If you are reading this blog, you are likely someone who is concerned about your health. You understand that exercise and a healthy diet can help prevent disease and maybe even lead to a longer life. You may not follow all the practices that you know are good for you, but fruits and vegetables are not a foreign concept. You probably also know that highly processed foods such as snacks made from refined grains and sugars are not ideal choices for anyone, even if they find their way into your grocery cart every once in a while because they taste good and nobody’s perfect. It is not news to you that processed foods tend to be high in calories and sodium, devoid of dietary fiber, loaded with preservatives and chemical agents, and lacking in overall nutritional quality compared to whole foods.
Big manufacturers of chips and cookies and cereals and sodas and candy are making lots of money despite the understanding that a diet based on such foods could lead to obesity and worse. These foods do not exist in nature, it’s not as if they have always been around, so why is it that this industry has grown and continues to thrive in the face of all that is wrong with it? Many conscious choices have occurred along the way to putting these foods on the shelves of grocery stores, drug stores, and in vending machines. There are neighborhoods in every city in which these sorts of foods represent the majority of what is available to eat within a significant radius. How did it come to be, and why do processed foods continue to have so much real estate despite their known contribution to poor health?
Suffice it to say, there is a lot to this story, and I won’t be able to cover it all here. But I want to start with the idea that, although we may see processed foods as a scourge on society, the story didn’t start as a bad one. Yes, these products are too easily accessible. Sure, these products are strangely affordable, considering more work and energy goes into processing a food than serving it in its whole form. But the initial reasons behind them are actually pretty positive and despite their current ill repute, there was a time at which they undoubtedly saved lives.
Not terribly long ago (think the Great Depression) starvation in the US was not uncommon. Of course people still go hungry today, but in many ways obesity has replaced starvation in our country. Those in poor economic situations are no longer without food, rather they have access to affordable edible products that provide plenty of energy as calories. The current US food system is able to package and distribute shelf-stable sustenance to ensure that the vast majority of people are able to eat enough to stay alive and then some. Granted, these provisions tend to be deficient in actual nutrition, which can lead to overeating. A body deprived of necessary vitamins and minerals will continue to feel hungry, even if it has taken in enough calories. Additionally, poor nutrition can lead to poor development in children, including mental development. Interestingly, obesity and malnutrition can co-exist in one person, but actual death by starvation is much more rare these days because food here is plentiful.
Another thing that our current food system deserves some credit for is preventing deficiencies of specific nutrients. When grains such as rice and corn were first processed, deficiencies in B-vitamins such as Thiamin and Niacin became common, leading to some pretty scary diseases. You may also know that lack of Folic Acid, which is a B-vitamin found in some fruits and vegetables, can lead to birth defects if a pregnant mother is deficient. To solve these problems, processed foods such as cereals and white bread have been manufactured to contain sufficient quantities of these key nutrients to prevent deficiencies. While eating whole foods could easily remedy these ills, for those for whom whole foods are not an option, fortification and enrichment have stepped in lessen the damage done by processing foods in the first place (clearly some irony here, but nevertheless…)
Mass producing and processing foods began for the sake of public health and overall food security. Therefore, much of what goes into making your bag of cheese puffs is subsidized by the US government. If you think about it, it’s hard to imagine the cost of growing, processing, producing, packaging, distributing, shipping, storing, and finally selling a bag of chips is covered in the $1.59 you pay for it. Unfortunately, aside from very few crops (think commodities like corn, wheat, soy) everything else that is grown is considered a specialty crop. Prices on items like fruits and vegetables are therefore higher. Store owners take more risk in stocking them if they don’t know they will sell quickly because they can spoil. So system-wide, healthy foods have some big disadvantages compared to processed foods.
As a dietitian, my priority is to encourage people to eat the foods that are going to be most beneficial to their health. However, the environment we live in and the giant systems that make up our food supply do not make it easy. Everything around us from the convenience store on the corner to the fast food chain down the block to the commercials we see on TV steer us toward making choices that simply aren’t good for us. Depending on where you live, you may have to go out of your way to find a better option. Lack of nutrition education means that many may not even realize that those foods aren’t good for them. The end result is that processed foods have taken over many people’s diets in a big way, which reinforces the system that generates them. And though the measures taken to prevent children in this country from starving in the first half of the 20th century worked, we are now dealing with the opposite problem, which may be equally deadly, but harder to solve.
If we could simply imagine a better structure for getting nourishing foods to people and snap our fingers and make it happen, that would be fantastic. But the economics behind what now exists is a huge hurdle to overcome and companies making money are not going to spend any time convincing people that junk food isn’t good for them. So what can we do? One step is to acknowledge the true costs of processed foods, not only the government subsidies which ultimately come from the pockets of taxpayers, but also the rising healthcare costs associated with diseases that might be preventable if eating habits shifted nationwide. We can also be conscientious about the reality that our food environment does not support healthy living; this is most true in communities that are economically challenged.
On a personal level, if you are in the position of being able to make better choices, knowing what they are and having access to alternatives, you are lucky, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. You may have to be willing to think critically, even in the face of compelling advertising. Use some creativity when planning meals and snacks rather than just opting for what is convenient. Start thinking in terms of quality rather than quantity when you place value on a food item. If it is within your means, find ways to support local growers and smaller food producers who use fewer resources and deliver higher quality end products. I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s important to have some understanding of the problem so we can at least be asking the right questions.
Thoughts? Leave them in the comments below.
My name is Lorelei Sturm. Some of you may know me as a yoga instructor with Chicago’s Neighborhood Fitness Centers. I am also a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Nutrition. CNF is committed to helping its members lead healthier lives by encouraging wellness and a healthy lifestyle in addition to fitness. So, what burning nutrition questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below.