Back to the Kitchen: Escaping Processed Food

To escape the adverse effects of consuming industrial processed food, society must learn fundamental cooking skills once more.

| June 2014

Mixing food writing and history, adding a dash of cookbook, Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food (Oregon State University Press, 2013) by Ken Albala, shares the story of what happened when he started taking food history seriously and embarked on a mission to grow, cook, and share food in the ways that people did in the past in a mission to escape industrial processed food. In Albala’s compelling book, obscure seventeenth-century Italian farmer-nobles, Roman statesmen, and quirky cheesemakers from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries all offer lessons about our relationship with the food we eat. The following excerpt is from “Second Course, Cook Food.”

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Processed Food

The past two decades have witnessed a meteoric rise of interest in food and cooking in the popular media. This has been manifest in bestselling cookbooks, an ever-growing number of cooking shows on multiple television networks, and brisk sales of food magazines (despite the demise of Gourmet). This interest has spilled over into academia. Food has become a serious object of study across the disciplines and there are several major encyclopedias, food book series, journals, conferences, and classes throughout college curricula.

Ironically, at the same time, there has been a decrease in actual home cooking. Home-cooked meals prepared from scratch declined from 72 percent of all meals eaten in 1980 to 59 percent in 2010. With the exception of a few ardent souls who truly enjoy spending time in the kitchen, the majority of Americans consider cooking an odious chore, something to be finished as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can get back to doing other, more important, things. Thus people are perfectly satisfied with having others cook for them. Drive through the center of any city or suburb and you will find not only fast food chains, but the same half-dozen or so casual dining franchises, where the food is made in a factory, arrives frozen, and is microwaved to order. The proliferation is actually staggering; my son and I recently counted nineteen separate Subway sandwich shops where we live, in Stockton, California, a city of about 300,000. Most of the units are located within a radius of just a couple of miles, in the north part of the city.

When not eating out, those who don’t cook are happy buying convenience foods—prepared meals frozen, canned, freeze-dried, or processed to such an extent that little action is required beyond heating. Stroll down the center aisles of any supermarket to witness the proliferation of ready-made and convenience foods. Processed food (as opposed to whole ingredients that must be cooked) accounts for 80 percent of food sold in the United States, in terms of profit. The USDA says we eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, in terms of volume.

Consumers trust the manufacturers of convenience food and are assured that what comes in the package will please their senses—and science guarantees that it will, not only with ample salt and sugar, but also with chemical flavors and fragrances that approximate the taste and aroma of real food. Consumers also trust that such prepared meals will sustain their bodies physiologically, socially, and perhaps even spiritually. By convenience food I mean anything ready to eat, or that only needs heating, so this includes much of the so-called health food, organic food, and nutraceutical fare among the fastest growing sectors of the food industry. Not only the latest açai berry bar and live lactobacillus acidophilus probiotic concoctions, but also organic Cheetos®. Add to that the many weight-loss programs that require purchasing frozen meals. Convenience foods are slowly insinuating themselves into every corner of the grocery: little plastic packages of cut-up apples (because children are apparently no longer aware of how to use their teeth) sprayed with chemicals, an entire aisle of breakfast cereals, another of crackers and cookies and snacks. But more notably, there are “complete,” ready-made meals showing up everywhere. In the ethnic foods aisle there are boxes of pad thai, Mexican taco kits, vindaloo in a bag—pretty much anything to prevent you from actually trying to cook these foods. Even the butcher pre-marinates, pre-stuffs, and precooks the pre-cut-up meat that is now processed elsewhere. Don’t forget those things that give the illusion of cooking—cake mixes, cookie dough or biscuits in a tube, prebaked pizza dough. All these ultimately lure the consumer away from cooking foods from scratch, even though it is usually much less expensive and just as easy to do so.

8/10/2015 3:24:41 PM

I prepare almost ALL of my food except whole grain cereal and granola. I can hardly go into a grocery store and buy frozen food because I know I won't like it and/or will be able to taste the additives. If you prepare almost everything you eat your palate gets used to all natural flavors and can taste additives. I grow my own veggies as well an eat primarily off of my garden in the summer. Such a shame what we've lost. Food prepared properly is love and that is how I show my love to people. What replaces this - a Smart phone?