On processed food

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

What, it may reasonably asked, is processed food? I first came across this notion in the context of cheese. When I was a kid of around nine or ten, one of the substances that often formed part of my lunch was Swiss Knight processed cheese, which I believe is still available, although I haven’t personally touched the stuff in a number of decades. It consisted of a number of foil-wrapped triangles of squishy stuff, each of a different flavour – one even purported to be Gruyère, if I remember correctly.

Now as a child you tend to eat whatever is put in front of you without asking too many questions, but later on I started to wonder. After all, the word “processed” is pretty vague. All the manufacturers were claiming was that they had taken cheese and done something to it, and no doubt as far as it went this was true enough.

Cheese is of course the result of a process, and differences in that process (and the ingredients) account for the manifold differences we see between varieties of cheese. Fermented foods in general are processed, in this sense. But that clearly isn’t the kind of processing we’re talking about here. Processed cheese, whatever it is, must be something distinct from just cheese.

Some of the mysteries here are investigated in Joanna Blythman’s excellent book Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2016). It’s not a pretty picture. Essentially, the food industry is based on replacing actual food with what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances,” because actual food is generally more expensive than industrial chemicals, and less convenient to work with.

(Incidentally, I’m not saying that the makers of Swiss Knight do this to their product. I still have no idea what their processing entails, and given that I ate so much of the stuff in the 1970s I’m not sure I want to know.)

Now I’m not going to belabour the obvious point that eating industrial chemicals is probably not the greatest idea from a health point of view. Nor I am I going to address the ethics of doing this kind of thing to food. The point I want to make is that this state of affairs ought to be surprising. After all, you would think on the face of it that industrial chemicals would be more expensive than food, some of which literally grows on trees.

The solution to this conundrum is the industrial model. I referred a moment ago to the food industry. It wasn’t long ago that there was no such thing. There was food, of course, and there were people involved in growing it and selling it and even packaging it, but food was food, and not a “product.” Nobody in the northern hemisphere was expecting to eat strawberries in January. You would visit multiple shops to buy your food – the butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, the fishmonger – assuming you bought food at all. In pre-industrial times, remember, most people were living and working on the land.

With the Industrial Revolution, things changed in a number of ways. For one thing, a lot more people found themselves living in cities. For another, most of them had very little money to spend on food, or indeed on anything else. There was a large and growing market for cheap calories. A case can be made that the availability of cheap sugar from the West Indian slave plantations was a large part of that. Moreover, if you are working fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week, you aren’t going to have much time or energy to buy and prepare food, even if you have access to the facilities to do that.

So food became a product. This was in line with the new industrial modes of thinking, in which everything was a product. We are still in that mindset today – and indeed we still have plenty of people without access to the facilities to cook or store food. And access to cheap food, or edible food-like substances, became a key element of the social contract.

This has had many ramifications. In so far as food is a central element of culture, it has tended to destroy and homogenise culture. Everyone eats the same things, because those things are what you can buy in the shops. And what you can buy in the shops is no longer confined to what can be grown in the time or place you happen to inhabit, due to globalisation, which is itself made possible by industrialisation, and so if you want strawberries in January you can have them.

Of course they won’t be especially good strawberries. By definition, they won’t be fresh, and they’ll be of a variety selected to pack well, travel well and look the part, rather than to taste particularly good or be particularly nutritious. Considered as a product, that doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters is that you can sell them as a product. But considered as food, it’s a complete disaster.

Fresh produce itself is a product, and industrial agriculture exists to supply that product. There’s considerable evidence that food produced in this way is significantly less nutritious than it used to be, and therefore less nutritious than consumers tend to suppose. People have tested fresh oranges and found no vitamin C in them, for example.

Now processed food is a far more satisfactory product than fresh, from the shop’s point of view. A strawberry mousse in a plastic tub comes in a standard package and will last a lot longer on the shelf than actual strawberries will. This is particularly valuable if your supply chains are a bit dodgy, as they are at the moment (and will only get more so over time, for a number of reasons, which I’ll get into in another blog post). It’s not the supermarket’s problem if people eat unhealthily.

If you want to eat better, bluntly, you are going to have to avoid the food industry as far as you can. The bad news is that it will require more of your time, energy, and (to some extent) money than you are used to investing in what you eat. The good news is that this is likely to be doable, if you are prepared to make the commitment. For example, anything that you can grow yourself will be of value, even if it’s just a few herbs and microgreens on a windowsill or a couple of containers of tomatoes. At least you will be eating fresh food in season.

Anything you can buy directly from a local grower – meat, as well as fruit and veg – is a win. Again, this will be fresh food in season. Vegetable box schemes, also known as community supported agriculture, is one way to do this. I would urge you, however, to develop a direct personal relationship with the actual grower. If possible, visit their farm or garden. Apart from anything else, you can learn a lot that way.

While you’re at it, seek out local producers of cheese, if you can find any. If you’re near the coast, find a good fishmonger. You don’t have to be on the quay to meet the fishing-boats coming in at dawn, unless you want to. Try to source things like eggs and milk from local, small-scale producers. There may not be any, but you never know unless to you look. You may not be able to run to a house-cow, but keeping chickens (or ducks) might be an option.

Above all, learn to cook. Cooking is not sticking a fork through the lid of a plastic tub and putting it into a microwave. But neither does it have to be the kind of thing you see on Masterchef, unless you want to get into that. People used to learn this kind of skill at mother’s knee; it isn’t rocket science. Seek out the recipes for peasant cooking in whatever cuisine floats your boat: it will be cheap, filling and nutritious, because that’s what works for peasants the world over.

Whatever you can do in that direction will help you (and your family, if you have one) in multiple ways. Good food is a basic requirement for a good life. It is also one of life’s great pleasures. And if access to industrial food becomes patchy, expensive, or just plain impossible – and I wouldn’t rule out any of those possibilities in the next few years, let alone decades – you will have something to fall back on.

One day you’ll be very, very glad of that.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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