Citywatch: Processing Methods May Move Nutrition to Food Movement Center Stage

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By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

Take a pass on food guides, ingredient pyramids, and with any diet books that feature pro-carb, anti-carb, low-fat or packaged solutions of any sort.

The emphasis of the food movement may be shifting towards nutrition and the fight against heavily processed foods. Go fresh! (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The whole field of nutrition – all the way from basic understanding of food make-up to consumer education to public regulation of healthy food choices – is about to get the biggest shake-up in the 200-year-old history of nutrition science as a branch of food chemistry.

The food movement, largely a force of the last 20 years, grew out of efforts to protect local family farms, address issues of hunger and want, promote environmental sustainability, conserve biodiversity, reclaim the spirituality, mindfulness, pleasures, places, cultures and terroir of food, and foster a new crop of food artisans with ambitions to combine community, health and economic benefits.

Nutrition has rarely been front and center of the food movement. Partly that worked to steer clear of turf wars with jurisdictionally jealous dietitians, who tended to see food through an exclusively functional and utilitarian lens – a carrot is a carrot is a carrot and its purpose is to supply Vitamin A and that’s about all we need to know. Partly it worked to build the food movement as a Big Tent movement that stood on its own ground – independent of the divisions identified by vegans, vegetarians, raw foodists, and so on, as well as nutritionists.

That strict boundary between nutrition and food movement concerns may soon end, and that will be a good thing, that may well help the food movement meet its primary task of connecting the dots and people in the whole enchilada known as the food system. It may be time to realize that food system thinking without a nutritional component is a bit like democracy without free speech or human rights.

What caught my attention about the possibility of a new approach to nutrition was an e-mail link that took me to the November issue of the World Nutrition journal , with an editorial proclaiming the “big issue is ultra-processing,” not specific ingredients or nutrients.

A few months away from wrapping up a year-long series by esteemed Brazilian epidemiologist Carlos Monteiro, the editorial claims that its process-centered approach “implies a revolution in thinking about food, nutrition and health at all levels.”

The revolution seems to be that enjoying simple meals with friends and family will displace preoccupation with specific nutrients as the framework for both personal appreciation and public evaluation of food choices. Occupy the meal table!!!

Among the changes to expect from this new processing-centered thinking will be a dramatic increase in the role of local governments in food and health regulations – an area now monopolized by dysfunctional national and international bodies beyond the reach of the populace and more or less captured by global food processing corporations. By any reasonable standards of a government’s duty of care and protection, the failure to provide legal restrictions around salt levels in processed foods or antibiotics in animal feed speaks to some level of failed states when it comes to food matters.

As processing-based food understandings take hold among food enthusiasts, I predict we’ll see a shift to more City Council support for vending of fruits, vegetables and multicultural dishes at farmers markets and by street vendors, less hounding by local health officials of the likes of street-based food vendors and unpasteurized milk advocates, and perhaps even stepped-up actions to use local zoning and taxing powers to protect people from junk food pushers.

The lengthy series in World Nutrition began a year ago, with an editorial claiming it was “time to start again” with a new nutrition paradigm that highlighted processing methods.

Three kinds of processing are identified, each with specific impacts on health, sustainability and other public benefits.

Stage 1 food processing is as old as humans, relative newcomers on the Earth. Few species adapted to human habits in order to use human eaters in the same way that flowers use bees and nut trees use squirrels. That’s why so few foods are perfectly “all-natural.” They require some bare minimum of processing to remove shells or make ingredients digestible. This is why fire, cooking and other tools have been so central to human survival, and why culture has been so intrinsically attached to foodways – in short, why food has always been about more than nutrition.

Most of what Nature provides as potential food for humans needs some treatment before it can be carried, stored, cooked or eaten – removal of husks from grain, cleaning of fish, or fermenting milk into yoghurt, for example.

Stage 1 processing might be viewed as “primitive” or might again be viewed as smart ways of preserving the optimal and authentic core of the original. Stone-ground grains retained the crucial bran and germ, for example, while fermented milk produced healthful yoghurt and mashed of sugar cane produced a sweet drink matching the nutritional treasure trove of blackstrap molasses.

