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A Framework for Talking About Food and Processing

The term “Processed Foods” is one that we frequently treat as one that is universally understood and defined, or one that is “we all know” - rather like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase concerning pornography – “I know it when I see it”. Truth, however, is more complicated than that.

When one person talks about processed food, they may be talking about anything that is not in its whole state before it is cooked (for instance, white rice could be considered processed food in that context). When another person talks about processed food, they could be talking about frozen, microwave-ready meals made for the purpose of dieting. There is a lot of daylight between those two extremes. In order to discuss food and processing meaningfully, we need a new framework and an agreed terminology.

What I will do in this post is lay out the terms of the discussion – the framework for talking about food, processing, and fat. I will talk about why and how food becomes ‘processed’ and the reasons why humans ‘process’ food. I will also define the common terminology we can use to talk about fat within the context of food and ‘processing’. Finally, I will show how this coalesces into what I call the hierarchical ideas about food which become the stick with which to beat fat people.

The Framework

The first beam in this framework is the definition of a processed food. What is almost always missing in conversations about “pure” or “processed” food is an understanding of what constitutes a processed food. For the purposes of the discussion over the entries in the series, I won’t take the very nerdy and picayune position that chewing food or cooking food is processing food – while technically correct it is needlessly confrontational. I intend to be as descriptive as possible when discussing a food which has been altered from its original form in any way. In that way, it will be easier to tease out which kinds of processing are meaningful in a discussion of fat and which are not meaningful. Thus a definition of ‘processed’ food is meaningless absent a discussion of why food is ‘processed’ and how this is accomplished.

The Means of Processing Food

For as long as humans have been on Earth, foods which have been altered from their raw state (whole grains or plants, milk and honey as taken from the animals that produce it, or raw animal flesh from butchered animals) have been part of the food ecosystem. They were necessary to feed and nourish people throughout the year (for example, pickling), or for other reasons (shelf stability – the food can be kept on the shelf at room temperature without getting rancid or spoiling). These methods of processing were developed in response to these needs in addition to those of averting vitamin deficiencies, feeding of military forces, and food transportation needs.

Our modern society is so far from its roots in agriculture that we frequently forget the original purpose of food preservation which was to get through bad harvests or the non-growing seasons, while also preserving vitamins in the food to prevent disease. We needed to make foods stable so that an oxcart, or a rail car, could get them from point A to point B without refrigeration to retard spoilage. In place of these very basic requirements a new need (real or perceived) has arisen (convenience and speed of preparation) which accounts for the rise of the prepared frozen meal or the convenience food.

The latter are the ones who have caused the most recent concern, yet the food scolds and wags often point to foods preserved using techniques which are old as time, and offer instead foods of which we should be suspicious. For instance, we are told we should prefer a “sugar free”, 100-calorie pack of cookies over a strip of bacon, because the bacon (in their minds) is the evil source of salt and fat.

Traditional food preservation and preparation methods are frequently unlovely, but they are most effective. Smoking and salting food go back as far as the earliest human settlements. Bacterial and yeast action give us fermentation of milk products as well as fruit and grain (think yogurt, wine, and beer). Our Asian ancestors developed tempeh (fermented soybeans), and tofu. Our European ancestors gave us bacon, and ham, and aged beef, and smoked or dried sausages. Salted and brined foods abound in Africa. Beer was brewed in Mesopotamia. White flour was developed to prevent milled wheat from going rancid in a short time, and was then fortified to address the vitamin deficiency this causes. In all cases the needs of humans to preserve their food drove the development of methods that were achievable and cost effective for the time and the culture.

Canning food allowed our more recent ancestors to have tomatoes in December, but the techniques used to put food in cans trace back their lineage to Napoleon’s need to feed his army during his empire-building campaigns. Napoleon’s campaigns and pretty much every war humanity has ever fought brought about advances (great or small) in preserving food – from (allegedly) wet soybeans turning into tempeh under a saddle, to pressure-canning for Napoleon’s boys. Frozen foods (developed in the mid-20th century) offered a superior way to preserve vitamin content and fresher taste, and enabled us to have such delicacies as summer green beans in February simply by investing in a freezer and the electricity to run it.

The foods resulting from these techniques (some of which are thousands of years old) are ‘processed’ foods. All of these were around during that blissful past that commenters in my hometown paper like to bring up as having “no” fat people (I love it when they say “look at the old movies there were no fat people”). Some were around even before that, so it is false to say foods were ‘unprocessed then’. Yet, we need to find words to distinguish these foods from those that some suspect are causing ill effects in the population.

