A choice, or a condition? — The Threefold Advocate
In my biology class, we have finally reached the “nutrition” unit. Like a pastor unto his pulpit, my professor stands at the front of the laboratory, preaching to us poor pagans trapped in the culture of obesity about the saving grace of healthy eating. We are enslaved to the sin of processed foods, wasting away through our carbs and sugars. But the newfound knowledge of the human body has now provided us with the choice to leave the chains of our unhealthy eating habits for the life-giving qualities of raw food, which will allow our cells to function at their fullest capacity and enable us to change our lives for the better. Without fail, my professor has painted the picture of eating habits as a dualistic choice: to eat processed foods or unprocessed. However, as a college student with a meal plan and limited money to spend on her own, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the choice was really so black and white.
What is it my professor even means when referring to “processed foods”? According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “a processed food item is defined as a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change in the character of the covered commodity, or that has been combined with at least one other covered commodity or other substantive food component.” However, this definition is vague at best. Thus, it is best to turn to the NOVA categorization of food processing. According to this list, processed food may be split into four groups: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods. Unprocessed foods describe natural food which is either edible upon being taken from nature or is made edible through processes, such as cleaning or freezing. Processed culinary ingredients are natural ingredients that are processed through dying, refining or pressing. Processed foods encompass the broad category of foods that have been enhanced with added ingredients and processes such as cooking or preservation. Finally, ultra-processed foods may be defined as industrially modified foods that contain emulsifiers and artificial coloring, flavoring and sweeteners.
Of these four groups of processed foods, the most dangerous lie in the ultra-processed category. In general, scientific studies have identified these foods as carrying the dangers of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even cancer. A European study from 2019 has reported ultra-processed foods as yielding a 12% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, 13% risk of coronary heart disease and 11% risk of cerebrovascular disease. Another study from the same year found that, within their sample population, high consumption of ultra-processed foods yielded a 62% risk of mortality, with each additional daily serving increasing the mortality risk to 18%. These foods are no strangers to the shelves of the supermarket: packaged baked goods, carbonated beverages, cereals, microwave meals, dehydrated soups and reconstituted meat and fish all have claimed their territory even at your local Walmart. According to the BMJ, products such as these makeup anywhere between 25-60% of daily energy intake for numerous countries across the globe.
Yet one is left to wonder why these foods take such centrality in so many lives, despite their incredibly dangerous health risks? The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World is clear on this point in their 2020 reporting, in which they establish that healthy diets are globally unaffordable to the poor, offering a conservative estimate of 3 billion people within this margin. The report continues to establish that the price of healthy foods exceeds the international poverty line of 1.90 USD. Studies even within the United States, including a 2017 report by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, identify healthy foods as costing twice as much as unhealthy foods, with a marked difference of 60 cents versus 31 cents per average serving. Harvard Researchers have indicated that the origin of this price disparity may lie in the recent focus of food policy on inexpensive commodities, “which has led to a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.”
As a natural consequence of the prevalence of the ultra-processed, America has seen a drastic rise in obesity in the past twenty years. According to the Center for Disease Control, from 1999-2000 through 2017-2018, the prevalence of obesity in the United States has increased from 30.5% to 42.4%. Most tragically, Trust for America’s Health has confirmed that “systemic inequities and socioeconomic factors contribute to higher rates of obesity among certain racial and ethnic populations.” The American racial group with the highest prevalence of obesity was non-Hispanic black adults, with a total of 49.6%. This serves in correlation with the 2020 US Census report of the black poverty rate, 18.8%, as the highest of any racial group in the country.
Clearly, diet is more than a simple choice of processed or unprocessed. It is a product of one’s circumstances. Location of origin, race and socioeconomic status can all severely limit the availability of healthy food sources. What then is the solution to this grand issue of food injustice? Internet articles offering tips and tricks for healthy diets on a budget? Hoping and wishing that major corporations will realize the error of their ways and build infrastructure for healthy food products? Or is some systemic change required?
Photo Courtesy of Jimmy Dean on Unsplash