The New Food Fight: Big Food Vs. Big Organic

Have the elite hijacked healthy eating?

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The New Food Fight: Big Food Vs. Big Organic
Photo: Craig Cutler

Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty. But at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) for a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences.

Nor was I about to make a habit of US$9 shakes, healthy or not. Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I could stomach only about a third of the oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It went for US$7.95, and I waited ten minutes for it.

I finally hit the sweet spot just a few weeks later, in Chicago, with a delicious blueberry-pomegranate smoothie that rang in at a relatively modest 220 calories. It cost US$3 and took only seconds to make. Best of all, I’ll be able to get this concoction just about anywhere. Thanks, McDonald’s!

If only the McDonald’s smoothie weren’t, unlike the first two, so fattening and unhealthy. Or at least that’s what the most prominent voices in our food culture today would have you believe.

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What the Foodies Get Wrong

An enormous amount of public discourse has been dedicated to promoting the notion that processed food is making us overweight. In this narrative, the food-industrial complex-particularly the fast-food industry-has engineered its offerings to addict us to fat, sugar, and salt, causing or at least heavily contributing to the obesity crisis. In virtually every realm of human existence, we turn to technology to help us solve our problems. But when it comes to food-processing technology, it’s widely treated as if it is the problem.

“The food they’re cooking is making people sick,” Michael Pollan, bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, has said of big food companies. “It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do … If you’re going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar, and fat is in your food, they’re going to put [in] as much as they possibly can.” The solution, in his view, is to replace-through public education and regulation-Big Food’s engineered, edible evil with fresh, unprocessed, local, seasonal, real food. Pollan’s world view saturates the public conversation on healthy eating. You hear much the same from many scientists, physicians, food activists, nutritionists, celebrity chefs, and pundits. Pollan’s peers, such as Mark Bittman, the New York Times’s lead food writer; Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us; and Melanie Warner, Times reporter and author of Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, are all well positioned to spread the message. Thousands of restaurants and grocery stores, most notably the Whole Foods Market chain, have thrived by answering the call to reject industrialized foods in favor of a return to natural, simple, nonindustrialized-let’s call them wholesome-foods. 

If the most influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Yet despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the population-obese or otherwise-even in the unlikely case that the typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets. Besides, many of the dishes glorified by the wholesome-food movement are as caloric as anything served at Burger King.

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Real Food Is Fattening Too
Let’s go shopping. We can start at Whole Foods, a critical link in the wholesome-eating food chain. There are three within 15 minutes of my house-we’re big on real food in the suburbs west of Boston, Massachusetts. Here at the largest of the three, I can choose from more than 21 types of tofu, 62 bins of organic grains and legumes, and 42 different salad greens.

Much of the food isn’t that different from what I can get in any other supermarket, but sprinkled throughout are items that scream “wholesome.” One that catches my eye, sitting prominently on an impulse-buy rack near checkout, is Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, from Living Intentions, whose package emphasizes the fact that the food is enhanced with spirulina, chlorella, and sea vegetables. The label also proudly lets me know that the contents are raw-no processing!-and that they don’t contain any genetically modified ingredients. What the stuff does contain, though, is more than three times the fat content per ounce of the beef patty in a Big Mac (meaning that more than two thirds of the calories come from fat) and four times the sodium. 

After my excursion to Whole Foods, I drive a few minutes to a Trader Joe’s, also known for an emphasis on wholesome foods. At the register, I’m confronted with a large display of a snack food called Inner Peas, consisting of peas that are breaded in cornmeal and rice flour, fried in sunflower oil, and then sprinkled with salt. By weight, the snack has six times as much fat as it does protein, along with loads of carbohydrates. I can’t recall ever seeing anything at any fast-food restaurant that represents as big an obesogenic crime against the vegetable kingdom. (Trader Joe’s website now states that the recipe has recently changed to reduce fat and raise protein. Living Intentions did not respond to a request for comment.) I’m not picking out rare, less healthy examples from these stores. Check out their products’ nutrition labels online: fat, sugar, and other refined carbs abound.

