Let’s Make Peace with Packaging
What’s not to like about these developments? Plenty, if you’ve bought into the notion that processing itself is the source of the unhealthfulness of our foods. The wholesome-food movement is not only talking up dietary strategies that are unlikely to help most obese Americans; it is, in various ways, getting in the way of strategies that could work better.
Pollan has popularized contempt for “nutritionism,” the idea behind packing healthier ingredients into processed foods. In his view, the quest to add healthier ingredients to food isn’t a potential solution—it’s part of the problem. Food is healthy not when it contains healthy ingredients, he argues, but when it can be traced simply and directly to (preferably local) farms.
In this way, wholesome-food advocates have managed to pre-damn the very steps we need the food industry to take, placing the industry in a no-win situation: If it maintains the status quo, then we need to stay away because its food is loaded with fat and sugar. But if it tries to moderate these ingredients, then it is deceiving us with nutritionism. Pollan explicitly counsels avoiding foods containing more than five ingredients or any hard-to-pronounce or unfamiliar ingredients. This rule eliminates almost anything the industry could do to produce healthier foods that retain mass appeal—and that’s perfectly in keeping with his intention.
The Pollanites threaten to derail the reformation of fast food just as it’s gaining traction. No sooner had McDonald’s and Burger King rolled out their egg-white sandwich and turkey burger, respectively, than a spate of articles hooted that the new dishes weren’t healthier because they trimmed a mere 50 and 100 calories from their counterparts, the Egg McMuffin and the Whopper. Apparently these writers didn’t understand, or chose to ignore, that a reduction of 50 or 100 calories in a single dish places an eater on track to eliminate a few hundred calories a day from his or her diet—the critical threshold for long-term weight loss. Any bigger reduction would risk leaving someone too hungry to stick to a diet program. It’s just the sort of small step in the right direction we should aim for.
Continuing to call out Big Food on its unhealthy offerings, and loudly, is one of the best levers we have for pushing it toward healthier products—but let’s call it out intelligently, not reflexively. Executives of giant food companies are not stupid. If they don’t counter their most vocal critics, they risk a growing public-relations disaster, the loss of more affluent and increasingly health-conscious customers, and the threat of regulation, which will be costly to fight, even if the new rules don’t stick. Those fears are surely what’s driving much of the push toward moderately healthier fare within the industry today. There’s no question that people can make small, painless, but helpful changes in their diets by switching from Whoppers to turkey burgers, from Egg McMuffins to Egg White Delights, or from blueberry crisp to fruit-and-yogurt parfaits.
And we can ask the wholesome-food advocates, and those who give them voice, to make it clearer that the advice they sling is relevant mostly to the privileged healthy—and to start getting behind realistic solutions to the obesity crisis.
For the original story on The Atlantic’s website, click here.
Next: Experts talk back »