In Defense of (Processed) Food

Great-Great Grandma’s Food:  an easy way to lose weight…and lower your life expectancy

I live north of Harbin Hot Springs, a new-age “health resort,” which catered (it burned in the Valley Fire) to new-agers who have yet have to find an alternative-anything that they don’t like. Alternative medicine. Alternatives to clothing. They distrust modern technology (except computers and mobile phones, which they use to complain to their friends about how awful modern technology is), especially biotechnology.

New-agers are the sort of people who name their child Raspberry.

You can spot them easily in the Safeway supermarket; they are the ones, usually with dreadlocks, peering intently at the label of a can of pasta sauce and muttering to themselves, “Fuck. I knew it! I knew it: high fructose corn syrup! Fucking Monsanto and their fucking poisonous GMO corn made into high fucking fructose corn syrup!” They put the can back on the shelf and stomp out of the store, leaving the scent of patchouli oil in their wake.

They obviously agree with:

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.” – Michael Pollan

Labels on food came about in the United States from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. This is generally the nutrition label we know today. It is enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The criteria for what gets labeled revolves around nutrition and safety.

Producers try to get a leg up and an edge on their competition by using nutrition labels to game the system, such as making serving sizes small. “Marketing experts from Germany found that shoppers bought more yogurt when the recommended serving size was smaller,” an article on Science 2.0 says. “‘Smaller recommended serving sizes will let all nutrition values on the label appear smaller too, independent of the product’s actual nutritional composition’ says lead author Dr. Ossama Elshiewy from the University of Goettingen. Shoppers, who read nutrition labels, tend to ignore the smaller recommended serving size and think that these products are healthier than others.”

As to the safety of any genetically modified (GM) corn, even Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has admitted it is safe: “There is no reliable evidence that ingredients made from current GE crops pose any health risk whatsoever.” Lest you think CSPI is in Big Ag’s pocket, CSPI “has made a name for itself by tackling the food industry’s big guns…” You can look it up. Jaffe says this about labeling, “Consumers should know how their food is made and where it comes from. But as this is not a food safety or a nutritional issue—it’s not like allergens or trans fats—we don’t feel it should be mandated on labels that foods are produced with GM crops.”

In fact, we have the safest food (leading to healthier citizens) than any time in our country’s past, despite what Michael Pollan says…

“What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!” – Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

When was the last time you saw a goiter? Adding iodine to salt banished them. Pellegra? Body lesions are caused by inadequate niacin or tryptophan in the diet. A pellegra epidemic occurred in the U.S. starting in 1906 and lasted four decades. It cost the lives of 100,000 people. Enriching flour with niacin put away pellegra. Scurvy?  The discovery of vitamin C has thwarted it. Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria? No longer transmitted through milk because of pasteurization.

“Meanwhile,” Ronald Bailey notes, “stomach cancer rates are down by 75 percent since 1950 because old-fashioned food preservation techniques like salting, pickling, and smoking have been replaced by refrigeration.”

So much for Pollan’s proscription: “Don’t eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

Obesity and Type-2 diabetes, which Pollan is probably referring to, is a problem of plenty (and perhaps high-fructose corn syrup), not one of scarcity or processing.

But, let’s consider for the sake of argument, that maybe yesterday’s food that great-grandma would recognize was better. For that, let’s check out going to a farmers market and buying food there:

Marc Bellemare, writing in the New York Times, found “positive correlations between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of norovirus[2], a common cause of gastroenteritis. Likewise, we found a similar positive correlation between farmers markets per capita and outbreaks per capita of Campylobacter jejuni[3], a bacterium typically found in animal feces that is also a common cause of gastroenteritis.” He points out that correlation is not causation, even if they could identify causation, “most cases of illness are caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food. Indeed, our results may suggest that many people erroneously believe that food bought at farmers markets needn’t be washed because it is ‘natural.'”

Now, there is a food illness great-great grandma would recognize. Between 1933 and 1935, more than 5,000 children in the United States alone died from diarrhea and enteritis,  caused primarily by food-borne pathogens. Today, the rate is 1/2 of 1% of what it was in the 1930s for Americans of all ages. Though, given what Bellemare and his colleagues found, the rate may be higher for farmers market folks.

Those who think Pollan’s food rules are true, might want to remember H. L. Mencken’s words:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Sound bites are not a meal. And as I wrote here, Pollans’ bromides resemble little “linguistic amuse-bouches that foodites dutifully repeat as though they were really wisps of wisdom” rather than the “self-indulgent bits of twaddle” they really are.

Rachel Laudan, a food historian, knows what great-great-grandma’s food was like:

“By the standard measures of health and nutrition—life expectancy and height—our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet…No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.”

Food technology and processing, despite what American foodie Agony Aunts such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have to say, has improved human lives here in the United States for more than the past 100 years.

Our problems stem from having too much food rather than too little.

Unless you think diarrhea is a great idea as  a weight loss program, returning to the dangerous diets of yesteryear does nothing to fix the obesity problem.

Disclosure: To my knowledge, I own no shares in any food or biotech company. I receive no compensation, other than lower prices at the supermarket (like everyone else), from any biotech firms or any farming cooperative, organization, lobbyist, company, etc. Since I buy at Costco, I do (reluctantly) eat and buy organic food. I also compost and recycle.


Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine has an interesting post on the Clean Eating Delusion.

While some parts of the world are concerned with eating, because of food insecurity, the “worried and well-fed well” are increasingly obsessed with so-called “clean eating.”

This is nothing new, but like every cultural phenomenon, it seems, has increased partly due to the easy spread of misinformation over the internet.


Bailey, Ronald. 2002. “I Don’t Care Where My Food Comes From.”

Bellemare, Marc F. (associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota). 2016. “Farmers Markets and Food-Borne Illness – The New York Times.” Accessed January 17.

Kava, Ruth (American Council on Science and Health). 2016. “When Food Labels Can Mislead – American Council on Science and Health.” Accessed January 16.

Kliman, Todd. 2016. “How Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Slow Food Theorists Got It All Wrong – Washingtonian.” Accessed January 17.

Laudan, Rachel (visiting scholar at the University of Texas). 2016. “In Praise of Fast Food.” Accessed January 17.

Miller, Henry I., and and Peter Van Doren. 2000. “Food Risks and Labeling Controversies – Miller.pdf.” Cato.

News Staff (Science 2.0). 2016. “Seduced By The Promise Of Food Labels.”

Splitter, Jenny (Grounded Parents). 2016. “I Watched Michael Pollan’s New Fantasy ‘In Defense of Food’ so You Don’t Have To. | Grounded Parents.” Accessed January 24.

Watson, Elaine. 2013. “CSPI: There Are Concerns about GMOs, but Not around Food Safety.”

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