Organic Food

In Praise of Processed Food



A great piece in the Utne Reader on the myth of a natural, pure culinary past:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs….

Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

For more on the misguided notion of natural food, go here.

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  1. Boy, that sure comes as news to a locavore foodie like me! Now, where did I put the pink salt for my sopressata… I think it’s behind these jams I put up last month, this camembert I made, the pickled asparagus, the masa I mixed this morning….

  2. Why is it that Reason is full of idiots that post shite like this? Seriously, Katherine and the original writer are seriously lacking in thinking skills.

    Or maybe nothing more than propagandists.

    The stupidity hurts.

    1. They’re obviously on the payroll of the true military/agribusiness conspiracy behind 9/11.

    2. It must be because they’re controlled by the Jews. Keep fighting the good fight, idiot.

    3. You’re in pain a lot, then?


      1. Not everbody is buying the HFCS propaganda. KMV’s writings on the subject, on their face, certainly permit the inference that she has a soft spot for ADM.

        1. JuwannaMan is a troofer, libertymike. His blog is peppered with conspiracy and anti-Semitic wackadoodlry.

          1. I do not recall ever seeing a post from BeulahMan. Although JuwannaMan rings a bell, I don’t recall reading any of his posts or if I did, I could not tell you his slant on things like I could with several dozen posters here.

            1. His name links to the blog. Earlier today was the first I have seen of him. Agreeing with Max was a good tip that he is some kind of troll.

              1. There wolf!

    4. BuelahMan|9.13.10 @ 6:41PM|#

      Why is it that Reason is full of idiots that post shite like this? Seriously, Katherine and the original writer are seriously lacking in thinking skills.

      Or maybe nothing more than propagandists.

      The stupidity hurts.

      It sux 2 b u, dude

      1. May be. But I happened to have proved to myself that natural food is far better than anything I can buy at a market.
        Keep eating that shit and I will still be here and you won’t. Then, would it suck to be me?

  3. Thank you, Katherine, for pointing out that perhaps even the hippies are coming around to how obtuse their food politics are (in Utne no less).

    I giggle when i see all the “natural” labels at our shiny, brand new Safeway. But i am also aware that when i reach for the $2 jar of spaghetti sauce, i am trading flavor, several hours of my time, and a fistful of dollars in exchange for convenience.


  4. I think it’s a little disingenuous to compare the”processing” of 200 years ago to that of today. Salt and sugar are a little different than wholly synthetic preservatives.

    1. In degree, but not in kind.

    2. The salt levels in foods 200 years ago were astronomical by present day standards – with no refrigeration, it was the only way to preserve them. (The hated ‘salt tax’ was one of the main impetuses behind the French Revolution.)

      And flour of all sorts was loaded with silicates, due to the stone wheels used in the milling process.

      One of the main reasons for the use of spices was to hide the flavor of rot in the meats.

      I’ll take our ‘processed’ foods over the ‘natural’ foods of 200 years ago.

      [Side note: If you think that modern processing is bad, read up on the Roman fish sauce called ‘garum’. They liked it prepared in lead pots, which imparted lead levels that were astronomical by present standards.]

    3. Not really. Just because something is “synthetic” doesn’t mean it’s bad for you. It’s just able to produce the same effects (retarding bacterial growth, reducing the loss of moisture) without the undesirable traits of “natural” equivalents.

      I think the details of many traditional food preservation processes would freak out many modern consumers if they thought about them with the same critical eye given modern preservatives. I’m not sure why, for example, soaking food in an acidic liquid produced in a vat by globs of smelly bacteria is especially “natural”.

    4. There was some scientific breakthrough that I’m not aware of?

      We have created new particles out of some extra-universal source and assembled them in ways unlike those followed by the natural laws of this continuum?

      Or are these ‘synthetics’ you refer to made of the same stuff we’ve got lying around on the planet assembled in a new way(much like we take trees apart and re-assemble them, along with other ingredients, as this wonderful synthetic known as ‘paper’)?

  5. It’s worth examining the concept of the natural; and of course it’s silly for some to suggest that anything in a pristine, untouched by man state, is superior to what’s been…touched. But the opposite does not also follow – that processing is necessarily superior. Maybe it just depends on the extent food is processed or how…I’ll still take a loaf of natural rye (made by a couple of Austrian backpacker friends I met two summers ago) or my daddy’s homemade whole wheat bread over Wonder any old day.

  6. I sometimes imagine Britcom skits about how our early human ancestors made some of these discoveries about how natural food is often kaka. Some of the preparations required seem so complex that it seems a miracle anybody managed to figure them out.

    I feel sorry for the saps who got to figure out which members of the nightshade family make good eatin’, for example. And which ones you want to eat vs. roll up and smoke.

    Thanks for taking one for the team, Long-Dead Primitive Humans Who Figured Out How to Make Coffee ‘n’ Stuff.

  7. Yeah, the most dangerous things are perfectly natural, like cholera.

  8. I get so irritated with the term “processed food”. It’s a vague term that just means “whatever the hippies don’t want to eat at a given moment”. Essentially, “processing” food means mixing ingredients together in a recipe and–heaven forbid–heating it up. Though this is the way the term is usually applied, when you call them on it, they resort to limiting their definition to foods containing preservatives, but even that (“preservatives”) is a vague term that includes anything from honey to pepper to sulfur to MSG. Are “artificial” preservatives somehow worse? Why? Where is the peer-reviewed research showing that man-made preservatives are dangerous in any way?

    1. It all goes back to fear of technology.

  9. As nice as it is to buck current trends, the whole “western diseases” thing where a country gets refined grains, pure sugar (well corn), and suddenly tons of people end up fat and diabetic is exists.


    The whole “natural” part is a marketing tool. But there are definitely health problems brought on by current eating habits.

    1. Negative side effects can occur from ANY drastic change in diet.

    2. “…and suddenly tons of people end up fat and diabetic is exists”

      I beleive this is a fairly recent event in human history and driven by two things: 1) food is cheap, and 2) sedentary lifestyles, at least in the US. I suspect it would be similar anywhere these two conditions exist.

  10. This is a very valid point, but I still think we’re suffering from a glut of overly processed foods. I don’t know where the line is between reasonably processed and over processed, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Not that I would ever try to forcibly prevent anyone from eating whatever they want, but I know I’m going to continue to look at the ingredients list before I put it in my grocery cart.

    1. Thank you for a reasonable reply to a stupid article. Yes, purists are annoying, but so are people who build strawmen. Most people who prefer “natural” foods are occasionally going to eat some Doritos. It’s not an either/or choice. Of course realizing that doesn’t give you license to punch hippies, so it’s not as much fun.

  11. I don’t care how many times you prove that life is and has been getting better. Things are getting worse, dammit!

  12. I love the pseudo-culture war pieces like this that Reason runs. This, of course, has nothing to do with Libertarianism, or free markets, or free minds. It’s a resentful attack on the general culture of people who tend not to share your economic and political views. Good for you.

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