Politely Declining Factory Food

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123 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    The key problem with people who lament processed food is what the heck do they mean by “processesed.” Cooking is processing. Wine is processed but much loved by many people who are into whole foods. Most foods are processed in some way. That in itself doesn’t mean much at all. What people usually mean when they decry processing is something much more modern akin to what you are calling factory food. When people use words in a really sloppy and quasi meaningless manner it isn’t hard to see why they dont’ get much traction.

    You are correct that more people could eat purely natural unprocessed food if they chose. Well a few people could but not most. If one percent of the population of NY foraged for berries there wouldn’t be any left.

    The general points of the Cul Modern piece are all good and backed up. People have been eating processed food for a long time so complaining about processing not very convincing. Whole food advocates would be better off focusing on the specific parts of processing that can lead to trouble like adding a lot of sugar. But is also possible to eat processed food that doesn’t have or limits the bad part of modern processing.Report

    • Murali in reply to greginak says:

      There are lots of traditionally cooked foods which use lots of ghee, sugar and fat. (Of course they taste super awesome, but there is a reason why diabetes and heart disease is heavily prevalent among Indians. The ability to substitute with, sugar alternatives like Equal or Splendour or use Skim milk instead of whole milk helps somewhat.

      It seems that processing is a continuum. Sure, some taste enhancing modern processes (like polished rice and white bread) are unhealthier, but it is not entirely clear if there is a clearly defined line between the processes involved in factory food and home cooking, or if home cooking is necessarily healthier. That might just depend on what you actually end up eating.Report

      • Kim in reply to Murali says:

        But those are traditional Festival Foods! Not in general circulation every day…
        Meat was a once a week phenomenon in Medieval Europe for most of the population… (technically, they were catholic feast days, but they were roughly once weekly).Report

      • greginak in reply to Murali says:

        Yeah. Home cooking has some advantages one of which is having to consciously decide what to put in foods. But many people will still consciously decide to dump plenty of fat or sugar in their foods. Processing is a continuum and can’t be simplistically described or tossed away.

        There are certainly unhealthier ingredients and better choices. But for most of us in the West i think portion size is really the big deal. Most people can tolerate a few of the unhealthier ingredients if they don’t’ have them often or in big amounts. Just judging by restaurant portions in america people are simply eating gigigantic amounts of food nowadays.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to greginak says:

      I second Greg’s questions. I think this piece would have been helped immensely by defining ‘processed’ at some point.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to greginak says:

      Hi @greginak, thanks for your comment. I think @murali is right that processing is a continuum, and because people are always going to argue over how to discretely divvy up a continuous variable, I tried to ignore that element in my analysis, as Laudan largely did in hers. I think most people’s lay understandings of “processed” map pretty well onto how healthy a food is, so I was content to leave that alone.

      You’re right that lots of foodies think wine is fine. But I think it’s pretty uncontroversial that wine is not as healthful as grapes (which are less processed), but more healthful than brandy (which is more processed).Report

    • Mo in reply to greginak says:

      @greginak I would also suspect wild berries are mostly related to farmed and engineered berries than their original pre-man cultivars. Wild berries are the offspring of human farmed berries that wildlife ate and later pooped out their seeds.Report

      • Robert Greer in reply to Mo says:

        You’re right that it’s impossible to disentangle the effects of human cultivation, but many of the berries I’ve seen in New York I’ve also seen in places that are pretty remote, like the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Robert Greer says:

          Well, yeah, we’ve been growing berries all over the country for hundreds of years, and animals have been scattering those seeds for just as long…Report

        • Mo in reply to Robert Greer says:

          @robert-greer Remote for people is not remote for bird poop, especially migratory bird poop. And I don’t suspect it’s impossible to disentangle the influence. A simple test of wild berries for genetic markers that would be present in cultivated berries is all it would take. I suspect that no one has gone through that effort.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Anti-modernists leave me cold.

    The foodie philosophy is based on ahistorical thinking. We have a pretty idea of what most people ate before the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t a bounty of local, fresh, and seasonable ingredients. For most people the diet was a monotonous one of the local grain or tuber plus some vegetables, fruits, and meat or fish (if in a culture that allowed such things) on very special occasions. Most people did not eat a lot of vegetables and fruits because those where high value things to be sold on market. Most meat and fish were eaten in some heavily preserved fashion.

    Industrial agriculture and all the scientific techniques allowing food to last longer have increased the variety of the human diet. The potato was a boon to the European population and freed millions of people from the threat of starvation and malnutrition despite the Potato Famine.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Not really. Most people before the Industrial Revolution were hunter gatherers. And they’re notorious about leaving poor records.

      Huntergatherers in general ate things in season.

      You’re being ridiculous if you think “most people” didn’t eat a lot of vegetables, and as frequently as they could. I can cite all sorts of American commentary about the Three Sisters, for god’s sake! And that’s in agricultural communities.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

        I’m pretty sure that the majority of the world’s population moved onto settled agriculture by the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century, Kim. As to diet, it was mainly the local grain or tuber. The average European laborer ate a lot of bread or potatoes with maybe something to add flavor like drippings. The same is true in the United States except there was more salt pork available. The Industrial Revolution, particular the ability to transport food over greater distances and keep it edible through refrigeration, canning or something else increased the variety in people’s diets.Report

        • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Every single cottagewife had her own little garden, generally growing herbs and vegetables. They grew what they grew, sure… but they also ate most of it themselves.

          Meat posed a different issue, because slaughtering anything bigger than a chicken made too much meat for a single family. Hence the concept of festivals. A LOT of festivals.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

            In some places, people did have a small garden for herbs and vegetables but not in all places and not at all times. After the potato appeared, a lot of these little garden plots where turned over to the potato simply because of the sheer number that good be grown in a small amount of land.Report

      • Chris in reply to Kim says:

        Most people before the Industrial Revolution were hunter gatherers.

        Not in Europe, China, India, most of the Middle East and North Africa, or even large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa, or the Americas, where there were large agricultural settlements and, on both continents, large cities with established agriculture, but most people in the few other places, sure.Report

        • Kim in reply to Chris says:

          I didn’t say directly before the Industrial Revolution, Chris.Report

          • Chris in reply to Kim says:

            Well, if you meant for the most of human history, dating back to Sahelanthropus tchadensis, sure, but I doubt that’s been the case since soon after the end of the last ice age.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

            Even using the most generous interpretation of what you wrote, your still wrong. Agriculture allowed for a human population explosion. Once people began to settle down than human population levels rose and rose. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people where settled farmers because they would not exist but for agriculture.Report

    • Lyle in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Let me talk about my fathers diet growing up on a farm in the 1930s. You had fresh in the summer, and canned in the winter(so is canned processed) Actually even in the 1950s I recall that fruit had seasons when it was available becase oceanic shipping was to unreliable for other than bannas. (and you did not have fruit by air freight). You did have fruit that could be stored overwinter in cold rooms, i.e potatoes, apples, and onions. That is where the term fruit cellar came from. My mother recalled that oranges were christmas presents in In in the 1920-1940 time frame. (Yes they became available accross the us after 1885 when the rail net was completed but were still very expensive). (In particular in my dads case as my grandfather was a near subsistence farmer).Report

  3. zic says:

    not all processing is the same.

    I recommend this NYT Magazine piece from 2013, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.

    The difference between engineering a highly-flavored tortilla chip that you can’t get enough of and a tortilla chip that’s really just a baked tortilla is the difference between industrially-engineered food and processed food. I love the tortilla chips at Sol Azteca, one of my favorite restaurants in Boston; and one of the few places I was able to eat authentic Mexican food in Metro Boston 30+ years ago. But the difference between those chips and a bag of doritos, engineered to be addictive, goes to the heart of the debate. Both are processed foods. Cooking is processing food, much of which is indigestible without cooking.

