing to me. While we cannot blame McDonalds for everything, it’s unbelievable that someone would so blatantly promote poor eating habits. Yes, trader joes is not the answer either…but that doesn’t mean fast, over processed foods is the answer. Teaching my kids to plant a garden, like salads and whole foods, and get some micronutrients is my goal. I do not need to be wealthy to do this.

    1. One of the most level headed comments on the page has no votes. Here’s one.

  10. God I hate calorie counters because they’re morons. Yes!! I said it!!! I don’t care if a person gets 3000 calories a day from veggies because they will not gain weight. Yet someone eating 300 calories from a “big mac” will gain weight and destroy their health. Stop the calorie counting and use common sense. One has sugars, by products, high LDL, sodium up the wazoo, fats, oils, bread, cheese, omg I could keep going. Instead of counting calories use common sense (a steak with a baked potato) that’s a bad food combo substitute the potato with a salad. Stop eating dead veggies try eating more raw. Is steak good, hell no but at least stay conscious of food combos.

      1. Your the imbecile you simpleton. How the heck would you gain from something that has no fat, cholesterol, or oils? Look, sit down before you hurt yourself…

        1. Says the f-cking idiot who doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”

          LOL tard

    1. MODERATION! Caloric intake DOES affect weight gain, no matter what the source. All foods (with few exceptions) convert to usable sugars within the body. That’s what your body does.

      Yes, a fatty steak and a potato loaded with butter and bacon will be bad for you, But SCIENCE (not junk science) has shown that lean beef and potatoes, prepared properly are actually GOOD for you and contain many essential nutrients. It is NOT what you eat, but how you prepare it and how you use moderation and limits to make healthy meal choices.

      Pure vegetarian diets CAN be harmful, if you do not get the proper mix of foods and supplement with necessary nutrients from some source.

      If you want to discuss REAL healthy choices, sit down with a REAL Certified Nutritionist who will show you what foods are good for your particular needs based on medical recommendations by your doctor.

      1. Actually, all the “science” that allegedly showed that saturated fat, cholesterol, etc. was “bad” for you is turning out to have been the junk science all along. But to take such an objective position against Big Pharma and Big Farma and their regulatory captive agencies (i.e. crony capitalism) would almost always be a career-destroying move for people employed in a wide variety of fields, including certified nutrionists.

  11. A whole BIG MAC is not going to give you the energy that 1/3 of a grass feed burger will.

  12. As a huge proponent of personal responsibility I am always a bit miffed when people look elsewhere for blame. I don’t deny the less economically fortunate have a more difficult time eating healthy food. Good quality food is more expensive. But to blame an “establishment” or “big food” is to deny oneself the very great gift of autonomy and liberty. It serves to make one a victim and, therefore, helpless and powerless. That is not good for anyone. Don’t be a victim.

    Additionally, this is an issue of liberty. Believe me, it is. If the proponents of eating only whole foods could have their way, the government would be regulating more and more aspects of the food industry. Mayor Bloomberg and his attempt to limit sugar drinks in New York City to 16 oz is only one example. I would sooner live in country full of obese people who were free, than to live in a country filled with fit people who were not.

  13. Here is the thing about food, it has a psychological effect as well as a physical effect. Are we really worried about being obese more than we are concerned about having mutated cells such as cancer and other illnesses because our major glands like the pineal gland and the adrenal gland are being put into sleep mode? For me not eating junk food, processed food, or fast food has very little to do with weight loss and calories. It has to do with with preserving the full function capabilities of my brain. High fructose corn syrup, TBHQ, colored dyes, MSG; these are the things that are most dangerous over time. This choice and understanding that I have adopted for my life is my choice. I sleep better, I look healthier, and I feel energetic and fantastic. I am genuinely happier now than I ever was eating foods full of chemicals I couldn’t pronounce let alone knew nothing about. This article upsets me but I understand. I used to be on that side of the debate. Defending that people have a right to eat crappy food and that there are no long term effects it’s all a conspiracy. But then I made some food changes. For everyone for or against this article challenge yourself.. Go an entire week without consuming chemically altered synthetic foods. The difference will speak for itself. You won’t need any other opinion other than the opinion of your own personal body. After that week go back to eating the “other” food. You’re body will let you know how it feels about it. Peace, light, and love.