A Common Terminology for Processed Food

As a general rule, I’ll use the following words for the remainder of this series:

Whole or Raw Food : A food which is as close to its original state as possible. A whole grain qualifies, as does a raw vegetable or raw meat.

Staples: Flour, salt, sugar, butter, oil… This category can get hairy, and play a large role in this discussion. For now, anything that you would not ordinarily eat as a food without further cooking is here. Rendered fats (such as lard) are here.

Traditionally-Preserved Food: This vast umbrella term will embody food that has been salted, smoked, brined, pickled, dried, fermented (except for fermentation intended to produce alcohol such as wine or beer). Anything “potted” (cooked then packed in fat or some other medium) would be included here, as well as food products or sauces made by including microorganisms such as molds (e.g.: some cheeses). This is not an exclusive list, however, because I cannot say that I know all the means humanity has ever used to preserve food. Humanity is endlessly creative when it comes to feeding itself.

Home-Canned Foods: Food prepared and canned in the home, using any standard method. Jams are in this category, as are any foods or produce put in cans by home-canning methods. This could mean apple-pie filling or meat sauce.

Home-frozen Foods: Whole foods (such as garden produce or raw meat) preserved at home by freezing in a home freezer.

Frozen Whole Foods: These include whole foods preserved commercially by freezing and marketing as such. Your frozen raw fish fillets (not breaded or otherwise altered), and your frozen mixed vegetables fit in this category.

Shelf-Stable Foods: A lot of what we call ‘processed food’ fits into this category. You can have blue boxes of macaroni with cheese powder stuff, biscuit mixes, muffin mixes, condiments, syrups, cereal. Peanut butter is here, as are canned soups and other ‘just add water’ or ready to eat foods. If you can take it off a shelf and mix it up and eat it (or eat it straight off the shelf) it lives here. These foods tend to have a bunch of additives to allow them to stay moist, fresh-looking or tasting, mold-free, and unspoiled for some long time.

Prepared Foods: Your frozen diet food is here, ice-cream, frozen hamburgers, frozen meals of any kind, prepared pies that you buy at a store, frozen cakes… Anything labeled “processed ____ food product”… These all belong here. This is the home of another large population of foods we call ‘processed’ today. Ditto on the additives here.

I have chosen these words because they are as close to morally-neutral as I can get where food is concerned. They are descriptive, they offer information, but they are not ‘dog whistles’ for those who consistently give specific foods any kind of moral label. Yet, for the purpose of discussing food and fat, we also need to face what I call the food hierarchy.

Hierarchical Ideas about Food

The second beam in the framework is an understanding of the Food Hierarchy which rules the public discussion about food. Understanding this hierarchy and how it works is important in separating fact from fiction and prejudice. This hierarchy of foods has taken hold of people’s imagination, and reflects perfectly the societal views of poor people and fat people and this is where we run into trouble. Foods, even if they belong to any of the ‘processed’ categories listed above, can be considered (magically) morally correct or morally suspect by their identification with either the “rich and thin” or the “poor and fat”.

When I read any article by specific food or health writers in my hometown paper, and also read the comments by fellow readers, I am struck by the implicit hierarchy that has developed, and that many have brought up in BFB and other blogs in a variety of contexts. I read these articles between the lines and I find the prejudice pretty easy to spot. For example:

• Why is tempeh superior to cheese? A food wag may tell you that tempeh is a vegan option which has protein and low fat and is kinder to the earth than cheese (which requires the existence of a cow). He or she will also tell you that it won’t make you fat and/or that it will help you lose weight (neither of which are true). The first objection actually makes sense, provided you are vegan or vegetarian (or want to be), and that you like tempeh (I don’t happen to, but many do). The second is just fat hate disguised as concern.

• Why is a Serrano ham superior to sliced ham? Both have been treated with salt, but one is an artisan ham. I think a Serrano has the superior taste, but I will also argue that someone else might possibly prefer a sliced deli ham and that preference is just as valid. A good whole Serrano will cost you well over $1,000 (and a good bit of that is importation cost). You need to be pretty well off to eat Serrano on a regular basis. This is less true of commercial ham products like sliced deli ham. Still, a Serrano ham sandwich on a good piece of baguette won’t send a food snob to bed with the vapors, but sliced ham on white will – and you will be told you will get fat for eating the second option. Even so, each is still a ham sandwich (much as I adore Serrano, I have to admit this).