The simple level of processing, more than the chemical composition of the actual foodstuff, determined the health outcome of the product. Likewise, the level of processing made do with technologies and divisions of labor that widely spread related tasks, skills and power  – what today might be termed “neighborhood technologies.”

Stage 2 processing became the norm much more recently in human history, and can be dated to the early 1800s, about the time when capitalism was coming into its own in Europe and the military-industrial complex of the world’s first Industrial Revolution emerged.

Chemistry was the master science of early industrialism because it had a bag of tricks that allowed cheap, uniform and easily workable elements to be substituted for more costly, less predictable and time-consuming materials. As well, to meet the priorities of the new factories and assembly lines, chemically-based inputs corresponded well with the low levels of skill, independence, and power that employers favored in their workers.

Baby formula – the very term “formula” expresses the controlling, chemistry-inspired thinking behind it – was developed by a chemist named Nestle, and became the foundation stone of the world’s premier corporate food colossus. Margarine, cornerstone of today’s Unilever conglomerate, was another typical  innovation of stage 2 processing.

Other typical inventions owed their development to war and fear of war. Canned foods, which recently marked their 200th anniversary, were essential for armies on long marches. Hopped up beers were essential to imperial ships taking the long voyage to India, with ample stocks of India Pale Ale. Chemical fertilizers freed areas such as Germany, where chemical fertilizers were invented, from dependence on bird poop from South America (guano) to fertilize their fields with organic materials – an anxiety-producing dependence on ocean trade at a time when Britain ruled the seas.

Nutrition was the sidekick of stage 2 processing, which featured chemical lab- or factory-made substitutions for items that were once a product of agriculture or Nature.

Stage 3 processing, which provides today’s Europeans and North Americans with about 60 per cent of what they eat, is a hyper form of Stage 2, full of wondrous breads and miraculous whips beyond what Nature could ever provide.  Supermarket cereals, breads and pastries may have a foundation of grains once rich in nutrients identified by chemists, but the processes of refining, extruding, congealing, assembling and baking makes them more fit for long shelf life and compelling packaging, but squanders most of the original nutrients.

Oddly enough, such products are commonly referred to in the food sector as “value-added,” though it would be more accurate to describe them as “value-lost” or “value-subtracted.” In a typical formulation, the ratio of milk in a processed cheese slice or cheese food is reduced as the ratio of water, chemical flavor, binder and so on is increased – thereby saving corporations money and time thanks to cheaper ingredients and extended shelf life. Sometimes chuzzpah is the main ingredient added, as when bread that lost its inherent nutrients during refining is called “fortified” when chemical substitutes take their place.

Against this background of pervasive Stage 3 processing, food guides and diets that promote specific ingredients or classes of ingredients miss the processed forest for the chemical tree. Some dangerous trends have set in as a result of this scientific error in judgment, which is sometimes referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

Many people who avoided fat-laden meat and dairy products during the “carb craze” of the ‘90s have added 20 pounds of empty carbohydrates to their tummies and butts since. The same unhealthy results can be predicted for those who go to the other side of the chemical table and switch to high-protein foods, provided by a diet of cheap grains fed to livestock and grains and other substitute fillers that bring down the price of what was once known as meat. We need a new paradigm of foods, one recognizing that processing trumps biochemistry.

Fundamentally, Monteiro and his colleague Geoffrey Cannon, formerly one of the pioneers of the modern food movement in the U.K., call for a shift back to a higher ratio of foods provided by Stage 1 processing methods. Simply put: more artisan producers, more home cooking from scratch almost automatically means healthier food in all respects, from nutrients to environmental impacts and food access.

If public health regulations supported such a shift, the public health jihad against street vendors offering fruits, veggies, salads, soups and stews, or farmers providing on-farm processing, might be moderated while some measure of public responsibility is imposed on purveyors of Stage 3 processed foods. What’s called public health regulation has really been defined by Stage 2 realities, when hygiene was about all that mattered, and awareness of environmental and social determinants of health was very low. A new and more balanced synthesis is clearly called for.

There is plenty to discuss and argue about here, but it’s a whole new way to think about food in all its dimensions – which is, after all, what food’s robust healthfulness is all about.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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