    Sadly chemically engineering food that creates a desire for more caloric density with minimal nutrition is easier to acquire than just about anything.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

      The difference between engineering a highly-flavored tortilla chip that you can’t get enough of and a tortilla chip that’s really just a baked tortilla is the difference between industrially-engineered food and processed food.

      It just isn’t true that the addictive properties of junk food are the result of high-tech food engineering. I know this for a fact, because I can cook up food with the very same properties in my own kitchen using only basic ingredients, and I’m not even a very good cook. There’s no secret here. Combinations of sugar and fat, and of starch fat, salt, and optionally free glutamic acid (found in a wide variety of whole or minimally-processed foods), are addictive. Everything the food companies do is tinkering around the edges to try to get you to binge on their food instead of their competitors’.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    I’d like to take a moment in between all this piling on to say, Robert! Hi! Welcome back, so good to see you, I missed arguing with you.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    “whole-food diets are both easier to procure and have been a more central part of human history than Laudan argues.”

    So were tapeworms and gastroenteritis.

    “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. ”

    That’s because the shorter, lighter-bodied members of those populations didn’t live long enough to leave bones anywhere they’d be found. Basing your measures of population health on the ones who sacked Rome would be like, say, basing your measure of contemporary American physical fitness on the bodies of soldiers who died in the Iraq desert.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Hi @densityduck , what indication do you have that the figures for “barbarian” heights listed in the link refer to military populations? If the answer is “none,” maybe it’s best to reserve the snark.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Robert Greer says:

        My argument doesn’t have anything to do with the military. It *does* have to do with controlling for confounding factors and inadvertent selection bias. Like, maybe the reason that there were more tall skeletons of non-Romans found is that the Romans had enough food to keep starveling children alive, to grow up to less-than-average-height adults.Report

  6. Saul Degraw says:

    I am going to join with my brother. Does NYC produce enough wild berries for everyone in the city to go plucking things? Will everyone be able to remember what to eat and what not to eat? I went on a foraging tour of Prospect Park, it was fun. If I had to do it on my own, I would probably get very sick or die.

    There is a seriously pastoral and utopian strain to a lot of foodism and the idea that we can all be hunter gatherers or small hold farmers and be happy and have all the food we need.Report

  7. Francis says:

    We are all free to politely decline factory food. Whereupon most of us will starve.

    Beef is cheap because of enormously complex supply chains and growth management systems. Non-factory, 100% range-fed beef is available, at prices that will allow 1%ers to feel good about themselves about disdaining factory beef and the rest of us to go without. Go right ahead, but I still like a cheeseburger now and then.

    Back when I did land use work (before the great recession) I knew a fair number of farmers. California farming is incredibly industrial, from the water conveyance systems to the Central and Imperial Valley monocultures. California farmers also generate a staggering number of calories at very low cost. People like canned tomatoes, especially in the winter. (Even in Los Angeles, a home-made spaghetti bolognese can be awful tasty in December.) Del Monte’s tomato farms and processing plants and agronomists and lawyers and economists and etc. make that happen.

    I’ve read that at least 30% and maybe as much as 40% of all calories generated in the US are thrown away. On the one hand, that’s incredibly depressing, especially in light of persistent hunger in certain communities. On the other hand, it’s a sign of extraordinary success — food is so cheap that we as a society can throw over a third of it away.

    What, precisely, is the planned alternative? A massive push to demonize two-income families, so one parent can make healthy dinners from artisanal ingredients nightly? An end to crop supports / water ‘subsidies’ and all the other government actions that deliver cheap healthy food to supermarkets around the country daily?


    • Kim in reply to Francis says:

      Starvation is never planned.
      You want to know the plans? Ask DARPA.
      We’re running Ogallala dry, and you’re saying full speed ahead.

      Comrade Wesson will have your solutions, and you’ll like them.
      Alternatives? You’ll wish you had ’em.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Francis says:

      @francis It’s simply not true that most people would starve even if factory farming were abolished tomorrow. People would still be able to eat food made from unrefined grains, tubers, nuts, seeds, and the greens and fruits that last longer into winter. On the other hand, if factory farming and long-distance shipping were simultaneously and immediately nixed, there’d be more serious problems, but nobody I know is advocating for that.

      People who advocate whole food diets are generally asking for a few things: First, they want our current farm system to not unfairly favor processed foods. Second, they want the externalities of the industrialized food to be internalized, so that everyone else isn’t shouldering the burdens attendant to the practices of those businesses. The current political and economic system is not neutral with regards to the processed food debate, so it makes sense for whole-food proponents to point out the ways in which that is true, and to push for change.Report

      • greginak in reply to Robert Greer says:

        @robert-greer I think this comment runs back into the problem with what “processed” means in real life that was discussed above. Many perfectly healthy things are processed but it isn’t clear what foods or favoritism you are talking about. Maybe if you gave some more specific suggestions it would clarify things. I have no doubt some industries get some sweet sweet breaks. Even if removed though that doesn’t mean there would be many changes in what people eat. That doesn’t mean favoritism shouldn’t be removed just that it might not change things big time.Report

      • Francis in reply to Robert Greer says:


        Some time ago this blog had a thread about motte-and-bailey arguments (or something along those lines). Your post here and your follow-up comments have committed this error.

        To start with, your piece is entitled “Politely Declining Factory Food”. To which the obvious response is that most Americans have absolutely no choice but to eat factory / processed food (depending on how broadly you define those terms) and would bitterly resent and resist any major attempt to remake the food system in this country.

        Now your comment is: “People would still be able to eat food made from unrefined grains, tubers, nuts, seeds, and the greens and fruits that last longer into winter.” That’s not ‘politely declining’ factory food; that’s brutally regulating out of existence the very food that people like. Sure, they can eat that way. But is there any evidence that they want to? People love eating meat, preferably at the lowest possible costs. Just who is bearing the heavy hand of regulation here, the public or the farmer?

        Yes, there are powerful arguments to be made that the federal government as well as the states allow the major ag interests to dump externalities onto an unwilling public, on issues such as animal waste, pesticide use, sub-minimum wage labor, deceptive advertising, flavor manipulation and many more. That’s not a call to decline factory food, which only the very rich can afford to do; that’s a call to remake modern ag, through litigation, legislation, voter initiative (more room for chickens and pigs!) and regulation.

        While stirring cries for rejecting factory food may sound great, as a practical matter participating in the rule-making process for regulation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is likely to do more good.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to Francis says:

          @francis , you’re mistaking my position. I pointing out that even in the most extreme hypotheticals, people would not starve, not that we should work to make those most extreme hypotheticals reality. I don’t favor outlawing junk food; I do favor people choosing alternatives, both in their personal eating habits as well as their policy choices. Laudan’s article provides theoretical support for the status quo, which is why I saw reason to point out its many flaws. That’s all.Report

  8. Mike Dwyer says:

    From the OP:

    “Pre-agricultural peoples may have fared even better: they were unambiguously taller on average even than most modern populations.”

    I hate to be that guy, but I would really like to see the citation for that. Height of ancient peoples is generally considered to be tied to climate, much more than diet. Average height of humans has see-sawed through recorded history but food is rarely considered a driving factor, with one exception and that is the Cheyenne in the early 1800s. It is believed the availability of protein from buffalo did increase their average height to one of the tallest in the world.

    “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.

    This feels a little slippery to me. Anthropologists mostly relying on skeletal development models for aging. Bone density can be included in the analysis, but in my experience (admittedly, it has been 7 years since I was last in a lab) I don’t think bone density alone would skew age estimation.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Hi @mike-dwyer , the citation is in the third link in my OP. Also, I think it would have been reasonable for you to assume that when I was comparing the heights of agricultural to hunter-gatherer populations, that there was an implicit “ceteris paribus” thrown in there — so the issues of climate etc. aren’t necessarily so complicating.