  14. This article does a great job of comparing apples to oranges. Yes, you can find junk food at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. How does that change the argument against fast food? I like fast food, I eat it once a week, and allow my kids to do the same. But I’m not kidding my self about what it is and is not. I think I’ll go make a fruit smoothie now, without added sugar.

    1. Exactly! I had a spinach, carrot, banana, black grape and soy protein smoothie this morning and now I want some french fries! I know it is not good food so I limit it’s intake. I don’t want to get hit by a bus tomorrow and wish I had enjoyed a few more of life’s little pleasures. Moderation…

    2. You are kind of missing the point, though – that the “organic/locavore/organic/blah blah blah” movement cannot and will not feed the populous.

      1. All we need to do is grow everything organically again, as it had been for millennia. It’s certainly not difficult, and organic farming is continuously employing new tricks and technologies of its own.

          1. Hi Sally – I would be interested in hearing your argument as to why organic farming can not feed the world.

  15. Whole Foods is a rip-off and I would never shop there, you can get healthy food at a regular grocery store for less. I do shop at Trader Joe’s occasionally because they have unique products.

    The golden rule for all packaged food is: read the label for nutritional facts!

    1. well this is where research and how bold of a stance you take on social issues comes in. Places like Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Sprouts cater to a certain demographic who enjoy knowing the food they buy is presticide, chemical and (in some cases) gluten-free. Because they are health- and earth- conscious, they are willing to spend a little more for their food. For people that don’t understand the economics food, it’s basic supply and demand. Farmers who grow genetically altered seeds, chemicals to speed growth and government money will produce enough food to allow them to make a profit at lower cost. Farmers who grow naturally, produce less food and have to sell a bit more. (Because of this, many farmers end up getting screwed and going under. See Documentary “Food Inc.”) What people are paying for at Trader Joe’s-type markets is the LACK of additives.

  16. Absolutely 100% correct – great article. The food monitors would have us eat only what they think is good for us, probably because they need some kind of public recognition. Years ago when this junk-in-print ‘health’ food nonsense all started I looked at ingredients and fat, carb, sodium content in ‘health’ foods and made a comparison with normal food. I do these kinds of things because I am a Pharmacist for 50+ years and comparisons are easy for me. Guess what? The ‘health’ food products, in the key nutrition claims, were so bad that to eat them was tantamount to eating you know what! Things in the ‘health’ food arena have slightly improved but ‘health’ food is NOT worth the investment. As Julia used to say; “All things in moderation” and “Bon Apetit” …..

    1. Doc, I question the fact that you’ve been a pharmacist for 50 years if you’re so ignorant to state that fat, carbs and sodium are ingredients. Looking at what ingredients contain (fat, carbs etc) is the very thing that is misleading in this article and the very reason that people get confused on what is healthy and what is not. There is a distinct difference to how your body metabolizes 40 grams of sugar from an orange or 40 grams of sugar from high fructose corn syrup in soda. This is the real distinction. The second difference is in the quality of food in respect to how it is prepared and where it came from. Judging by your statement you have no problem eating beef from a fast food restaurant which is guaranteed to be produced by a large company that injects their animals with growth hormones and reduces harmful bacteria by “washing” the same meat in an ammonia compound, yet I highly doubt if someone brought you a salad at a restaurant and poured ammonia on it right in front of you that you would eat it. But hey, you’re the expert with 50+ years of experience so knock yourself out by not knowing what the hell you’re talking about. Instead of “All things in moderation” you should have put “ignorance is bliss”

    2. You’re as clueless as the dope who wrote the article. Eating organic has NOTHING to do with “fat, carb, sodium content”. No one ever claimed that organic foods were healthier in terms of fat, carbs or sodium content. It’s about how they’re grown and processed! And about the fact that they don’t contain any pesticides. herbacides, fungicides, hormones or antibiotics. And about the fact that as their processed they have no added chemical preservatives, flavors or colors. The way “real” foods were meant to be. End of story.

  17. “Contains 1% or Less: Natural (Plant Source) and Artificial Flavors,
    Cellulose Powder, Peach Juice Concentrate, Pear Juice Concentrate,
    Citric Acid, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Xanthan Gum, Pectin, Fruit and
    Vegetable Juice For Color” this is from the McDonald’s website of the ingredients in your so called “healthy” shake at McDonalds. 300 calories for real food rich in nutrients and full of vegetables…the only consequences of eating that regularly would be health and a happy body. This is the most irresponsible thing I’ve read in quite a while.

