Why Is Processed Food So Bad for You?

Corporations won't make us healthier because capitalism makes it impossible for them to do so.
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I make a mean marinara sauce. I sauté onions, garlic and bacon (yes, bacon) for 10 minutes until they sweeten and become crisp, then add a big glass of red wine, a can of chopped tomatoes and generous pinches of salt, basil, oregano and rosemary. Then I leave the room. When I come back two hours later, the sauce is thick, sweet and almost purple. I throw in a handful of fresh basil leaves -- done.

I've been thinking a lot about my marinara this week because I've been reading Michael Moss's Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Tricked Us. Company after company, product after product, Moss shows how Big Food formulates products for maximum addictiveness and overeatability. Oreos, Cheetos, Lunchables, Wonder Bread, they're all the same Iowa corn and Brazilian sugarcane, just liquefied, dyed and processed into different shapes and colors.

The same week I read Moss's book cataloguing how Big Food is trying to kill us, I read David H. Freedman's Atlantic cover story about how it's also going to save us all. According to Freedman, big food companies -- the same ones Moss accuses of nutritional euthanasia -- are actually de-fatting, de-sugaring and de-salting their products one by one. McDonald's is using whole-wheat buns, Cargill is selling a fullness-inducing tapioca starch, Stevia is everywhere.

It's a great article, and Freedman's butchering of sacred foodie cows (Michael Pollan! Farmer's markets! Granola!) is both essential and effective. But when it comes to his core argument, that America's obesity problem is going to be solved by better processed food and bigger corporations, I'm not convinced. That's not because I think it's impossible to make a healthier Oreo or Pepsi or Lunchable -- it wouldn't actually be all that hard. Nope, corporations won't make us healthier because capitalism makes it impossible for them to do so. Bear with me, I'll explain.

1. Scale, Speed And Shelf Life
Let's say I want to start selling my marinara, and I want to turn it into an industrial food megabrand -- another Ragu, Hot Pockets, Lean Cuisine. The first thing I have to do is make it in huge batches and make each of those batches taste the same. No more willy-nilly tossing of spices, no more adding whatever veggies are in the fridge. I need to standardize every single element, from the weight of the onions to the heat under the pot.

To keep costs down, maybe I cut the simmering time in half, use salt instead of hours to make the flavors come out. Moss notes that herbs are up to 10 times more expensive than salt in industrial cooking, so that's the first no-brainer modification.

The next problem is shelf life. Those Lunchables might look all crisp and fresh when you grab them out of the refrigerated aisle, but they sat around at room temperature for at least two months before they got there. Warehouses, wholesalers, truck beds, stockrooms, my marinara is going to need a lot of help not to go bad in all that time. That means preservatives (most of which, according to Moss, are derivatives and modifications of salt), chemicals, coloring agents to save my marinara's magenta as it trundles across the country.

So now my sauce has been made in huge batches, jarred, shipped and shelved. It's in the supermarket aisle. I win!

But wait. Thanks to all the preservatives and additives, my marinara tastes like an old sock. I go back to my simmering pot, add a glob of vegetable oil, a dash -- OK, a deluge -- of high fructose corn syrup, some thickeners and emulsifiers so it has that pasta sauce-y texture, and it's ready for the store again.

Before I grew up and started cooking, I thought the pasta sauce I bought at the store was the same as the one I could make on the stove. I was just paying a bit extra so a factory worker somewhere did the chopping, seasoning and simmering for me. This is how our economy is supposed to work, right? I don't knit my own clothes, I don't build my own house, I don't weld my bike together from parts. Why should food be any different?

There's a scene in Moss's book where he goes to a Cargill facility and they make him a slice of industrial-scale bread without any salt. The texture, the taste, the color, everything is wrong, Moss says. It tastes like a piece of tin foil.

This scene confused me. When I make bread at home, I use about half a teaspoon of salt for an entire loaf. If you cut the salt out of my homemade bread, yeah, it's bland and a bit puffier (Alton Brown teaches us that salt counteracts the effectiveness of yeast), but it's still bread, not some horrifying replicant.

But my bread, the one I spend the better part of a day kneading and proofing, is stale before I can eat about half of it. Wonder Bread, with 27 ingredients, half a teaspoon of sugar and 7 percent of your daily allowance of salt in every slice, lasts on the shelf for two weeks.

Processed food isn't bad for you because the products -- pasta sauce, macaroni and cheese, white bread -- are inherently sweet and salty. It is bad for you because it is inherently industrial. Supermarket supply chains are long, slow and and unforgiving, which means everything you buy at one has to be made in massive batches, perfectly standardized, capable of sitting at room temperature in a glass jar or plastic bag for months on end. If you took that kind of abuse, you'd need chemical assistance too.