      I’d be interested in hearing more about how anthropologists determine age at death of fossil remains, if you’re game. Thanks!Report

      • @robert-greer

        I appreciate pointing me towards the citation. It’s odd though that if the height numbers are true we have arrived back at nearly the same height at the same time that agriculture has never been more robust in human history. That seems to contradict the claims that a paleo diet is ideal.

        As for your requested link, here’s a basic primer on skeletal dating:


        • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          @mike-dwyer Hi Mike, it still seems that modern U.S. whites are below the hunter-gatherer heights. There are a lot of confounding variables here — there’s been a lot of genetic drift in the last few thousand years, for one — but isn’t it curious that this group, which is one of the very most privileged on the globe in terms of access to food, is still below the hunter-gatherer figures? I think it would be fair to continue to interpret this evidence as favoring Paleo-ish hypotheses.

          Thanks for the primer! It seems like all of those metrics for longevity would be consistent with pre-agricultural people simply being healthier, except for perhaps the cranial fusion phenomenon — but I’m not totally sure about that either. If the pre-agricultural skeletons with bone densities of 30-year-olds also had skulls fused like 30-year-olds, that would be pretty good evidence that they were actually 30. But maybe the same factors that lead to high bone density in old age would delay skull fusion? I’m not sure. If I were a scientist I would look at those rare moderns who have high bone density in old age, and see if their crania were as fused as we would expect. Anyone happen to know if there is data on this?Report

          • @robert-greer

            “…but isn’t it curious that this group, which is one of the very most privileged on the globe in terms of access to food, is still below the hunter-gatherer figures?”

            Not really. There are many variables which lead to height, again, climate being a significant one. If you look at height over the last several thousand years you will see a lot of variation across the globe and at any given time. Even among paleo peoples there is significant variation.

            I’m curious about your intent here. It appears that your goal is the promotion of a paleo diet, but does that also mean macrobiotic, or do you want to cut out grains completely? I think it would be more helpful if you actually said exactly what you think people should eat.Report

            • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

              @mike-dwyer I’m kinda of two minds about grain: On the one hand, there do so seem to be some health issues associated with it, and it’s surprising how many civilizations’ myths decry the introduction of grain into the human diet. But grains seem to be a necessary part of locavore diets in colder climes, and the processing they require is pretty minimal — humans can eat many raw grains, because the front end of our digestive systems produces amylase, which cuts the starch. (Amylase production is actually the aspect of human physiology relating to diet that has changed the most since the advent of agriculture — some populations produce quite a bit more than others, but all do, and even chimps produce at least a little bit.)

              Like with “processed food,” I guess I’d offer a continuum of healthy foods: Fruits, nuts and seeds are ideal, followed by young greens, grains, meat, foods that are processed with more than simple cooking, and alcohol, in about that order.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Robert Greer says:


                Fair enough. So then looking at this from a policy perspective, while it’s fine if you think a Paleo-Diet is ideal and maybe President Greer could convince the American people to make the switch. What does that look like? Do we have enough farmland to produce the food you are talking about? And given that lifespans are getting longer and people still love their food, how do you change the tastebuds of a nation (not to mention the world)? I realize these are pretty big questions, but keep in mind this is a culture site, not a nutrition site. I think many of us are interested in how you change an entire culture to a new way of thinking about food, reversing thousands of years of practice.Report

              • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Hi @mike-dwyer , cultural changes take time and effort, but luckily in this case change can be incremental. Another benefit is that most of the foods I have in mind are already eaten widely, and with gusto — it would just be a matter of increasing their role.

                Growing food in the way this post envisions would actually be a much better use of land: You can grow about 7-10 tons of corn on an acre of land, but you could get double or triple the calories with apples or squash. As always, the choice of what to grow will depend on climate and soil — but in my idealized world, this decision would not be tainted by the factors that unfairly tilt the scales toward factory food inputs, and would be done in an attempt to either mesh with or mimic existing ecosystems.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Robert Greer says:


                This may have already been covered, but what is the shelf life of an apple or squash verses a box of corn meal? Shelf stability is a huge factor here. Additionally, let’s be realistic: How successful can you be at getting the masses to give up bread for apples, or corn syrup for squash?Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                First thing to realize is that a not insignificant number of our available food choices exist because of Ag subsidies or tariffs. Corn syrup being a famous one, where corn is heavily subsidized & cane sugar imports have a tariff, so there is a clear financial incentive for industrial processes that need a form of sugar to use corn syrup over cane sugar (the fact that corn syrup is a liquid & easy to transport through a factory is also in it’s favor).

                So if I was Benevolent Dictator Gordon, the first thing I’d do is wipe the board of Ag subsidies & tariffs, then see what shakes loose from that.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                I get what drives the availability of these foods, however things like bread, made with wheat flour. We’ve had thousands of years to acquire a taste for it. Not easy to change.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                I know. The changes Robert envisions would require generations, since taste palettes develop throughout our early lives, and it takes a conscious effort for an adult to learn to enjoy something they don’t really like (hence the phrase, “It’s an acquired taste”).

                So as an adult, if I want my son to like Kale such that he’ll eat it without thinking, I have to either A) train myself to like Kale (a nifty trick since I’m very sensitive to bitter – took me years to learn to enjoy beer & I’m still very picky about that), or B) be willing to prepare him Kale dishes that I won’t eat (which is fine if he naturally likes Kale, but since he is 3, if dad won’t eat it, he sure won’t!).

                Of course, my wife & I are educated & have the time & resources to try & develop our son’s palette so he enjoys healthy, whole foods. The folks working two jobs and barely scraping by…

                So changing the palettes of a whole society, especially the palettes of those who are not so inclined, is a long term nudging effort.

                I’d also push back a bit on the farmland issue. I feel like he’s glossing over that one a lot, or rather, is applying current data & assuming it will extend to the future with little variation. I don’t see that. I think Ag will have to undergo some significant paradigm shifts worldwide if it wants to feed the growing population without tearing up even more & more of the forests we so desperately need.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Maybe we could set up a program whereby if the government is providing food, it will provide healthy and organic food that isn’t vomited out by some factory?

                No more “use the government to provide processed foods” and we might be able to help address the obesity crisis.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:


                Sounds good to me, maybe offer vouchers for the local CSA in addition to food stamps; although I expect the processed food lobby that so enjoys its subsidies would raise seven kinds of hell over that.Report

              • gingergene in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                My local farmers’ market doubles EBT (up to $30, I think), and doesn’t charge them the credit/debit surcharge ($1/transaction; most folks just buy tokens once per visit)

                ETA: I believe this initiative is funded by the farmers’ market, not the gov’t. Although I think at least some of their funding is via gov’t grants.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to gingergene says:

                Wow! That is, like, seriously awesome!Report

              • zic in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                and it’s a federal program, amplified by many states; part of the last controversial farm bill, and fought for hard by Maine’s Representative, Chellie Pingree.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to zic says:

                Which does not, in any way, detract from it’s awesomeness.Report

              • gingergene in reply to zic says:

                On closer inspection, the doubling program is funded by Wholesome Wave Georgia, non-profit. I don’t know if this means the matching funds are restricted in how they may be spent- the link from @zic shows that the usual caveats on how to spend EBT apply, at least for the portion that comes directly from the gov’t.Report

              • zic in reply to gingergene says:

                The funds are given out as block grants when a qualifying non-profit applies for them. So they go from the feds. to the states to the non-profits to the farmers, doubling the purchasing power of the SNAP-card customer.Report

              • Robert Greer in reply to Jaybird says:

                @oscar-gordon and @jaybird , those are both great ideas and entirely in line with what I’ve had in mind. Thanks for the support!Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Robert Greer says:

                I will prevent the poor from eating junk food if it is the last thing that I do.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Robert Greer says:


                No problem! Just remember, absent a heavy command economy, you will likely not live to see your vision realized. Your kids or grandkids might.Report

              • Robert Greer in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                @oscar-gordon I’m envisioning as part of the change a push toward agroecology, in which farmland retains high yields because of the system’s resilience but is much easier on (or even congruent with) natural ecologies.