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But Chemicals Are Bad … Right?

Hold on, you may be thinking. Leaving fat, sugar, and salt aside, what about all the nasty things that wholesome foods do not, by definition, contain that processed foods do? A central claim of the wholesome-food movement is that wholesome is healthier because it doesn’t have the artificial flavors, preservatives, other additives, or genetically modified ingredients found in industrialized food. This is the complaint against the McDonald’s smoothie, which contains artificial flavors and texture additives and which is pre-mixed. It’s the tautology at the heart of the movement: Processed foods are unhealthy because they aren’t natural, full stop.

The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy. The U.S. population does not suffer from a critical lack of any nutrient, because we eat so much processed food. (Sure, health experts urge Americans to get more calcium, potassium, magnesium, fiber, and vitamins A, E, and C, and eating more produce and dairy is a great way to get them-but these ingredients are also available in processed foods, not to mention supplements.)

Processed foods, which Pollan has called “foodlike substances,” are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (with some exceptions, which are regulated by other agencies), and their effects on health are further raked over by countless scientists who would get a nice career boost from turning up the hidden dangers in some common food-industry ingredient or technique. “Until I hear evidence to the contrary, I think it’s reasonable to include processed food in your diet,” says Robert Kushner, MD,a physician and nutritionist and a professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, where he is the clinical director of the Comprehensive Center on Obesity.

Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals; they could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates allow them?

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Let Them Eat Brussels Sprouts

Where the Pollanites get into real trouble-where their philosophy becomes so glib and wrongheaded that it is actually immoral-is in the claim that their style of food shopping and eating is the answer to the country’s weight problem.

The most obvious problem with the “let them eat Brussels sprouts” philosophy of affluent wholesome-food advocates involves the price and availability of wholesome food. Even if Whole Foods or Real Food Daily weren’t, say, three bus rides away for the working poor, and even if three ounces of Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, a Sea Cake appetizer, and a vegetarian quiche weren’t laden with fat and problematic carbs, few among the low-income would be likely to shell out US$5.99, US$9.95, or US$16, respectively, for those pricey treats.

A slew of start-ups are trying to find ways to produce fresh, local, unprocessed meals quickly and at lower cost. But could this food eventually be sold as cheaply,conveniently, and ubiquitously as today’s junky fast food? Not even according to Mark Bittman, who explored the question in a recent New York Times Magazine article. Even if wholesome food caught on with the public at large, including the obese population, and even if poor and working-class people were willing to pay a premium for it, how long would it take to scale up from a handful of shops to the tens of thousands that would be required to make a dent in the obesity crisis? How long would it take to create the thousands of local farms we’d need in order to provide these shops with fresh, unprocessed ingredients, even in cities?

And even if America somehow becomes absolutely saturated with highly affordable outlets for wholesome, locally sourced dishes, what percentage of the junk-food-eating obese will be ready to drop their Big Macs, fries, and Cokes for grilled salmon on chard? “Everyone’s mother and brother has been telling them to eat more fruit and vegetables forever, and the numbers are only getting worse,” says Steven Nickolas, who runs the Healthy Food Project in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We’re not going to solve this problem by telling people to eat unprocessed food.”

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What Big Food Knows About Weight Loss

During my trip to L.A., I also visited a Carl’s Jr. Inside, the biggest and most prominent posters in the store were pushing a new grilled-cod sandwich. It actually looked pretty good, but it wasn’t quite lunchtime, and I just wanted a cup of coffee. I went to the counter to order, but before I could say anything, the cashier greeted me and asked, “Would you like to try our new Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich today?” Oh, well, sure, why not? The sandwich was delicious and took less than a minute to prepare. In some ways, it was the best meal I had in L.A., and it was probably the healthiest.

So why couldn’t Big Food’s processing and marketing genius be put to use on more genuinely healthier foods? Wouldn’t that present a more plausible answer to America’s junk-food problem than ordering up 50,000 new farmers’ markets featuring locally grown organic squash blossoms?