  18. I strongly suspect that Freedman has a personal agenda and is not looking at the issue from an unbiased point of view. One needs to look no further than the subtitle which includes the word ‘elite’. Talk about a loaded word.

    You don’t need to read any further than the first paragraph to see that his arguments aren’t worth reading. (yes, I did read the whole essay and no, his reasoning doesn’t get any better)

    He bought an admittedly nutritious shake yet pans it because it was 300 calories. The whole goal in healthy eating is to eat nutrient-dense food that satisfies one’s appetite. So how can he possibly justify his stance? 300 calories for 16 ounces of a nutrient-packed shake is about as healthy as you can get. Bad point, Mr. Freedman.

    His second argument against the shake is that it took ‘several minutes’ to prepare. Really? But his answer to the nutrition question is to get fast food.. where people sit in the drive-thru lane at McD’s for 10-15 minutes to get white bread and saturated fat? (No, Mr. Freedman, those pick-up trucks in the drive-thru lane are not loading up on parfaits)

    Finally, the price. Yes, $9 is steep so buy the ingredients yourself and make it at home for $2-$3. Btw – the choice of Whole Foods for comparison was a strange choice. Why not compare fast food to buying food at a regular grocery story or a warehouse? You can buy and prepare your own food and eat a whole lot better for a whole lot less than you can at a fast-food restaurant.

    My personal feeling is that this is irresponsible journalism.

    1. 300 calories of liquid does not fill you up as long as 300 calories of solid food. Just like with Chinese food, you drink the smoothie and an hour later you’re hungry again.
      Just because you bought it at the health food store doesn’t make it healthy, and just because you bought it at a fast food place doesn’t make it unhealthy. My favorite fast food place used to sell baked potatoes, which filled me up all afternoon for about 300 calories. Give me a 300 calorie shake or smoothie and it only serves the purpose to tide me over for a bit until I can get some real food, i.e., it’s not a meal replacement, it’s just extra calories.

      If you refuse to eat fruit and veggies, by all means, fool yourself into consuming them by drinking smoothies, but those of us who eat quite enough in their natural state are better off eating them whole, and benefitting from the fiber, than running them through a juicer and throwing away the pulp.

      1. Hey just wanted to say that the nutrients of a potato are next to none. The reason you are feeling more full is because its hard to digest that much starch in one sitting. So while you feel full and satisfied, your actually not gaining that many helpful nutrients. The smoothie on the other hand provide the beneficial macronutrients that you need. Food is not just calories, just like your body is not just a furnace. If you eat just calories you are keeping the fires burning but not keeping your furnace intact. It is for that reason that kale and bluberrys are considered more healthy than potatoes. Calories honestly have nothing to do with it. If you have a high intake of calories, its easy to burn them off with some exercise. You also dont have to throw away the pulp of juices if you do it right, It can be a great snack to keep in the fridge. Hope this was informative!

  19. Mechanistic tautology at it’s finest. I see huge irony here.
    If we can’t “prove” (given an explicitly and extremely isolated variable, taken out of context, unraveled from it’s interwoven fabric of existence) one facet, then simply all other points of the argument are null and void. Right, because that is real “science”, and intelligent (sense complete sarcasm here?). No, it would be far too smart to take several seemingly unrelated pieces of an equation (only due to pure blindsightedness, tunnel vision, and unfitting paradigms), put them together and see how intricately and very complex, yet also simple they are. Wait stop there! That’s like saying ying and yang can exist at the same time. Impossible! (Again, sarcasm). But that’ also can’t exist within the petty miniscule paradigm and philosophy of the mechanistic people.

    1. It seems to me that a test of high “intelligence” would really be the capability of handling “Yin and Yang” at the same time all the whilst doing something creative or evolutionary with it

  20. This is the biggest load of garbage I have eve read. Period. Misinformation and propaganda at its finest.

    1. I found your rebuttal to this article very well informed and full of useful information backed by absolutely zero evidence (which in it of itself can be classified as misinformation). Likewise your creditisls of ‘wookiecookies’ established a lot of trust and belief in your argument. Thank you for sharing.

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