                I grew up eating processed food (fast food, school lunches, you name it — I used to work at a Pizza Hut with my dad). For some foods, like fruit and nuts, it was very easy to make the switch. For other foods it takes a little bit of knowledge, like greens. You say you don’t like kale; I didn’t like kale either until I tried to young kind — instead of bitter and fibrous, it’s sweeter and crunchier, and actually more nutritious. Maybe give it a try!Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Robert Greer says:

                I actually do like Kale. Strip the leaves off the stems & toss in a bowl, add a teaspoon or so of salt, and massage the kale with the salt for 2 or 3 minutes (wear gloves unless you want green hands). Chemical reaction occurs and the bitter kale flavor is countered by the salt, making it very palatable as part of a salad.Report

              • Joe Sal in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Flour can be made from a variety of things. The bread is often better both in taste and nutrition.

                I think if open source economy does gain traction we will be seeing niches open up in a manner that Robert is indicating/desiring.Report

              • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                Under optimum conditions, cornmeal will last a few years, apples a year or so, squash about half a year. This apparently militates in favor of corn on the question of sustaining a population over the long-term, but other factors should also be considered, such as the ability of a crop to sustain environmental events like droughts — as well as their potential contribution to those events, as in the Dust Bowl.

                I think getting people to eat more apples and squash and less processed food is a pretty reasonable order when the alternative is figuring out how to deal with millions of cases of health problems. A good apple is about as tasty as they come, and a good cook can do wonderful things with one. There’s a restaurant in East Harlem, Cascalote, that does a salad of apple slaw over young kale and walnuts with a tart apple vinaigrette. It’s absolutely delicious, I could reasonably replicate it in my own kitchen for about $2.00 (subbing the original quinoa with local grain like amaranth, if we want to go the grain route), and it could all be done with local ingredients.

                Squash is another crowd-pleaser: The chain restaurant Dig Inn seasonally does a squash side that’s sweet and aromatic and just really lovely.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Robert Greer says:


                “I think getting people to eat more apples and squash and less processed food is a pretty reasonable order when the alternative is figuring out how to deal with millions of cases of health problems. A good apple is about as tasty as they come, and a good cook can do wonderful things with one. There’s a restaurant in East Harlem, Cascalote, that does a salad of apple slaw over young kale and walnuts with a tart apple vinaigrette. “

                As an uncle to a bunch of picky nieces and nephews, I have to say there is a certain tone-deafness to your comment. There are a lot of people in the US that can afford to eat wherever they want and would not touch the dish you just described. I am a serious foodie and I personally don’t like kale much. I think if your solution is based on substituting apple slaw and young kale for a grilled cheese sandwich or pizza using wheat flour, you’re not understanding the public. That simply isn’t going to work.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                “There are a lot of people in the US that can afford to eat wherever they want and would not touch the dish you just described.”

                Well, then they can just sit at the dinner table until they do eat it. Don’t they know there are starving people in Detroit who’d be thankful to get a meal like that?Report

        • here’s a basic primer on skeletal dating

          Written by Chris Martin.Report

  9. Burt Likko says:

    zic wrote: …Cooking is processing food, much of which is indigestible without cooking.

    Just so, which is part of why I’m expecting a lot of pushback to the OP. I’ve begun to follow in @zic ‘s footsteps as a baker, and have enjoyed baking my own bread at home. It has also made me ask myself, on more than one occasion, just how far one needs to go in order to create food “from scratch.” The baker cannot help but realize that the dough is made from flour, a liquid, neither of which the baker has likely personally produced.

    The flour is ground from wheat by a miller. The miller is likely a fairly substantial operation working at an industrial scale. The wheat that the miller uses to create the flour is likely farmed from a very large-scale field, fertilized and pest-controlled with products that come out of a chemical factory. I have not concerned myself with whether the wheat seeds have been genetically modified.

    The liquid is likely either milk harvested from an animal by a dairy farmer or water extracted from a source like a well or a river and then purified through some remarkably advanced industrial processes. Now, it happens that some dairy farmers use antibiotics on their cattle and some do not; I have not concerned myself with this issue as i have detected no difference to my palate in milk marketed with the word “organic,” antibioltic-free milk, GMO-free milk, and so-called “regular” milk. What does seem to matter is how recently the milk was harvested from the cow and whether the milk has been pasteurized. Pasteurization, of course, is an industrial process as well — but frankly, I would insist on pasteurization if raw milk were more prevalent, because raw milk is pretty much an ideal vector for transmission of a pharmacoepia of diseases.

    I don’t know about all bakers, but my yeast has come in three forms: sourdough from a starter given to me by a friend, dry yeast purchased at a store, or liquid yeast purchased from my brewshop (and rendered into the liquid in the form of beer). The truth of the matter is I’m pretty foggy on the source of the yeast, but I’m also pretty sure that tracing the lineage of the yeast back to a manufacturer who distributed it from somewhere will produce a laboratory in which the yeast cultures are cultivated with the aid of machinery, and also with the aid of machinery rendered into a form susceptible of transportation and storage. Mutatis mutandis for whatever flavorings I add to the bread like salt, herbs, garlic, olive oil, cheese, etc.

    Which has taught me the lessons that a) feeding myself and those I love is not something I am capable of doing on my own, b) feeding myself and those I love in the modern economy requires substantial reliance on advanced industrial food-creation and food-processing techniques, and c) feeding myself and those I love demands that I place trust in others who I do not know and whose methods of business are at least partially opaque to me that they will produce a product that is wholesome, nutritious, and useful.

    And that’s for a guy who bakes his own preservative-free bread at home, not because he has to for economic reasons, but because he wants to for both quality and pleasure.

    In such a world, the idea that industrial processing of food or ingredients of food is undesirable looks very silly indeed. If you aren’t someone who bakes his or her own bread, then you’re relying on an additional process done by a baker who might be a local artisan but who also might be a big industrial factory.

    Which is where the OP’s oeuvre falls into obvious critique: some kinds of industrial creation and processing of food is good and helpful. And the prevalence of that processing seems to be selectively elided by “natural” food advocates. Combine that with advice that seems, frankly, silly, like:

    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.

    and it’s difficult to leverage back into the world of practicality. Yes, I’m quite willing to believe that there are berries that one can forage in an urban environment. One can. Probably as many as a couple of thousand could. But seven million cannot, and that’s the population of that city. And most of those seven million cannot afford to take the time out of their days necessary to forage for fresh berries in Central Park. If they are going to eat berries at all, they’re going to buy them from a grocer. Similarly, I’m not going to grow and thresh my own wheat, and mill it into flour myself, and I’m not going to pump and purify my own water or keep a cow and milk it myself, and I’m not going to harvest my yeast from airborne samples and feed it twice daily.