In fact, McDonald’s has quietly been making healthy changes for years, shrinking portion sizes, reducing fats, trimming average salt content by more than 10 percent in the past couple of years alone, and adding fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and oatmeal. In May, the chain dropped its Angus third-pounders and announced a new line of quarter-pound burgers, to be served on buns with whole grains. “We think a lot about how we can bring nutritionally balanced meals that include enough protein along with the tastes and satisfaction that have an appetite-tiding effect,” says Barbara Booth, the company’s director of sensory science. 

Such steps are enormously promising, says Jamy Ard, MD, an epidemiology and preventive-medicine researcher at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a co-director of the Weight Management Center there. “Processed food is a key part of our environment, and it needs to be part of the equation,” he explains. “If you can reduce fat and calories by only a small amount in a Big Mac, it still won’t be a health food, but it wouldn’t be as bad, and that could have a huge impact on us.”

Dr. Ard, who has been working for more than a decade with the obese poor, has little patience for the wholesome-food movement’s call to eliminate fast food in favor of farm-fresh goods. “It’s really naive,” he says. “Fast food became popular because it’s tasty and convenient and cheap. It makes a lot more sense to look for small, beneficial changes in that food than it does to hold out for big changes in what people eat that have no realistic chance of happening.”

Americans get 11 percent of their calories, on average, from fast food-a number that’s almost certainly much higher among some segments of the population. As a result, the fast-food industry may be uniquely positioned to improve our diets. Research suggests that calorie counts in a meal can be trimmed by as much as 30 percent without eaters noticing-by, for example, reducing portion sizes and swapping in ingredients that contain more fiber and water. Over time, that could be more than enough to literally tip the scales for many obese people. “The difference between losing weight and not losing weight,” says Dr. Robert Kushner, the obesity scientist and clinical director at Northwestern, “is a few hundred calories a day.”

Which raises a question: If McDonald’s is taking these sorts of steps, albeit in a slow and limited way, why isn’t it more loudly saying so to deflect criticism? While the company has heavily plugged the debut of its new egg-white sandwich and chicken wraps, the ads have left out even a mention of health, the reduced calories and fat, and the inclusion of whole grains. McDonald’s has practically kept secret the fact that it has also begun substituting whole-grain flour for some of the less healthy refined flour in its bestselling Egg McMuffin.

“We’re not making any health claims,” says Greg Watson, a senior vice president. “We’re just saying it’s new, it tastes great, come on in and enjoy it. Maybe once the product is well seated with customers, we’ll change that message.” The same reasoning presumably explains why there wasn’t a whiff of cheerleading surrounding the turkey burger brought out earlier this year by Burger King (which is not yet calling the sandwich a permanent addition) or the grilled cod sandwich offered by Carl’s Jr. The industry recognizes what generationsof parents well know: If you want to turn off otherwise eager eaters to a dish, tell them it’s good for them.

Dozens of food-science companies are now trying to make healthy processed food taste just as good as the high-fat, -salt, and -sugar variety. I visited Fona International, a flavor-engineering company outside Chicago, and learned that there is a battery of tricks for fooling and appeasing taste buds, which are prone to notice the lack of fat or sugar, or the presence of any of the various bitter, metallic, or otherwise unpleasant flavors that vegetables, fiber, complex carbs, and fat or sugar substitutes can impart to a food intended to appeal to junk-food eaters. “When you reduce the sugar, fat, and salt in foods, you change the personality of the product,” says Robert Sobel, a chemist who heads up research at the company. “We can restore it.”

I also visited Tic Gums in White Marsh, Maryland, a company that engineers textures into food products. With an arsenal of some 20 different “gums”-edible ingredients found mostly in tree sap, seeds, and other plant matter-Tic’s researchers can make low-fat foods taste creamier, give to sugar-free beverages the same full body that sugared drinks offer, counter chalkiness and gloopiness, and help orchestrate the timing of flavor bursts. Tic served me an under-development version of a low-fat salad dressing that was better than any I’ve ever had.

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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.

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