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In defense of (some) processed foods


Mark Bittman takes aim at a particular peeve of mine: people's wildly inconsistent attitudes towards processed food. I've met plenty of folks who'll lament all the "processed crap" people feed to their kids and then pull out some vegetarian bacon or sausage. That stuff, of course, is processed, too. Even tofu is heavily processed. It's a process with a long pedigree (Han Dynasty, if Wikipedia is to be believed), but as anyone who's ever seen a soybean knows, it sure doesn't grow out of the ground looking for feeling like that.

The broader problem, though, is that it's really not a good idea to develop fake critiques in order to justify your dislike of specific foods. One of the really difficult things about getting people to eat better is convincing them that it's not just a way for others to impose class-based lifestyle preferences on one another. But when you're down on processed foods that are sold in Giant but all about the processed stuff you can buy at Whole Foods, that's what comes through.

You see this pretty clearly with frozen foods. Foodies love to freeze (and can and jar and pickle) things, but there's a real condescension and distaste for frozen foods you can buy at the supermarket. But in a world in which people are working longer hours and may not want to learn how to cook, prepackaged meals are going to be a big part of any solution. And that's not a bad thing: Freezing food is good for preserving nutrition, it's good for sticking to controlled portions, etc. If the choice is that or takeout -- and the choice often is that or takeout -- then it's to everyone's benefit if people feel good about choosing frozen meals and have a good selection of them to choose from.

Photo credit: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 14, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I know lots of people swear by freezing raw meat, but it really does alter the chemical structure. Soups, beans and pasta sauce from summer tomatoes are ok to freeze, though.

Agree with the larger point, though. And what counts as processed? Doesn't bread and packaged pasta count? I tend to think of it as anything not made by oneself from basic ingredients, like meat, fresh (preferably), frozen or canned fruits vegetables, and condiments. I appreciate someone milling my flour, processing whole grains, and baking bread.

The book sounds horrible. I'd rather eat a steak (grass-fed, no hormones) than most of the stuff mentioned in Bittman's review.

Posted by: Mimikatz | June 14, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Could not agree more. There was also an interesting article in the NY Times a week or so ago about Elisabeth Badinter's new book, which touches on some of the same themes. It's not just a class thing, it's a gender thing: to be a "good mom" nowadays, I am supposed to feed my kids hormone-free milk, pesticide-free fruits and veggies, free-range meat and eggs, and preservative-free everything else -- oh, and it's all supposed to be fresh, in season, and locally grown, too. Sure.

As soon as that first baby popping out comes with an extra 24 hrs in a day, I'll be happy to spend that extra time raising chickens, harvesting veggies, and going to little markets 2-3 times a week, planning a wholesome, balanced diet around whatever I find that looks to be at its peak of freshness. Until that happens, I have a job, a husband, and, oh yeah, a life. I have neither the time nor the free brain cells to manage all of that.

I do grow my own berries (just canned six jars of jam this weekend, as a matter of fact), and I get milk, eggs, and yogurt from a (relatively) local dairy. But you know what? Sometimes -- horror of horrors -- my kids actually eat box mac and cheese. "Perfection" in any sphere is completely unattainable -- and in most cases, not worth the effort it requires to get close.

Posted by: laura33 | June 14, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

"One of the really difficult things about getting people to eat better is convincing them that it's not just a way for others to impose class-based lifestyle preferences on one another."

This is a great quote and applies to a lot of other things. See:

1. Smoking bans
2. Sugary Drink Taxes
3. Mass Transit versus driving
4. Bill Maher hatin' on PBR (

Posted by: jnc4p | June 14, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

This is just incoherent. People making a double portion of lasagna and freezing half is indistinguishable from Stouffer's? Any non-raw food is "processed" in the same sense? What a terrible, literalist fallacy.

Yes, people are sloppy in their terminology, but taking issue with heavily processed and prepackaged foods is simply shorthand for recognizing that industrially processed foods are generally processed using a host of ingredients that are far from anything you'd choose to put in your mouth, and that they tend to use fats, sugars, and salt in proportions that no respectable parent would ever put in the food he or she prepares for his or her own family.

Laura33 is certainly correct that we are none of us perfect, but it's not exactly news that we should be moderate in all things, including moderation. The problem is that [industrially] processed foods are inherently immoderate.

Posted by: JRoth_ | June 14, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

The San Francisco-Civic Center farmer's market is located in the Tenderloin, and if being a member of the poverty stricken class means buying as much fresh and local produce as you can cart away twice a week, then fresh food is a class issue. Of course, Whole Foods shoppers choose their produce from the upscale ferry building farmer's market, a fine place where the same farmers often charge double for the same items they sell at the Civic center. The Asian and Indian immigrants watch their pennies in the Tenderloin market because they won't eat the nutritionally void junk so many Americans call dinner. American culture is weak when it comes to food culture. It's not a class thing, It's a culture thing.

Posted by: karenfink | June 14, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this is a silly straw-man argument. Can you, or Mark Bittman, quote some actual living vegetarians/vegans/fans of 'natural foods' who condemn all processed foods while happily freezing their own left-overs or using products like blocks of tofu or tempeh? I keep encountering this...Why does it have such a zombie life?

There's certainly a difference between tofu and tempeh and/orfarmers-market jam or pickles and the high-sodium, high fat, multi-chemical flavored junk foods we all encounter in U.S. food stores and in the hands of so many children and adults. Do all vegans/vegetarians eat highly processed faux-bacon , fake-sausage, super sugary tofu 'ice cream' or other such things? I don't. I read the label and see immediately that they're loaded with sodium., sweeteners,etc. A good vegan cookbook, like Vegan with a Vengeance, or website like tells me how to make my own.....

Posted by: nancycadet | June 14, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

I would say that's a somewhat strange way to look at it. It leads people to believe that cooking is difficult. Yes, if you are a gourmet chef, it's difficult. However, to cook salmon, burgers, veggie burgers, ain't tough.

Recently, I even learned of a faux apple pie that is both healthy, low in calorie and takes all of three minutes to make.

On the other hand, while I am a huge fan of Michael Pollan, I do not subscribe to his belief of paying more for food.

Bottom line: You can eat good food, healthy food...quickly and inexpensively.

Ken Leebow

Posted by: KenLeebow | June 18, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

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