The word “treaty” has become something of an insult.
Say “processed foods” and most of us imagine cheap, unhealthy junk food. Fresh food straight from the garden or field is good. Once we put it through a processing plant or lab, we removed its halo qualities and added a bunch of bad ones. This means that meat alternatives are no better than junk food.
But this prospect is short-sighted. We are not going to sustainably feed billions of people with nutritious food without food preparation. The growing backlash against transformation is a backlash that neither people nor the planet can afford.
The benefits of processed foods
Processed foods aren’t limited to Coca-Cola, milk chocolate, and convenience foods. Most plant and animal products undergo some form of processing to turn them into something we can – and want – to eat. We grind grain into flour to make bread. We slaughter and debone animals for meat. We pasteurize the milk.
Processed foods have given us countless benefits, many of which we quickly forget. Iodized salt is just one example; iodine deficiencies were common throughout the world, resulting in increased risks stillbirths and miscarriages, significant reductions in IQ and reduced cognitive development. Most of the world now consumes salt with added iodine, and many countries have eliminated this deficiency. By adding nutrients to foods, we have been able to address a number of other micronutrient deficiencies.
We were able to preserve food and increase its shelf life, reducing food waste. We have reduced the spread of foodborne illnesses. People with food allergies and intolerances can now have a balanced diet. We don’t have to spend the day preparing food – this has been particularly important for the women’s academic and professional development. Last but not least: the taste. Our shelves are now filled with tasty food.
Of course, when people talk about “processed” foods, they’re often talking about ultra-processed foods (UPF). These snacks and ready meals are designed to have a longer shelf life and be more convenient and appetizing. Companies work hard to find the “Goldilocks” flavor profile we can’t resist by adding sugar and fat to make foods as tasty as possible. Many describe these finely tuned combinations as addictive.
It’s true that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked to poor health outcomes. This has been associated with reduced consumption of essential nutrients, such as vitamins C, D and B12. The more we eat these foods, the more more likely we must be overweight or obese. This puts us at a higher risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Ultra-processed foods are easy to overeat.
The problem with most UPFs is that they are higher in calories, sugar, and fat. And they’re lower in protein and fiber, the nutrients that keep us full.
But this is not inherent in food processing itself. What matters is what companies add to our diets. They can create healthier foods if they want to or if we demand it.
The Growing Backlash Against Meat Substitutes
One area where I see the biggest backlash against processing is in meat alternatives.
These products try to mimic the meat experience and include vegetable proteins such as soy sausages; Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat; proteins from fermentation, such as Quorn, and lab-grown meat.