The Myth of Healthy Processed Food

US News

The Egg McMuffin Delight I ate for breakfast this morning was fluffy on the inside and doughy and springy on the outside. It was a quick and satisfying (if temporarily) way to start the day, offering a subtle mix of savory flavors. But most importantly, it was healthy. Made with egg whites only and delivering just 150 calories and 7 grams of fat, this new addition to McDonald's menu stands as a prime example of a cheap, hyper-available, healthy processed food.

Or so argues David Freedman in The Atlantic's July/August cover story entitled "How Junk Food Can End Obesity." In this 10,000-word piece, Freedman tries to make the case for why the food industry - specifically the processed food industry - is the answer to our prayers for a less obese and less-disease stricken nation. His view is that the arugula-munching elitists in the food movement are deluding themselves into thinking that the "obese masses," as he puts it, are going to put down their large fries and Doritos Locos Taco Supremes and start eating kale and grilled salmon any time soon.

It's a fun, contrarian argument - too much so for it's own good. In his defense of processed food, Freedman relies on a flawed understanding of nutrition, food processing and what the so-called food elites, "the Pollanites," really stand for. As a result, his argument comes off as naïve as he accuses real foodists of being.

Take that Egg McMuffin Delight. Why exactly is this healthy? Although it was once thought that eggs were bad because of the fat and cholesterol concentrated in their yolks, that thinking no longer has any scientific validity. Eggs are incredibly nutritious, loaded with vitamins B12 and B2, choline and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin - all of it in the yolks that McDonald's has discarded to make their healthier sandwich. Freedman (and perhaps McDonald's) appears stuck in a 1980s understanding of fats. We now know that just because something has had the fat taken out does mean it's healthy. In fact, many fats are considered beneficial - those in peanut butter, almonds and avocados, for instance. Even the once dreaded saturated animal fats are no longer considered so hostile to our health. And it turns out that cholesterol in food, the substance that once helped demonize eggs, is likely to have little bearing on cholesterol levels found in your blood.

The same goes for calories. Just because something is low in calories doesn't make it nutritious or a good idea for weight loss. Freedman talks quite a lot about the need for reducing calories in the food we eat, and while this can be a useful goal, it's not a silver bullet. Weight loss isn't a simple game of calorie math. If it were, diet soda would help people lose weight; it doesn't. When it comes to calories, quality is just as important as quantity. Low calorie food needs to be satiating (a quality known to be inherent to many whole foods, but the mechanisms of which are not well understood by scientists), otherwise people will just replace the calories later.

Freedman also veers off course when he talks about food processing and the effect it has on nutrition. He writes:

"The fact is, there is simply no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy."

This is flat out wrong. While not all aspects of food processing are problematic, there are some industrial processes that unquestionably are. And sometimes it's the cumulative effect of many manipulations that make processed food a nutritional disaster. A few examples:

Trans fat. The process that creates this incredibly unhealthy, artificial type of fat is called partial hydrogenation. Again, it's a process. On its own, vegetable oil is not artery hardening, but heat it to high temperatures, stick nickel into it and bubble hydrogen gas through it, as the food industry has done for decades, and voila - trans fats.

Vitamins and fiber. Ask any food scientist and they will acknowledge that manufacturing and processing is often destructive to vitamins like A, B1, C, E and folic acid, as well as dietary fiber. When faced with intense heat and disfiguring processes like extrusion, these healthful components of food don't fare well. Time and oxygen are also enemies for vitamins, and since most packaged foods need to have long shelf lives, this presents an inherent conflict for packaged food manufacturers that want to sell healthy processed food.

High fructose corn syrup. This stuff, along with other forms of sugar, is one of the worst health offenders in our food, but the corn it started out as isn't. While not the most nutritionally endowed vegetable, corn nonetheless has fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B1 and magnesium. In the space between ears of real corn and HFCS is oodles of processing.

I'm not saying that it's impossible to create healthy processed food. But there are real limitations on what packaged food manufacturers like Pepsi, General Mills, ConAgra and Kellogg's can do. That's why examples of "healthy" processed supermarket foods are often laughable - Baked Lays, vitaminwater, Keebler Right Bites cookies, Rice Krispies, and most infamously, Froot Loops. Restaurants, on the other hand, stand a fighting chance because they can, at least in theory, work with fresher ingredients. In his article, Freeman confesses his devotion to Carl's Jr.'s Charbroiled Cod Sandwich, a product that I agree represents a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. Carl's Jr. also has a new Cranberry Apple Walnut Grilled Chicken salad, which is a great choice. And McDonald's has its new, 420-calorie Premium Chicken Ranch McWraps with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato and cucumbers.

Yet the fallacy of relying on the food industry to get America eating healthy becomes clear when you realize that these products are outliers and half steps. The honey wheat bun in Carl's Jr.'s cod sandwich has little more than a dusting of whole wheat (the addition of caramel coloring makes it look like it has more). McDonald's wraps have no whole wheat at all, delivering a wallop of unhealthy refined carbs. And surely it's possible to make these products without brewing together 70 or more ingredients, including flammable chemicals. Up to this point, food scientists haven't focused much on how to reduce their impact on food - preserving, not trampling all over, its natural goodness. I'd love to see them try.

In the meantime, there are fresh and healthy foods already available to most Americans, including many of those "obese masses" Freedman talks about. And they aren't just found at Whole Foods and farmer's markets, but at the most pedestrian and non-elitist of stores - Walmart, Target, Safeway, Price Chopper, Kroger and the thousands of grocery stores that populate American towns and cities.[1] And the foods they offer are not the kale, yellow beets, heirloom tomatoes and organic squash blossoms that Freedman uses to caricature and misrepresent the food movement. It's basic stuff like bananas (just 30 to 90 cents per pound!), bags of baby carrots, spears of broccoli, fresh lean meat, plain yogurt teeming with beneficial bacteria, cartons of eggs, canned beans, bags of nuts, brown rice and frozen peas. Freedman would call me na?ve, but I believe that it's essential to find ways to get people to consume more of these affordable, tasty and basic foods.

Doing this is not the least bit easy or immediate, but that doesn't mean we should abandon the effort. During research for the book I wrote on processed food (which Freedman was not a big fan of), I sat in on a series of free cooking classes offered to low income people. Run by a national organization called Cooking Matters, they struck me as a great model for the sorts of programs we should be thinking about for improving America's eating habits. All of Cooking Matters' recipes cost no more than $10 for a family of four.

But while the solution has to do with education, some government regulation, reform of the perverse farm subsidy system and perhaps taxation, it doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. The food industry can also play a role, though a supporting one. Ceding over the goals of public health to McDonald's and Kraft only seems like a good idea to those who believe that things like Baked Lays and egg white sandwiches with processed cheese are healthy.

[1] Yes, there are food deserts and it's a problem that needs to be addressed, but there probably aren't as many people living in them as you think. The 30 million people the USDA defines as living in a food desert have to travel more than one mile to a grocery store. Is it too much to ask people to drive two or three miles?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Melanie Warner is a freelance journalist who writes about the food industry. Her book on processed food, Pandora's Lunchbox, was published by Scribner in February 2013. She has worked as a reporter for the New York Times, a senior writer at Fortune magazine, and a blogger for CBSNews.com. Melanie lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and their two boys. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.

View Comments (81)