    At most, I’m going to freeze my sourdough culture, and thaw it out once a week when I bake. I’m going to add it to store-bought flour and water from my tap, and I’m going to bake bread out of that. And I’m going to eat it with berries some merchant has preserved in sugar and fructose in a different industrial process, and with some peanuts that some other merchant has ground up into a paste, and it’s going to be a lovely peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I’m going to be just fine for having eaten it.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Do you know how else Californians like to get baked?Report

    • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

      You forgot the salt, which used to be really expensive and is now just about free. (I’m on my iPhone at lunch so I can’t look up the name of the company that used to own the big salt flats in the Bay-Delta. Cargill?)Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Hi @burt-likko , thanks for your extensive comment. I think you’ve misread my article — and in a way that others here (like @saul-degraw )also have, which signals poor initial communication on my part. I was in no way suggesting that all New Yorkers would be able to survive off of berries foraged within city limits — such a claim is obviously incorrect. I brought up the presence of wild berries in New York to combat Laudan’s assertion that wild fruit is typically inedible and not a good source of food. I believe that’s pretty good evidence for the conclusion I was trying to draw, but please feel free to persist in reasoned disagreement.Report

      • I don’t think the location of the berries in New York has much to do with how the berries taste. If your point is that foods found as they grow in nature are at least sometimes appealing to the palate, we don’t need to talk about foraging for berries in Central Park, because chances are berries are going to taste good anywhere.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to Burt Likko says:

          @burt-likko I was trying to head off the inevitable criticism that my argument relied on foods that would be difficult for someone in a particular climate to require. I hope you appreciate that I’m getting it from all angles here.Report

  10. Tod Kelly says:

    I think part of the problem with this conversation stems from the article that Robert is responding to, because I don’t actually think I know anyone who claims that whole foods are better for you than commercially processed foods because they of what our ancient ancestors did.

    Most people I know who urge me to eat whole foods and keep commercially processed foods with chemical additives to a bare minimum do so because they say it’s healthier. And when I say “they,” the people I’m including in that list is every doctor and nutritionist I know — and as my wife is on the faculty at the state medical university, that’s more than a handful of people.

    I see this overcompensation fallacy made a lot with food. Someone in the internet says “High Fructose Corn Syrup causes brain cancer in kids!” And then someone makes the over-adjustment leap and says, “no it doesn’t, so therefore high fructose corn syrup is perfectly healthy and any study that says you should limit your intake is socialist propaganda.”Report

    • greginak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Tod, you are taking a completely reasonable approach, one which i agree with. However there are plenty of ultra foodie types who do push the eat only completely natural unprocessed food line or think anything from a “food factory” is evil or think it would be great if we all made all our own foods to the Nth degree. The original article is aimed at a commonly found attitude among a certain subset of foodie/ natural people.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to greginak says:

        @greginak If that is so — and it may well be — than it’s a type of foodie I have not encountered. And being both a Portlander and a foodie myself, that experience feels like it’s worth something. (I have, for example, had a gazillion run-ins with whatever the child-rearing version of that person is called.) Maybe it’s a California thing?

        To @burt-likko as well: I actually think it’s a shame that we talk about food this way, because it seems to me like there is a potentially interesting discussion that I rarely ever hear, which is this:

        Despite all the very real health issues, much of foodie talk (at least when it’s tied in with public policy) often shows up as a kind of class/privilege elitism. Telling someone who is a member of the working poor that their store needs to really sell only locally grown organic requires a kind of Marie Antoinette-esque level of cluelessness.

        Because of this, I think it’s easy to see a future not that far off where access to healthy food become more and more class oriented, and the disparity between health and longevity of the working poor and the upper middle class grows to a level that’s increasingly uncomfortable to be OK with.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          Unfortunately, these class-based health divisions based on available diets are already staring us in the face.

          One good way to get people to eat healthier is to structure our laws to make it easier for people to grow their own food. There’s already a healthy demand for plots in urban community gardens. We should consider allowing people to grow things on unused plots, and we should certainly be increasing the importance we give to gardenable space when making land use decisions.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Robert Greer says:

            “One good way to get people to eat healthier is to structure our laws to make it easier for people to grow their own food. There’s already a healthy demand for plots in urban community gardens. ”

            It’s not laws that stop community gardens happening.

            For one thing, if you don’t put up a fence with locked gates then bums steal all the food. (Which happens regularly at the community garden my wife is involved with.)

            For another, there are invariably far more people who’d like to grow things than there is space to support them.

            And, finally, the land that’s within easy reach of low-income urban residents is either not well suited to gardening, or incredibly expensive and worth far more as development space (offices or housing).Report

          • ktward in reply to Robert Greer says:

            One good way to get people to eat healthier is to structure our laws to make it easier for people to grow their own food.

            Sure. But what about the struggling folks who don’t have either the time or the wherewithal to plant, much less harvest, their own food?

            I’m all for local gardens and co-ops and any laws that support local food. However, the locavore ideal is not at all a solution to the health/nutrition problems that plague our multitudes. The least amongst us. Let’s not pretend it is.

            That said, we do very much need convenient, inexpensive yet healthy food options. Locavore ideals, while noble, don’t help much in this respect. Demanding healthier standards for factory food does help.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I realize that Robert’s OP is a review of Rachel Laudan’s article in Jacobin. If that article is one that includes a lot of sweeping generalizations, particularly over-extended, credibilty-straining claims (like the claim that it’s possible for a New Yorker to get enough calories to survive by foraging for strawberries in Central Park, ignoring the need to make rent) and sweeping condemnations, then a review of that piece is going to have to report on those claims.

      What I don’t see here is much by way of critical thought about the content of Laudan’s article. That seems consistent with prior writings by Robert, which strongly suggest sympathy with the destination arguments and a willingness to overlook flaws with the route chosen to get there. Let’s take that foraging claim in the OP which bugs me so much. The whole paragraph making the claim reads as follows:

      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.

      Whether berries in their natural state are sweet or sour has no real logical connection to the availability of nutrition available in urban-foraged berries. The berries one would find growing sort-of-wild in Central Park would be the product of many generations of human cultivation and artificial selection — yielding fruit that is likely sweeter and larger than what “nature” came up with on her own. Are they going to be “superior in taste” to the berries one would get at a grocer? That’s a subjective matter. Maybe I like my berries to have some sourness to them. “Are they going to be sweeter than the ones I could buy at the grocer” would be a better question, something that in theory might be measured. And then the paragraph perorates into a hugely sweeping statement based on a very small, odd-looking, example, an example that carries the hint of being cherry-picked.

      I don’t really need anyone to tell me that Chicken McNuggets are not a good dietary choice. Whole foods advocates have solid, defensible points they can and often do make. I am perfectly willing to listen to, read, and be persuaded by a solid argument in favor of diet modifications. But I react a little bit poorly to overreaching claims, especially when they are backed up by what looks like insubstantial science. Even if the conclusion is, at least in broad strokes, defensible to objectively correct, this argument (whether that argument be Greer’s, Laudan’s, or anyone else’s) doesn’t strike me as being all that persuasive because it tries to do too much work with too little firepower.Report

  11. Damon says:

    I think there’s a lot going on is that article and this thread.

    Let’s recall though, that one of the things that has made the “whole food”/organic/artisan/etc. food movement possible is the massive wealth this country has.

    I certainly agree that cooking is “processing” food in one form, but I read the article more as “processing” = canned food and things like that. I find white bread to be, well, tasteless. But there was a reason for it back in the day. There was a wave of “purity” and “sanitation” going through the society from all the muck racking books of the food industry. And now we’ve come full circle, where “processed” is bad and “natural” is good. It’s a trend.

    And I recognize that not everyone has the skill/desire/time to prepare, from scratch, three meals a day for themselves and/or families. That, in some ways, is MY luxury.Report

  12. zic says:

    I think we tend to correlate processed with a lot of things.

    In my own food choices, I consider one thing in particular — shelf life. Food that’s nutritious, in general, goes bad, and relatively quickly, because the things that nurture our bodies nurture the microbes, etc., that make food go bad. So I consider shelf life, and typically opt for products that have a shorter instead of longer shelf life, and I pay attention to how I store those foods.

    On the ground, that means choosing minimally-refined oils, whole grains, etc.Report

    • zic in reply to zic says:

      And one other thought:

      What really bugs me is people who think of food as medicine or health-like substances. superfoods. foods that make you sick. foods that will heal you. Foods that will kill you.

