The New Food Fight: Big Food Vs. Big Organic

Have the elite hijacked healthy eating?

By David H. Freedman from The Atlantic
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

Bread and tomato

Craig Cutler for Reader’s Digest

Experts talk back

Freedman’s article generated instant—and heated—debate in the blogosphere. We found reactions both supportive and critical, giving you the fullest perspective.

• Teach a Man to Fish by Miriam Nelson, PhD, a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University

I applaud companies that incrementally make food healthier. (Full disclosure: I was on the McDonald’s global health advisory board ten years ago, helping them to do just that.) We know from ongoing research in Somerville, Massachusetts, as well as in New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, that small changes in calorie intake and activity levels through environmental and policy change can prevent children from becoming more obese.

We have to work with the food industry to reduce calories without adding artificial junk. That doesn’t mean that we should give up on getting people to eat vegetables or on teaching cooking skills. I know this from working with less advantaged families in rural, urban, and suburban communities who all want their kids to eat healthy. But you can’t just tell a busy single mom to start feeding her family tofu and broccoli. You need to find what foods resonate with peoples’ culture and habits.

• You Can Choose a Better Chip by David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, on

It’s all well and good that spinach is very good for us, but it’s not of much use when it’s time to dip into the salsa, hummus, or guacamole. I sometimes eat chips—and I like them! But I eat only very good chips. That is what the processed-food solution is all about—improve health with the very foods we already know and love.

We can attribute dramatic stories—including people losing over 100 pounds—to the nutritional profiling system I helped develop, which lets people choose healthier options in any category, including chips, at a glance. We need to judge overall nutritional quality and not succumb to the perils of one-nutrient-at-a-time assessments.

• Just Eat Less by Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center and Today show diet and nutrition editor

Processed or not processed, out-of-control serving sizes are still the primary issue
related to obesity. You can gain weight eating too much of any kind of food. We need to retrain our brains to know what a real serving looks like—and accept that this is “enough food.” Avoiding all processed foods is not sustainable for most people. When you stigmatize certain food, you make people feel like eating healthy is an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not.

• Stop Blaming Others by Keith Ayoob, EdD, associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

I cannot stand it when anyone implies that there is some vast “conspiracy” to make us all unhealthy. We didn’t become an obese nation without being willing participants. Our lifestyle made it easier to get calories, but we liked having it that way.

There are no quick fixes for obesity, but there are successes. I love the insights from the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who have successfully lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more. Almost all eat a good breakfast and follow a moderately low-fat diet. Physical activity—mostly walking—is a mainstay of their lifestyles (about an hour daily but often split up).

Getting healthier is a project. You’re making a new relationship with health and food and activity, and that takes time. And if anyone tells you you’ve been made a victim, run away.

• Aim for More Real Food by Michael F. Jacobsen, PHD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest

If you fill up on fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, chances are you’ll eat a healthier diet and maintain a healthy weight. With refined-grain consumption rising with obesity rates, cutting out white bread and pasta makes sense—whether from Whole Foods or Kroger.

Freedman’s defense of processed foods is appropriate to a point. Few of us want to bake whole-grain bread every couple of days. A McDonald’s salad is reasonably healthful, and whole-grain breakfast cereals are convenient. But in general, processed foods are junk—loaded with calories, saturated fat, salt, food dyes, or artificial sweeteners. The obesity solution is much likelier to be in the Pollan-Bittman camp than the processed-food camp.

Freedman rightly emphasizes the value of large companies focusing more on marketing healthier foods, but they simply aren’t in the business of selling unprocessed foods.

• The French Got Fat! by Tom Philpott on

Forget that the low-fat-everything moment occurred right during the time frame—the 1980s and 1990s—when obesity rates were surging. There’s no real evidence that consuming fat, per se, causes obesity. The French are famous for their love of butter, cream, eggs, and animal fat, but their obesity rates started creeping up only when they began to embrace processed food. Meanwhile, research has consistently indicated that a Mediterranean-style diet leads to low levels of cardiovascular disease and other forms of diet-related health mayhem. This suggests that the food industry’s quest to replace some fat and sugar with low-cal substances that taste like fat and sugar might be futile.

• Don’t Trust the FDA by Deena Shanker on

For Freedman, the proof that processed foods are not “unhealthy” is that the FDA allows them to be sold. But the FDA is one of the most chronically underfunded, understaffed agencies. Relying on it to determine what is safe is a losing bet. As countless food-borne illness outbreaks have made clear, Americans are gambling every day.

• Did Diet Soda Work? NO by Melanie Warner on

Just because something is low in calories doesn’t make it nutritious or good for weight loss. If it were, diet soda would help people lose weight; it doesn’t. Low-calorie food needs to be satiating, which is a quality inherent to many whole foods.

There are real limitations on what fast food and packaged food can do. The honey wheat bun in the Carl’s Jr. cod sandwich has little more than a dusting of whole wheat. McDonald’s flour tortilla wraps have none. Surely it’s possible to make products without 70 or more ingredients, including flammable chemicals.

Fresh, healthy foods are available to most Americans, and not just at Whole Foods and farmers’ markets but at Walmart, Target, and thousands of grocery stores all over America. And it’s not just yellow beets and organic squash blossoms but basic bananas (just 30 to 90 cents per pound!), baby carrots, broccoli, lean meat, eggs, canned beans, nuts, and brown rice. It’s essential to get people to consume more of these affordable and tasty foods.

• Processed Food is Baby Food by David Kessler, MD, former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating

Processed foods are less healthy than whole foods. Period. They don’t need to be chewed as much, if at all. You eat processed foods more quickly, and you’renot as satisfied. They’re layered and loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. It’s hard to live on only whole foods, but we have to do a better job limiting processed ones. Pollan and Bittman have done more for nutrition than the majority of the medical and dietetic community. When you really analyze what you eat and where the ingredients come from, the food is simply no longer as appealing.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments below.

Craig Cutler for Reader's Digest

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