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not a great fan of tempeh, I like cheese, and I like both types of ham, and I appreciate the qualitative difference between the options. None of this is about the foodstuff in and of itself. It is what the foodstuff symbolizes in the minds of the writers and wags who are forming opinions about food, and particularly food that has been prepared or ‘processed’ in some way that is associated with a lower class of society. Somehow the cheese (particularly inexpensive cheese that is accessible to poorer people) or the deli ham becomes a symbol of that which makes people fat, it is “processed”. Then, in a feat of cognitive dissonance that would rival Superman leaping tall buildings, the more refined expensive foods seem to lose their ‘processed’ nature by association with the thin and the rich, even if a given cheaper alternative does not contain suspicious ingredients that adulterate the food and could conceivably cause a problem.

So now, I’ve set the framework that we will use to talk about the different types of food processed in different ways. I’ve pointed out the food hierarchy that serves to confuse the issue and reinforce stereotypes and societal prejudice. Next post I will talk about the changes we have seen in food preparation and preservation over 100 years, how some of that came about, and what that has meant for fatties.

In the meantime – are there any other categories we should consider? Would you have more categories or fewer? Would you describe them differently? I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas.

--Andy Jo--

(Edited to correct a grammatical error -- I'm sure I will find more of them - and my husband did find another typo)

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Nancy Lebovitz December 18th, 2011 | Link | Thank you very much for

Thank you very much for doing this-- when you asked earlier about "what do you mean by processed food?", my mind went blank even though I use the term, which probably means there's some important issue there.

Does shelf-stable soup sold in blocks count as processed? I've been thinking of it as not especially processed, but I might be using an arbitrary standard.

AndyJo's picture
AndyJo
December 18th, 2011 | Link | Shelf-stable soup

Hi Nancy!!! Thanks for your question!

Shelf-stable soup in blocks (which I assume are little bouillon cubes or similar - please correct me if I am wrong) are made of meat or vegetable broth and sometimes larger bits of the food. This broth and contents is then dehydrated and bound together with salt and other ingredients. Salt is a big part of these.

They are certainly processed. As to whether they are problematic, that is another issue. Some may contain MSG which is problematic for those who have an MSG allergy or sensitivity. Some people who have salt-sensitive hypertension may want to avoid these due to the salt content. Some might contain high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which some wish to avoid...

So... The short answer to your question is yes, they are processed. As to whether they are a problem -- it is an individual issue based upon one's own body and its needs.

Where it gets hairy is when this kind of food contains stuff like HFCS. Does it need to contain it? Why might it be included? Does it cause a problem in the population? The debate on HFCS is ongoing, but in further posts I'll be trying to create some space to talk in an objective way about it and ingredients like it which are suspected of causing problems for the human body.

Stay tuned!

--Andy Jo--

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
December 18th, 2011 | Link | Oh, this is so good. I need

Oh, this is so good. I need to think about the categories.

You are so, so right about the intersection of "processed food" as a negative label and food snobbery.

I can think of so many areas of hypocrisy.

For example, a gastro pub meal may well have more calories and similar nutritional content to a fast food meal, yet many people who think of fast food as horrible, evil junk give high end pub and diner food a free pass.

Traditional baked goods that are sold at the grocery store and contain a lot of preservatives are looked on with contempt, but similar foods from a real bakery (with perhaps more fiber and fewer preservatives) are food snob-approved.

You hit the nail on the head with the expensive vs. cheap cold meats and expensive vs. cheap cheeses. Oh course, some "cheeses" aren't really cheese, but a lot of people would give the nutritional thumbs up to imported Swiss or aged cheddar and the thumbs down to real dairy cheese that comes in a rectangular block, sells for a fraction of the cost per unit, and has similar (or less problematic) nutritional content.

Preservatives, stabilisers, salt... all of this has a bad name with a lot of people. But do people go crazy over the salt in capers, Greek olives, or Italian meats? No. Sugar has a bad name with a lot of people, but do they object to the sugar in fresh fruit or even a fancy homemade or high-end restaurant dessert? Usually not.

Who tends to be thin? Rich people and east Asians and to a lesser extent, Europeans. Therefore, all rich people food, European food processed and packaged in traditional ways, and east Asian food is allowed. For example, canned soup is condemned for it's saltiness while Japanese food - also very salty - is uncritically admired. Please tell me why miso soup is considered healthier than canned tomato soup. They're both salty, low calorie, and contain a few micronutrients.