      First, it’s your diet that will heal you or kill you or sustain you; and that’s made up of all the things you regularly eat, not individual foods.

      Second, it sucks all the joy out of food, which is one of the great pleasures we have. It means you’re probably not paying much attention to how you actually feel from the food you eat, too; happy? Content? Satisfied? or craving, exhausted, and overfull.

      A processed pastry or a big mac or a coke isn’t going to kill you if it’s in your diet once in a while. If it’s the backbone of your diet, no miracle food’s medicinal power is gonna save you, but changing your diet might help you feel healthier and happier.Report

      • ktward in reply to zic says:

        Second, it sucks all the joy out of food, which is one of the great pleasures we have.

        Amen to that.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to ktward says:

          @ktward @zic My position here is more consistent with yours than you seem to think. I also enjoy a dollar slice of pizza or a doughnut now and then. My problem with Laudan’s piece is that it provides ammo to the powerful interests who say it isn’t a big deal that processed food is such a central part of our diets.

          I also resist the idea that advocating whole-food-based diets somehow sucks the joy out of food. Lately I’ve been eating a lot of watermelon, peaches, sunflower seeds with salt, really nice young greens, stuff like that. Winter is a little harder, but nuts and seeds are still around, and there’s still squash, sweet potatoes, greens, whole grains, etc.. The food I eat now is more delicious than what I ate before, and I could eat like this on a food stamp budget without a lot of difficulty. The problem of creating a healthy food system is largely a matter of culinary education.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to zic says:

      So Twinkies are right out, eh?

      I recall reading an analysis once about why McD’s hamburgers did not decompose & it had nothing to do with preservatives & everything to do with storage & humidity. So it should be shelf life along with packaging technique.Report

      • zic in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        the Hostess died a horrid death, but her twinkies have been resurrected, now with longer shelf life:

        On March 12, 2013, it was reported that Twinkies would return to store shelves in May of that year. Twinkies, along with other famed Hostess Brands, were purchased out of bankruptcy by Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co for $410 million.[17][18] Twinkies returned to US shelves on July 15, 2013.[19]

        Before Hostess Brands filed for bankruptcy, Twinkies were reduced in size. They now contain 135 calories and have a mass of 38.5 grams, while the original Twinkies contained 150 calories and had a mass of 42.5 grams. The new Twinkies also have a longer shelf life of 45 days, which was also a change made before bankruptcy, compared to the 26 days of the original Twinkies.[20]


        • Oscar Gordon in reply to zic says:

          I’ve tried a few Hostess products since the resurrection, but the taste is now off for almost all of their snack cakes & donuts. I don’t know what they changed, or perhaps my tastes have changed, but I don’t bother anymore.Report

  13. crash says:

    “Even in a city like New York, a wide array of local fruits is available for nearly half the year”

    I am guessing this is true to the extent that an average middle-class NYC-er could go into a good store and find some local fruits during the summer.

    But surely it’s not true that if every single NYC-er ate only local fruits, and no “foreign” fruits, there would still be enough to go around, all summer.

    In other words it’s probably only true (if it is true) if almost nobody eats exclusively local.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to crash says:

      @crash Yes, if the demand for seasonal produce rose drastically in a short period of time, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. But that’s a problem with how our current system operates, not anything intrinsic to the resources available to us over the long-term.Report

  14. I have a different reading of Laudan’s article than the OP does. Laudan spends a lot of time critiquing what she calls “culinary” luddism, but she’s not arguing that whole foods are necessarily bad. Her last two paragraphs are telling:

    What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.

    Such an ethos, and not a timorous Luddism, is what will impel us to create the matchless modern cuisines appropriate to our time.

    She’s not (necessarily) against foodie-ism. She’s against overly romanticizing “paleo” and other “traditional” food diets, and she worries that such romanticizing feeds into the unfortunate class-specific approaches to food that others have lamented above.

    Finally, a note about “processed” and Laudan’s apparent refusal to define it precisely. This refusal has been raised by some here as a point to criticize. But I believe her article in large part is an attempt to demonstrate that “processed” does have varied definitions that have changed over time and that the foodie romanticism she is arguing against assumes “processed” has an unchanging, set-in-stone definition.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      @gabriel-conroy Laudan couches her prescription pretty sensibly, true. But it’s also worth noting that the status quo’s class-based divisions about food have led to woeful disparities in health outcomes between classes. My position is that the status quo needs substantial revamping, and that a return to more traditional foods is eminently possible for everybody. I think this is a much more hopeful thesis than Laudan’s, which essentially consigns the less-culinarily fortunate to the current state of affairs, which according to the public health statistics is pretty dire.Report

      • We’ll probably have to agree to disagree on our interpretation of Laudan’s article and what she seems to be arguing. As I read her article, she seems less dedicated to “consigning” the less fortunate to the current state of affairs than she is arguing that things are in some ways better and improving their lot will require more than looking back at a past that may not have existed.

        I do admit, however, that historians sometimes think that once they have proven an argument rests partially on ahistorical assumptions, they have therefore disproved the argument. And as for me, who have a pretty different notion from yours of what can/should be considered healthy eating and what’s worth sacrificing to get there, the mere fact that some on your side of the aisle might sometimes engage in ahistoricism doesn’t really prove me right.

        Also, as Mike Dwyer said below and others have said elsethread, I do appreciate the geniality and good humor of your comments, especially when so many are taking positions opposed to yours. That’s hard to do.Report

  15. Shelley says:

    I’d like to see a top ten list of “processed” foods that would be easy to remember.

    And I just can’t give up sugar, no matter that it’s the bugaboo of today. It just tastes so good! And there is no substitute.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Shelley says:

      I think I can do it in five.

      Cheese in a can? Don’t eat that.

      If the food that it aspires to taste like is mis-spelled on the packaging? Don’t eat that. (Definitely don’t eat Cheez-in-a-can on Chickin-in-a-biskit crackers.)

      There are foods that will keep forever because of their nature (pasta), there are foods that will keep forever because of their packaging (some canned foods), there are foods that will keep forever because of the polysyllabic ingredients on the side. Try to avoid that last one.

      If the food is made to taste like another food that it has nothing in common with? Don’t eat that. (Like how Cool Whip is a petroleum product and not a dairy product. Don’t eat that.)

      If the first or second ingredient is HFCS? Don’t eat that. More precisely: Don’t drink that. (There’s enough stuff out there that has something else as a first/second ingredient.)Report

  16. Jaybird says:

    Ironically, this link is showing up on my feed:


    My main issues with solutions like Greer’s is that they seem very much rooted in the fashion of the decade in which they appear.

    Sure, there’s the timelessness of “the best way to eat healthy on the cheap is to make it yourself” which, I’m pretty sure, nobody would ever disagree with… but there is a time investment, a skill investment (sure, anybody can burn an egg, it takes more skill to make a variety of tasty meals using a variety of healthy ingredients), and there are startup costs that are not negligible to folks below a certain income (a crockpot costs money, a bottle of olive oil costs money, a nicely sized counter and an ingredient cabinet costs money).

    In a decade, we’ll see similar arguments over food issues again and the solutions, again, will revolve around time assumptions, skill assumptions, and barrier to entry assumptions. Again. (The advice that “if you want to be healthy, you’ll have to make it yourself” will still stand, however.)Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Jaybird says:

      @jaybird I think a greater emphasis on nutrition and cooking in public education is a great idea, as would be shifting government food aid dollars away from processed food and towards high-ROV cooking implements. I believe there are solutions to this problem.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Robert Greer says:

        Home Ec was still taught in high school when I went.

        I was taught little things I already knew like “how to dry measure”, “how to liquid measure”, “how to follow a recipe”, “the difference between baking and cooking”, that sort of thing.

