What was once a cottage industry is now big business. Authors, columnists, television personalities and others whose total exposure to science was college "rocks for jocks" and who never took a nutrition class are conjuring up loony notions about how we ought to be eating. Their suggestions range from "raw foodism" and extreme variations on vegetarianism to exotic herbal supplements, weird "cleanses" and extended fasting.
Most genuine experts in nutrition echo your grandmother's advice: Eat a variety of foods, including many varieties of produce, all in moderation, then go outside and get some exercise.
If you believe the blandishments of the self-appointed Food Police, every food science innovation contributes further to obesity, poor health, and even addiction to fat and sugar. That's nonsense, of course.
The campaign to demonize the food industry is at the same time both radical and mainstream, a recipe for trouble.
Activists' attacks on processed food are radical because they are trying to achieve not only a fundamental change in the way we eat, but, in the words of the movement's guru, author Michael Pollan, a revolution in "the division of domestic labor." By that he means that if you don't have the inclination or time to both shop and cook for yourself – preferably from scratch — the food industry will "exploit" you by selling inherently harmful processed food.
These views are also in the mainstream because Pollan's books are best sellers, influence public policy, and are regular fodder for the Food Police's amen-corner.
So what type of "progressive" policy is Pollan pushing next? He told the New York Times' Mark Bittman in an interview, "First, we need to bring back home ec, but a gender-neutral home ec. We need public health ad campaigns promoting home cooking as the single best thing you can do for your family's health and well-being. A tax on prepared food, but not on raw ingredients, is another good idea."
Pollan also promoted such a tax in his new book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation." Yes, we've slid that far down the slippery slope. If soda taxes serve a public policy purpose, why not use the same tool to discourage consumers from buying non-raw foods, which, according to Pollan's mantra, are by their very nature, harmful.
Fortunately, there's at least one voice of reason among the food glitterati. Jacques Pépin — chef and author of "Fast Food My Way" — uses "the supermarket the same way you use a prep cook in the restaurant — slicing mushrooms, washing spinach. The supermarket does the work now…. It's more convenient." Supermarkets not only slice your veggies when you don't have time to, they offer choices of labor-intensive ingredients (such as demi-glace, duck confit and the like) and entire meals that tend to be more wholesome than the busy person's alternative — fast food.
Convenience and food elitism conflict. The food elitists are driven by disdain not only for technology, but also for corporations that profit by offering labor-saving items some of us like to purchase. If a multinational food conglomerate were to market a delicious, nutritious, fresh tasting food for busy people who want to make smart food choices, the activists would find something to complain about. In fact, Nestlé's Southwest-Style Chicken Salad drew criticism from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) simply for having too many ingredients. The irony is that nutritious frozen vegetables, fruits and entrees can be excellent choices. In such instances, corporate profits coincide with the public interest. (We know that's hard for you to swallow, CSPI.)
Processed foods are not inherently bad, nor are raw ingredients inherently safe and healthy. Pasteurization is a good example. Used to kill bacteria in dairy products, juices and canned foods, it lengthens their shelf-life and lowers the likelihood of food poisoning.
Thanks to technology, we have far greater access to fruits and vegetables than we used to. During the 1920's Clarence Birdseye commercialized a method for flash-freezing food products in convenient packages while preserving the original taste. The food elitists of the day must have been outraged.
Not only are frozen foods convenient, but they are often more nutritious than "fresh" produce. In 2007, scientists in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, reviewed the scientific literature about the effects of food processing on nutrition. They found that a "loss of nutrients in fresh products during storage and cooking may be more substantial than commonly perceived. Depending on the commodity, freezing and canning processes may preserve nutrient value," and they concluded that "exclusive recommendations of fresh produce ignore the nutrient benefits of canned and frozen products."
This explains why "industrialized" frozen food, the production of which requires investment in expensive state-of-the-art technology that freezes vegetables where they are picked, is often more nutritious than the idealized carrots and corn you pick up on your way home from work, which may have been sitting somewhere for a week or more before you take them home from the store. Even produce from a farmers market might have spent a day or two leaching out nutrients from the time it was picked until you select it. Suddenly, the Pollan tax looks less appetizing.
Critics of capitalism believe that a free market and the profit-motives that drive it often burden society with products that undermine our well-being. Cigarettes are a good example. But when it comes to food, the greatest harm might actually come from the food elitists and faddists. We shouldn't buy what they're selling.