I'm a bit of a food snob myself, but I don't delude myself that my choices are nutritionally or morally better than the choices made by someone who either prefers or can only afford the cheaper options.

vesta44's picture
vesta44
December 18th, 2011 | Link | Very good post, has given me

Very good post, has given me a lot to think about. I don't have to worry too much about what's in my freezer, most of that is just meat and frozen vegetables (my husband refuses to eat canned vegetables, he says they don't taste as good), it's the food on my shelves that this has given me furiously to think about (the Hamburger Helpers, the boxes of fried rice mixes, etc). I'm good at looking at the nutrition part of the label - mostly checking for how many carbs are in what I buy because of DH's type 2 diabetes, and I do check for HFCS for the same reason (HFCS seems to spike his blood sugar more readily than regular sugar). I'm looking forward to your next post.

WLS - Sorry, not my preferred way of dying. *glares at doctor recommending it*

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
December 19th, 2011 | Link | Okay. I think that I do

Okay. I think that I do like your categories, but the line between shelf-stable and prepared food can be difficult to put your finger on.

For example, I think that canned soup is definitely a prepared food. It's one of the most old fashioned and inexpensive prepared foods, though. What about pancake mix, pre-cooked noodles or rice, and jarred sauces? I'd say those are also prepared foods. Looking around my kitchen, the prepared food I have includes canned soup, canned baked beans, jarred curry sauce and curry paste, brown sauce, ketchup, bread, cookies, chocolate nut bars, hot sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, tortellini... Are pickles shelf-stable or prepared? Hum.

AndyJo's picture
AndyJo
December 19th, 2011 | Link | It's fuzzy..

Thanks DeeLeigh! Those are excellent observations.

Some of the categories get fuzzy around the edges -- definitely. I would personally put pickles in the shelf-stable category because they are more of a condiment than a food, but it could conceivably be argued that they belong in pre-prepared. For me, condiments (like pickles, ketchup, sauces etc.) that you keep on a shelf and use on something else are a shelf-stable product.

Canned soup is another great example. My own, very personal and subjective, categorization would be that the "add water and stir" types (like cream of mushroom) that have the added feature of being able to be used as an ingredient in something else belong in shelf-stable. Heat and serve soups, for me, belong in pre-prepared, because they are intended to be eaten without further preparation except for heating. An argument could be made either way...

In general, I would make the cut there, but it's OK if the edges are kind of fuzzy.

Thanks for the great observation!

--Andy Jo--

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
December 19th, 2011 | Link | I was thinking along the

I was thinking along the lines of "Is it something you can make from scratch out of multiple ingredients? If so, it's prepared." I think of condiments as prepared food, actually. Also, dried mixes. But, you could draw the line in any number of places. The thing is, if someone is assigning a negative value to prepared food, then they're going to want to make sure that certain staples don't fall within the definition. If there's no assigned health or ethical value one way or another, it's a lot more open.

Maybe there are "shelf-stable" foods (like flour, dried and canned and dried beans, and canned and frozen vegetables), and more than one type of processed food? That would reflect that many foods can or need to be processed with other ingrediants in order to be made shelf stable. Maybe there's a third category in there someplace... "Traditionally processed?" "Processed staple" vs. "Processed meal?"

Just Googled for a definition. Wikipedia defines it really broadly, but there is definitely a need to break that down. I like "shelf stable."

AndyJo's picture
AndyJo
December 19th, 2011 | Link | Good point about someone

Good point about someone assigning a negative value mistakenly to a staple! I will definitely keep that in mind! It will remind me to be crisp in my explanations!

The foods like flour, dried beans, etc. are under the "Staples" category above. I have the frozen veg in the "Frozen Whole Foods" category, or "Home-Frozen Foods" if frozen at home. I have anything salted, brined, pickled, etc. in the "Traditionally-Preserved Food" category, which is a third category the pickles could be in!

I think the idea of distinguishing, however, between "Prepared Foods" and a whole meal, ready to eat is a good one. How would you define it in order to reduce the "fuzziness" and to make it distinct -- without reference to any kind of process any of its components may have undergone?

With regard to the category "Staples" -- I did note it gets hairy, because . For me, a boxed rice pilaf type thing isn't a staple. It is a shelf-stable food product. Rice, dried legumes, flour, salt, sugar, oil, butter, etc. are Staples. They are a single food which put together with others will make a complete dish. Cans, for me, belong in the "Shelf-Stable" category, because they have undergone a preparation that cooks them and puts them in cans.

Thanks for the ideas!

--Andy Jo--

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