        Now, of course, I was raised in a middle class house by a middle class mother who was, herself, raised in a lower class patriarchical house and who, herself, aspired to something somewhere on the spectrum between 1st Wave and 2nd Wave Feminism.

        I was *EXCEPTIONALLY* fortunate.

        We need to bring Home Ec back. Hell, make it mandatory.

        I also think that we’d benefit from a cooking show for absolute beginners. Rachel Ray’s show is not bad, but something where they (cheerfully and pleasantly) assume that the viewer has not done this before and walk you through stuff like “how to make a scrambled egg” and “how to make mac & cheese”.

        Something for someone poor and scared of anything more complicated than a microwave.

        We’ve got a lot of great stuff out there for experts and a lot of good stuff out there for intermediate cooks and some pretty decent stuff for excited amateurs… but very little for people who don’t know how to make a hard-boiled egg.

        An analogy for society in general, I guess.Report

  17. Brandon Berg says:

    pellagra is a disease brought about by the low vitamin content of a maize-based diet.

    Specifically, improperly-prepared corn. Corn contains niacin (the vitamin whose deficiency causes pellagra), but it’s not bioavailable. Nixtamalization makes the niacin bioavailable and prevents the development of pellagra on a corn-based diet.

    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)

    This is hugely overstated. Agricultural subsidies in the US run about $20 billion per year, less than two percent of what Americans spend on food annually. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t strongly favor any particular crops (yes, corn gets the biggest share of the subsidies, but that’s because corn is what’s grown the most), and they don’t specifically favor processed foods.

    Maaaaybe if the subsidies favor corn a bit, and corn is disproportionately used in processed foods because it’s particularly well-suited to that purpose and not just because it’s cheap and abundant, then you could make an argument that subsidies ever-so-slightly tip the scales towards processed foods. But I can see any way this makes a big difference.

    The bottom line is that people eat processed food because they like the way it tastes, and because it’s convenient, and because people tend not to think about the long-run consequences of their dietary choices. I’m not sure it’s actually even true that processed foods are cheaper than whole foods (Yes, there are studies, but the ones I’ve seen heavily stack the deck with their selection of foods). Take away the subsidies, and none of that changes.

    Yes, the sugar tariffs really do make cane sugar much more expensive than corn syrup and influence that particular trade-off. But cane sugar isn’t a health food either. The difference between sucrose-sweetened soda and HFCS-sweetened sugar is insignificant compared to the difference between sucrose-sweetened soda and water.

    or indirectly through strong-armed trade deals that inure to the benefit of powerful interests of militarily-dominant countries.

    Not sure what you’re talking about here, but I’m just as skeptical.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      $20 billion isn’t a pittance; it’s definitely enough to significantly change eating habits nationwide. Your comparison of total subsidies versus total food spending is largely inapt, as the question is how much the subsidies affect the relative prices of their substitutes. If, in a free-market world, sugary goods are about a nickel pricier per unit than fruits, then reducing the price per unit of sugary foods by a dime could increase consumption tenfold or more (assuming consumers view the two as perfect substitutes). Of course, this model is very simplistic, but it should at least show that to conclude that a subsidy has little effect because it is a small part of total spending is erroneous.

      Unfortunately, the economic research I found on this score wasn’t much better: it either compared obesity rates among countries with varying levels of agricultural protection (a hopelessly crude analysis for what we’re trying to answer), or used medical models of obesity that are not widely held by nutritionists and other obesity experts.Report

  18. Mike Dwyer says:


    Just wanted to add here that while I (respectfully) disagree with some of your positions, you have been a great host on this comment thread. No snark, addressing everyone’s comments. Love to see that type of interaction. Job well done.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      @mike-dwyer I’m chuffed to hear that, Mike! I think it makes the most sense to chalk that up to the thoughtful and cordial comments — so thank you!Report

  19. Dave says:


    It’s an interesting post, but I think you and I see will not see eye-to-eye with respect to our interpretations of the Laudan article. I’ll go through some of the disagreements:

    Laudan’s piece places inordinate emphasis on the experience of Northern Europe, and as a result would benefit from an expansion of scope.

    Perhaps she did spend most of her time on Northern Europe but she did reference other geographic regions multiple times throughout her article to support her thesis.

    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

    The article discussed fresh fruits being unavailable during the winter months not “unavailable for longer than a few weeks outside the tropics”. We know this in certain regions to be true, even today. Also, the “outside the tropics” quote was in reference not to the availability of fruit but rather to the bitter taste. Therefore, I think the argument here is a bit of a strawman. The remainder of the paragraph supports an counterargument against an argument she didn’t make. Also, you suggesting that the presence of fresh fruit makes the consumption of fresh fruit possible doesn’t refute her historical arguments. Rather, it implicitly suggests that we ignore it.

    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.

    You’re arguing against an implication and a very subjective one at that. I think you’re proving Laudan’s point when she says:

    The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty.

    I’ll continue…

    Laudan’s piece attempts to recruit centuries-old philosophy to support the view that processed food was usually considered acceptable. 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…

    I don’t agree with your interpretation here, and even if I conceded the point, the crux of the article focuses on prevalence, not acceptance. As it is, I don’t think Laudan “vaunts the writings” of Wu Tzu Mu but rather introduces the point as a matter of historical evidence. Mentioning bigu is all well and good, but how did the people at that time eat? If the Chinese diet contained those six items, does bigu even matter?

    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.

    Honestly, I’m not convinced you’ve established enough ancient odes to natural foods to convince me that Laudan is incorrect. Furthermore, I fail to see why modern studies are helpful in debunking a historically-based argument.

    I’ll take this one step further. Not only have you not provided any historically-based counterarguments to Laudan’s article, but you’ve conceded to them. The reason I say this is because starting in your fifth paragraph, you switch your plan of attack and rather than attempt to rebut Laudan, you attempt to co-opt her arguments to make your case against processed food:

    Laudan’s article notes many historical events that, when properly analyzed, are actually evidence against food processing.

    That is, “when properly analyzed” by you. That’s fine, but it’s not the crux of the article. Her point is that the whole food crowd doesn’t have history in its corner and all it has evocative dichotomies of whole vs. natural. I like you, but you’ve done a marvelous job proving her correct.

    The interesting think about conversing with you is that at the end of the day is that we have beliefs that we reach through what seem to be completely opposite perspectives.

    People who advocate whole food diets are generally asking for a few things: First, they want our current farm system to not unfairly favor processed foods. Second, they want the externalities of the industrialized food to be internalized, so that everyone else isn’t shouldering the burdens attendant to the practices of those businesses. The current political and economic system is not neutral with regards to the processed food debate, so it makes sense for whole-food proponents to point out the ways in which that is true, and to push for change.

    I’m an advocate for a whole food diet, yet, I have little interest in waging a war against the food industrial complex if only because advocates for whole food diets need not get themselves in that mess in order to make the difference in helping to change the lives of people that want to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

    Also, given that you and I have butted heads on this issue in the past, I suspect that your wanting “the externalities of the industrialized food to be internalized” by treating food companies the way we treat tobacco companies today and use sugar addiction as the justification. I can’t sign on to that for a number of different reasons.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Dave says:

      Hi @Dave , you’re right that I misread Laudan’s argument about the availability of fruits — she indeed did not say that it was only a few weeks long outside the tropics. I apologize for that.

      But I think my broader point still stands. For the half of the globe that still lives in the tropics, fresh fruit is more or less constantly available (even in the dry season, as tree fruits can be excellent famine food, often available when everything else is gone). This significantly attenuates the thrust of Laudan’s argument, which is that whole-food diets have typically been unworkable.

