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junk food The Atlantic Monthly, a well-known and (in some circles) respected publication, published an article last week by David H. Freedman entitled “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”. The title should have been a red flag. When a title sounds too implausible to be true, it usually means some editor is trying to attract attention by being deliberately contrarian and misleading—it is the calling card of junk journalism. And that is exactly what we have here—junk journalism at its finest.

First of all, the article does not really claim that junk food will end obesity. Instead, it claims that junk food is becoming less “junky” and if we just stop complaining about the food industry and let them find innovative ways to reduce fat and sugar, those good, altruistic folks at Kraft and Nestle will solve the obesity problem for us. In fact, the article is not about solving the obesity problem but is a screed directed against people who complain about processed food. The author dismissively refers to them as “Pollanites” after the journalism professor Michael Pollan, whose books have helped drive the trend towards fresh, organic, minimally processed, locally-grown ingredients.

The author, Freedman, goes so far as to blame our continuing obesity problems on proponents of fresh food:

Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective, near-term steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates let them?

Huh? The wholesome food movement is preventing Kraft and McDonalds from making healthier food? He doesn’t supply evidence that the food industry is doing much to reduce fat and sugar in their products, but let’s suppose that claim is true. Does he really think the food industry is doing this out of kindness? Or is it the result of pressure from “Pollanites”? The message of the wholesome food movement—that we should take control of our food consumption habits and not rely on the food industry to provide us with the best options—is a threat to their business, and they are responding by at least giving the appearance of being concerned about nutrition.

How exactly do Pollan’s books or his fan’s eating habits prevent Kraft from producing healthier products if they want? Freedman never says; his claim is utter nonsense.

He then goes on to point out that some of the products sold at Whole Foods have more fat and sugar than food purchased at mainstream supermarkets. His example is something called Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster that apparently has more calories than a Big Mac.

Is this a surprise? Whole Foods is a corporate food producer and like any corporation, it aims to make money. Although they offer organic and sustainable options, if they can make money by selling added fats and sugar they will. Pollan and his fans advocate fresh fruits and vegetables not “Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster” and nothing in the literature on wholesome foods suggests “Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster” should be on anyone’s shopping list if they are trying to lose weight. The fact that Whole Foods sells some unhealthy food is utterly irrelevant to the viability of the wholesome food movement, as is the fact that entrepreneurs are trying capitalize on this movement by selling junk food to vegans. The wholesome food movement is not out to shill for some company. Of course, Freedman ignores the fact that Whole Foods has an incredible variety of healthy food options to choose from, pricey though they may be.

The rest of the article is so unbalanced one wonders if Freedman is on someone’s payroll. He praises one or two of McDonald’s healthier products but never mentions the rest of their menu. He criticizes chefs, such as Mark Bittman, who associate with the wholesome food movement but occasionally develop recipes with lots of fat; he never mentions the healthy recipes they create in far greater numbers. He is concerned only with the problem of obesity and dismisses concerns about the adverse health effects of chemicals in food or the environmental damage caused by non-sustainable agriculture.

The conceptual difficulty with the entire article is that Freedman seems capable of thinking only in absolutist terms. He thinks the wholesome food movement is based on the equation “unprocessed=good, processed=bad”. But this is not the argument made by the wholesome food movement. Their argument is more complex: processed food tends to be bad for you; fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and minimally processed grains and legumes tend to be good for you, if you don’t do anything to screw them up. Nothing in this article refutes that more complex message.

The article does make one point that is worth keeping in mind although it gets obscured by the cheap rhetoric and appalling logic. It should be obvious that recommendations to eat fresh, minimally processed, locally-sourced ingredients will not, by itself, solve the obesity problem or any other health problem. Most people live in regions of the country where weather or lack of arable land prevents access to year-round, local produce. Furthermore, Freedman is correct that issues of class come into play. Health problems tend to be greater among the less affluent who cannot afford the prices at Whole Foods or a farmer’s market and who often live in “food deserts” where fresh ingredients are unavailable. Advocating that they eat fresh, locally-produced food will have little effect on their diets. Furthermore, there simply is no way to produce enough food to feed well over 300,000,000 people without industrial food production. The problem of a sustainable, healthy food supply is a systemic issue that cannot be solved through individual choice. Thus, he is right that industrial food production must be on-board if the problem is to be solved.

But targeting the wholesome food movement is utterly wrongheaded. By, as much as possible, refusing to purchase processed foods and sending the message that food should be sustainably-produced and healthy, the wholesome food movement is trying to change the way we think about food with the intention of ultimately making the system work for us. They are interested in creating symbols of healthy eating.

This pressure “from below” is a necessary although not sufficient condition for making such change occur. Waiting for our corporate masters to become enlightened is not an option. That seems plausible only to corrupt journalists who build articles around a catchy headline.

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