But Chemicals Are Bad … Right?
Hold on, you may be thinking. Leaving fat, sugar, and salt aside, what about all the nasty things that wholesome foods do not, by definition, contain that processed foods do? A central claim of the wholesome-food movement is that wholesome is healthier because it doesn’t have the artificial flavors, preservatives, other additives, or genetically modified ingredients found in industrialized food. This is the complaint against the McDonald’s smoothie, which contains artificial flavors and texture additives and which is pre-mixed. It’s the tautology at the heart of the movement: Processed foods are unhealthy because they aren’t natural, full stop.
The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy. The U.S. population does not suffer from a critical lack of any nutrient, because we eat so much processed food. (Sure, health experts urge Americans to get more calcium, potassium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamins A, E, and C, and eating more produce and dairy is a great way to get them—but these ingredients are also available in processed foods, not to mention supplements.)
Processed foods, which Pollan has called “foodlike substances,” are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (with some exceptions, which are regulated by other agencies), and their effects on health are further raked over by countless scientists who would get a nice career boost from turning up the hidden dangers in some common food-industry ingredient or technique. “Until I hear evidence to the contrary, I think it’s reasonable to include processed food in your diet,” says Robert Kushner, MD,a physician and nutritionist and a professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, where he is the clinical director of the Comprehensive Center on Obesity.
Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals; they could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates allow them?
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