2. It's the Capitalism, Stupid
My marinara sauce is now mass-produced, shelf-stable and OK-tasting. Sure, it's got some extra salt and sugar, but it's still one of the healthier brands on the shelves.

The only problem is, no one is buying it. Every other brand of pasta sauce at the supermarket has way more sugar and fat than my sauce, and they taste way better. To get people to switch to my sauce, I'm going to have to add even more sweeteners (sugar) and flavor enhancers (salt).

One of the most tragic sequences in Moss's book is the story of Kraft in the early 2000s. The company, reeling with power from its huge market share in cereal (Raisin Bran), cookies (Oreos) and packaged pastas (the eponymous mac and cheese), started taking health and nutrition much more seriously. It added extra labels (alongside the minuscule USDA-mandated serving sizes, it listed nutrition facts for the whole package) and stealthily reduced the salt, sugar and fat in its most popular products. It even cut the calories in Oreos and started selling them in 100-calorie packs.

And then Hershey's invaded. Starting in 2003, the chocolate company launched a line of S'mores cookies that were fatter and sweeter than Kraft's newly trimmed-down Oreos. Kraft started to lose market share. It had no choice but to retaliate. And that's how we got Banana Split Cream Oreos, Dairy Queen Blizzard Creme Oreos and Triple Double Oreos. They tasted better than normal Oreos, they had more sugar and fat and, not coincidentally, they sold better. Does Hershey's even make cookies anymore?

The story of Kraft is one of the reasons I find Freedman's "How Junk Food Can End Obesity" article so unconvincing. All of the major food companies -- from Pepsi and General Mills right down the line to Monsanto -- are publicly traded. They're big, they're multinational, they're corporations. This means the only thing that matters to them is profits.

This isn't a normative description or a moral judgment, it's just a factual description of their corporate form. In a dilemma between earning more profit and protecting public health, profit will win. In a dilemma between earning more profit and anything, profit will win. Again, not a judgment, just a description.

Freedman profiles the Carl's Jr. Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich, a not-fried, not-sugared, not-terrible-for-you sandwich sharing menu space with fries and sodas. With the right marketing, the right "Would you like to try" push from employees, America might just start eating it. And, Freedman argues, just might get a little slimmer, a little healthier.

That's a nice scenario, and it might even happen, and yay if it does. But Freedman doesn't walk us through the scenario where Wendy's or Burger King launches a similar fish burger, one that's fried, salted and sugared, that has triple the tartar sauce, that because of these modifications tastes better. What can Carl's Jr. do except retaliate in kind?

Two years ago, the New Yorker ran a feature detailing how Pepsi (and its subsidiary, Frito-Lay) were launching a "we're healthy now" makeover. Less sugar and salt, more vitamins and whole grains. They even hired a guy from the World Health Organization to implement his own science-backed health standards right through the soda-and-potato-chips family.

And then, like Kraft before it, Pepsi buckled. The minute U.S. sales fell to third place (after Coke and -- the horror -- Diet Coke), Pepsi launched an all-hands-on-deck marketing campaign to go back to selling its old sugar water staple.

Two years after the healthy makeover, Pepsi's CEO told shareholders, "We refocused our efforts on our key global brands and categories in our most important developed markets to drive profitable growth." This is annual report-ese for, "we marketed the hell out of our unhealthiest products." Pepsi traded the guy from the WHO for Beyoncé. The stock soared.

And that's how it goes. Processed food companies are like drug addicts, promising "next time it'll be different, watch!" when they're euphoric on market share and rising stock prices. As soon as they crash back down, they're right back to their old habits: cheap sugar, loud marketing, bogus health claims.

This is why Moss's book and, in a different way, Freedman's article are so depressing. Companies aren't evil, they're not greedy, they're not pernicious. They're just companies. As Moss points out, they're as addicted to crappy food as we are.

Freedman's right that just because a food is "processed" doesn't necessarily mean its bad for you. And just because something is organic or local or homemade or "natural" doesn't mean its good for you. But I can't help but notice that a Starbucks muffin has 500 calories and that the one I make at home has 140. Ragu, the No. 1 pasta sauce in America, has almost nine teaspoons of sugar, more than a day's recommended amount of salt and as much fat as a milkshake in each jar.

Freedman would probably point out that my marinara sauce is not particularly healthy (wine and bacon, after all, are just foodie forms of salt, sugar and fat) and, serving for serving, must be more expensive than $2-per-jar Ragu. He might argue that in a few years, Ragu or General Foods or Kraft will offer a pasta sauce that's nutritionally identical to mine, and that I'd be a snob not to buy it. And he might be right.

But for now, neither of us can escape the reality that food, like everything else we buy, is designed to be cheap to make, to last forever and to taste better than the next product down the shelf. And also like everything else, after you buy it, you're on your own.

For more by Michael Hobbes, click here.

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