Politely Declining Factory Food
by Robert Greer
Rachel Laudan’s article “Plea for Culinary Modernism”, recently published in Jacobin magazine, gives an impassioned argument for the virtues of processed food. The article is worth reading, as it is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the status quo food system, in which processed foods are granted significant advantages by policymakers. Laudan’s core thesis is that processed food has long been necessary to human flourishing, and those who yearn for simple, whole-food based fare are harking back to a non-existent state of events. But thankfully, whole-food diets are both easier to procure and have been a more central part of human history than Laudan argues.
Laudan’s piece places inordinate emphasis on the experience of Northern Europe, and as a result would benefit from an expansion of scope. For example, when the piece claims that fresh fruits are typically unavailable for longer than a few weeks “outside the tropics”, it dismisses the experience of the people who live there — about half the world’s people! Mercifully, this glum assertion isn’t even accurate within its narrow confines: Even in a city like New York, a wide array of local fruits is available for nearly half the year, and easily-stored fruit like apples and squash can be eaten nearly year-round. There are also many people living something of a middle ground: although California and other Mediterranean climes are not tropical, their mild temperature can allow for fruit consumption that’s virtually uninterrupted. Viewing the world in its entirety, then, we can see that most of the globe lives in climates where regular fresh fruit consumption is possible.
Nor is it true that, as Laudan’s article implies, wild fruits were too sour or otherwise inedible, and thus were not wise sources of food before heavy human intervention. Even in New York City, one can forage for wild blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries for much of the summer, and these fruits are typically superior in taste to their supermarket analogs. Human needs and desires can be very consistent with the natural world.
Laudan’s piece attempts to recruit centuries-old philosophy to support the view that processed food was usually considered acceptable. The real picture is more complicated, because her position is in contravention to more foundational texts, which routinely warn against interference with natural foodways. For example, although Laudan vaunts the writings of 12th century Chinese thinker Wu Tzu-mu as evidence of the indelible importance of rice and other foodstuffs that require processing, she neglects to mention the bigu, the ancient Taoist practice of avoiding grains, which was linked to other Taoist conceptions of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. The core classics of Chinese philosophy, written millennia before Wu Tzu-mu, actually lament humanity’s move away from the more natural order, warning that separating humanity from natural processes ends in calamity. In the Abrahamic world, the experience of Daniel is instructive, in that God instructed him to forgo the rich foods of urban upper class and eat a diet of whole plant foods, reportedly to his great benefit.
Rigorous scientific studies bear out these ancient odes to natural food: Diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer rates are all significantly higher among people who regularly eat processed foods.
Laudan’s article notes many historical events that, when properly analyzed, are actually evidence against food processing. The article’s invocation of of pellagra in 17th century Italy is an example: True, pellagra is a disease brought about by the low vitamin content of a maize-based diet. But maize was not a local crop in Italy until it was naturalized there from the Americas mere decades before, quickly becoming a monoculture that promoted malnutrition. Similarly, the sorry state of drinking water in 19th-century urban centers is actually evidence that going “backwards” might a good idea: By creating an artificial environment, humans removed most of the plant life that would have filtered out most of the contaminants from our waterways. It’s also interesting that Laudan notes both that scurvy and mistrust of raw vegetables were common among many past societies: Although Vitamin C is abundant in fresh vegetables and greens (which can typically be eaten throughout winter), it is not found in most processed foods, because processing and storage usually degrades most or all of the nutrient.
These are not the only examples of the Laudan’s evidence actually favoring whole foods. The ancient Greeks may have thought that it is a sign of deprivation if people have nothing to eat but greens and root vegetables, as Laudan writes. But the Greek pity for those who resorted to these foods probably stemmed not from a view that whole foods were inferior, but instead from the relative availability of fruits in that area. As denizens of the Mediterranean, the ancient Greeks also typically had access to many different varieties of fruit for much of the year (pomegranates, for example, would have lasted even through February). Nor is it true that the ancient Greeks universally considered cooking with fire to be a boon: Consider the myth of Prometheus, where the advent of fire was considered to usher the end of a Golden Age of peace, joy, and prosperity. Pandora’s box was actually a kind of a jar that was typically used to transport grains, oils, and other typically-processed commodities of agriculture; it might be thus interpreted that processed food and its forebears made humanity’s easy relationship with the earth impossible. This tracks well with other paradise myths around the globe, such as the Abrahamic Adam and Eve, who were banished from a carefree whole-food lifestyle and were forced into the (apparently-linked) human industry and mortality.
