Processed foods aren't going anywhere, so can we make them better?

hamburger helper
CC BY 2.0 david_jones -- Hamburger Helper, a popular dinner time-saver for many families, lines Walmart shelves.

The popular attack on processed foods does no favors for anyone. It deepens cultural and class divides, making people feel even worse about their inability to cook every meal from scratch. The Angry Chef proposes an unorthodox solution.

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the massive sums of money being spent by governments on healthy advertising, on encouraging people to eat fresh produce and cook meals from scratch, are completely misplaced. Maybe the solution to the health and obesity crisis lies precisely where we don’t want to see it – within the realm of packaged convenience foods.

This is the unorthodox and controversial stance of the Angry Chef, a passionate blogger who tackles issues of food inequality in long, expletive-filled articles. In Part 4 of “The Convenience Truth” series, the Angry Chef argues that promoting changes in habit through public health campaigns isn’t going to make a difference in the lives of low-income families, who usually happen to be a nation’s unhealthiest and most obese.

"Even if a return to naturalness was the solution, it does not fit our society and it has no relevance to most people’s lives."

Telling poor, fat people to eat more vegetables, to buy local organic produce at their local farmers’ markets, to make food from scratch, to cut back on convenience foods in order to offset the cost of free-range meat, to detox their health problems with “low alkaline wheatgrass and dandelion smoothies” is not realistic. It’s shortsighted and stupid. It also creates deeper cultural problems.

“In shaming the fat, in shaming people who eat processed foods, in pouring scorn upon people suffering from genuinely debilitating health problems, we are widening the class divide. Every time we demonize the processed foods that people eat, every time we label essential manufactured products as dirty or unclean, every time we tell people that their choices are [crap] and they are killing themselves and their children, we make the divide wider still. We are trying to assert aspirational middle class food values on people who don’t want them and in doing so we are marginalizing those who need help the most. We are making the divide into a chasm that will never be crossed.”

The Angry Chef believes that convenience foods aren’t going anywhere, nor is poverty and social inequality. Nor are working mothers who want to escape the age-old burden of domesticity and hold jobs outside the home, making it nearly impossible to prepare every meal from scratch. He argues that vilifying convenience foods is actually an attack on feminism:

“In shaming the rise of convenience foods we are blaming women for the moral decline of society. This is driven by the still twitching corpse of deeply engrained Victorian misogyny, a longing for a distant time when women knew their place… Even if a return to naturalness was the solution, it does not fit our society and it has no relevance to most people’s lives.”

Is there a solution?

The Angry Chef argues that convenience foods should be reformulated to better nourish the families that use them. Food manufacturers should change their recipes to create products that are healthier overall. Ideally this would be done voluntarily by the entire industry, throwing away competitive concerns, with new attention given to portion sizes and the creation of industry-wide quality standards.

Not only would it benefit the health of lower-income families, but it could also boost the reputation of food processing companies that have lost much of the public’s confidence.

“Slow reformulation of existing products is the best way to achieve real change. Public Health England agrees that it is likely to be far more effective that taxation in driving better choices and yet there is not a single celebrity chef campaigning for it or celebrating it when it happens.”

That’s because it’s not trendy to embrace products that have been portrayed as the enemy for so long, nor are cookbooks with prepared foods on the ingredients list likely to sell as well; it seems very 1960s.

There is a negative side to the Angry Chef’s argument. It could be seen as patronizing to make food choices on behalf of lower income families. In the words of an online commenter, “You think you are making your choice, but actually it has been altered to make it my choice for your own good.” People may not like that.

But they probably will like losing weight, lowering their blood pressure, cholesterol, and associated medical bills, all without having to alter their eating habits too significantly.

Healthy advertising still has its place, as a diet comprised of natural, whole foods will always be the ultimate goal for optimal human health; but as long as that goal is unrealistic for every single person on this planet, product reformulation is probably the best place to start.

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