      I think you’re mistaking me to say that people have more or less always eaten healthy whole-food diets before modern times. But I actually say the opposite in my original post. My argument is that whole foods are nutritionally superior, and that diets based on them are easily workable. Laudan is arguing that whole-food diets have basically been an impossibility throughout human history, and therefore prescriptions for them are mistaken. By pointing out that processed-food diets are in fact nutritionally problematic, I’m offering evidence that prescribing whole-food diets is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. If I can also show that whole-food diets have long been fairly easy to procure and adhere to, then I’ll have smoothed the road to my conclusion. I think you’re confusing some of my motivations here.

      Laudan’s reader is left with the impression that people have always been eating processed food without controversy, in part because alternatives were not available; but that conclusion is unsupported by the historical record, which I’ve tried to flesh out further with my rebuttal article. I don’t think you’ve said anything that would lead me to reconsider that position.Report

      • Dave in reply to Robert Greer says:


        If I forced you to reconsider your position, then I’d be wrong about you, and I’d like to think that I have a pretty good read on you given our previous history. 😉

        For the half of the globe that still lives in the tropics, fresh fruit is more or less constantly available

        That’s all well and good, but you’ve just done what you criticized Laudan for doing: focusing too much on a geographic area. If you and I are sitting here trying to discuss food policy as it pertains to the US, how does this help? How does people in the tropics having availability to fresh fruit pertain to the problems with obesity in the United States?

        This significantly attenuates the thrust of Laudan’s argument, which is that whole-food diets have typically been unworkable.

        I assume you’re a good lawyer because you’re trying to lawyer me here. Looking at her proposition narrowly, she argues that whole foods diets don’t have the basis in history that the proponents seem to believe they do. Your writing demonstrates a lack of willingness to engage her arguments on her grounds and a tendency to shift the playing field into your favor and making your arguments on those grounds. I’ve seen way too much of this lately coming out of the CrossFit community. It sends my alarm bells into a frenzy.

        I think you’re mistaking me to say that people have more or less always eaten healthy whole-food diets before modern times.

        Can you please point out the text that led you to that conclusion so I can make the necessary clarifications. I don’t remember making that claim at all, and I’ll be glad to retract it. Seeing as we’ll agree to disagree on the substance of your historical arguments, I don’t think my retraction would matter much.

        My argument is that whole foods are nutritionally superior, and that diets based on them are easily workable. Laudan is arguing that whole-food diets have basically been an impossibility throughout human history, and therefore prescriptions for them are mistaken.

        Respectfully, this is exactly what I was talking about above. Even if I accept your very tilted version of “impossibility” (again, you’re lawyering me), at least she had a reason for suggesting why whole i.e. natural food diets were I’ll say “undesirable”: I think I see the same kinds of motte and bailey tactics Francis saw.

        History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

        That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.

        Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it. When Jacques Pepin offered free-­range chickens to friends, they found “the flesh tough and the flavor too strong,” prompting him to wonder whether they would really like things the way they naturally used to be. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.

        You retreat back to the motte by suggesting that that 1) whole foods are more nutritious and 2) because Laudan suggests that whole food diets were unworkable then, she’s saying they’re unworkable now. (1) is irrelevant because this was not about nutrition but rather making food more edible. The problem I have with two is that it’s incorrect. She wrote:

        Culinary Luddites are right, though, about two important things. We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos. As far as good food goes, they’ve done us all a service by teaching us to how to use the bounty delivered to us (ironically) by the global economy.

        This paragraph gives credit where credit is due with respect to good food, which is interpreted by me to equal whole foods. She is not blatantly dismissing the whole food diet. In fact, that’s not even the purpose of her article. What I see her doing is putting the anti-industrialized food of any kind in their place by pointing out that their arguments have no historical merit. It’s not a dismissal of whole food diets. It’s a beatdown given to the ideological food extremists that, to be blunt, the rest of us would do a lot of good ignoring.

        By pointing out that processed-food diets are in fact nutritionally problematic, I’m offering evidence that prescribing whole-food diets is indeed a worthwhile endeavor. If I can also show that whole-food diets have long been fairly easy to procure and adhere to, then I’ll have smoothed the road to my conclusion. I think you’re confusing some of my motivations here.

        This is where you lost me. You didn’t need to bring Laudan’s paper into this to make the argument that processed foods diets are nutritionally problematic especially because she makes no direct claims that processed foods are nutritionally superior. That’s not even the scope of her article. Also, even if you say that whole foods diets were easy to procure and adhere to, the proper way to have responded to the Laudan article was that people DID procure whole foods and DID adhere to whole food diets. You’re only suggesting that people could have done something else and saying that if people could have done it then, they could do it today. You could have left history out of this, yet you felt the need to go after it. Why?

        I’m going to call it like I see it here. Being a fitness enthusiast, I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of discussing CrossFit with the enthusiasts that defend it with the sort of ideological zealotry I can see in your defenses of whole food diets (although not to the same degree). There’s a whole lot of motte and bailey going on. With CrossFit, people can point to how CrossFit is done in practice (YouTube videos, pictures, injuries, etc. etc.) as a basis for criticism. Immediately, defenders of CrossFit will fall back into the motte and defend the methodology, something that’s pretty hard to crack given the abstract nature of it.

        I wonder if you’re doing the same thing here. Laudan tells the whole foods diet crowd that their appeals to history have no factual basis and you retreat into the more comfortable territory of defending the nutritional superiority of whole foods diets over processed foods and claim that she’s arguing for a “status quo” in favor of “processed foods”. You defined neither one of those terms and for good reason I think: as @oscar-gordon said above, leaving those definitions alone gives you ample wiggle room.

        Therefore, what I see in you here that I really see in CrossFitters is the way that they go after anything that even remotely smells of criticism towards their favored position. I don’t think the Laudan article should hold much sway if we’re taking about how we deal with obesity in the American population; however, because you saw something in it that criticized your worldview, you went after it and inadvertantly gave it more significance than it really deserves (it’s nothing more than a nice way to tell the “Culinary Luddites” to STFU).

        I don’t think I’m misunderstanding you or questioning your motivations. I know your passion for this subject as well as your advocacy. I”m fine with that. I’ve just seen it all before.

        Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the post.Report

        • Robert Greer in reply to Dave says:

          Hi @Dave , I think you’re still misreading me. By pointing out the tropics, I was in no way saying that the model of the tropics works for everyone. I was only saying that it works for about half the world’s people, and that Laudan’s piece effectively discounted them.

          Also, there are many Americans whose native ecologies are more consistent with the tropical model than the northern European model. Most of the people in Florida and Texas, and nearly all of California and Hawaii, are in areas that can sustain year-round or nearly year-round produce production. But eating patterns there don’t necessarily reflect this.

          I don’t think it’s true that I’m failing to engage Laudan’s arguments. She explicitly dismisses food activists who raise alarms about processed foods, she characterizes processed food as lacking intrinsic problems, and she does all this in ways that don’t accurately reflect culinary history. I think my post and comments have been a useful corrective to this, but of course you’re free to point out how that’s mistaken. I don’t think you’ve done that convincingly enough for me to retract my thesis here.

          For instance, you’re mistaken to say that nutrition is not within the ambit of Laudan’s article. She mentions that some foods cannot deliver nutrients without processing, that beer is more nutritious than wheat (a ludicrous claim), and that modern diets are nutritionally superior.

          I don’t think it’s necessary to say that people have always eaten totally whole-food diets for my argument to work. In my original post, I noted that I thought that Laudan’s pushback against this idea was a useful corrective. So the fact that you’re thwacking me for this position strikes me as evidence that you’re not reading me very carefully — which, speaking of patterns in our discourse, is one that I’ve unfortunately been compelled to recognize.

          That said, I do appreciate the pushback, as it helps me hone my arguments, and I think your point about my misreading of Laudan’s claims regarding the temporal availability of fruits outside the tropics was a genuine contribution.Report