The fact that many of our ancestors lived shorter, less-well-fed lives seems to be a slam-dunk argument that diets before industrial processing were unhealthy, but it may actually be evidence that they were not rustic enough. Around the time of the Roman Empire, “barbarians” to the north, who relied much more heavily on more natural products of the forest, had taller statures and better measures of bone density than their urban counterparts. Pre-agricultural peoples may have fared even better: they were unambiguously taller on average even than most modern populations. (Although pre-agriculturalists are often thought to have lived much shorter lives than us, this may not be true: It’s difficult to measure the age of someone who’s been dead for thousands of years, and so anthropologists typically resort to measures of bone mineral density. Within modern populations, there is an inverse relationship between age and bone mineral density, and so anthropologists have used the high bone density of pre-agricultural people as evidence that they didn’t live as long. But actually, given that these people were healthier on other measures such as height and pelvic depth indices, perhaps the better inference is not that they died younger, but that they were healthier into their old age! This inference is corroborated by the fact that time spent indoors, and consumption of high levels of processed grains — both hallmarks of agricultural civilization — have been independently associated with bone loss.)
Laudan ‘s article states that where processed food flourished, people became taller, stronger, and healthier, but arguments for this proposition are not strong. It appears that her evidence is mostly limited to Europe in the last few hundred years; however, these same places were also the hyper-privileged nerve centers of global empires, of which the full effects in the hinterlands were less sanguine. The same industrial processes that enabled large-scale food processing also enabled the construction of large industrial militaries that could keep far-flung colonies (or pseudo-colonies, as in the case of the United States’s relationship with Latin America) in line. Thankfully, less complicated evidence of the effects of industrialized diets can be found in the regions where it is being introduced today: In regions where processed food is making new inroads, rates of diabetes and cardiovascular problems are skyrocketing.
It’s curious that Laudan was able to publish her article in Jacobin, a leftist magazine highly attuned to issues of imperialism and social class, when processed food is highly linked to both of those evils. The companies that peddle these products receive the benefit of government patronage, whether by direct subsidy (as in the case of high fructose corn syrup or processed meats), or indirectly through strong-armed trade deals that inure to the benefit of powerful interests of militarily-dominant countries. (Laudan’s celebration of the availability of sugar, tea, coffee, and canned pineapple in the 19th century also resonates awkwardly in Jacobin Magazine, as those were all goods extracted via colonial exploitation.) Processed food is also typically marketed directly to the lower classes, who unfairly bear the brunt of their ill health effects.
There are other connections between processed food and capitalism. Highly processed food is readily commodifiable and thus meshes with capitalistic relations much better than whole foods, which have co-evolved with traditional societies that have other ways of allocating resources. Moreover, the production of “culinarily modern” foods has always been hard for laborers: today, workers in food factories predictably have higher rates of asthma, industrial farmworkers are exposed to cancer-causing pesticides, and fast-food workers are often injured by the industrial machinery or ovens required to produce it. (For more on how processed food is inseparable from broader justice issues, read the excellent Stuffed and Starved, by Laudan’s UT-Austin colleague Raj Patel.)
“A Plea for Culinary Modernism” helpfully explodes the uncomplicated narrative that centuries ago, everyone ate healthily. But a critical look at her article shows that the situation is much rosier than Laudan argues: Not only would it be desirable for people to eat a diet based more on whole foods, but the supposed logistical and historical impediments to this healthy lifestyle in fact do not constrain us. We are free to create a food system that’s congruent with the health and flourishing of both humans and the environment. We should do exactly that.
[Picture: Wood burning masonry oven, via Wikipedia.]