Too much, and not enough, in Atlantic junk-food story

My alert and studious friend Steve passed me this story from the Atlantic that springs from a familiar mold, taking the contrarian viewpoint on a reaction to orthodoxy. In this instance, the orthodoxy is our broken food system, the reaction is Pollanism, and David H. Freedman’s contrarian viewpoint is embodied by its headline, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”

Let me stipulate right up front that I didn’t read the entire story. Even as intensely interested as I am in the topic, even after a couple of attempts “because I should,” I could not force myself to even to the end of section II. It has four. The story is just too flabby for me.

If I’d found the heft nourishing, I’d have stuck with it, but in just the introductory dozen paragraphs, it had committed enough of the usual rhetoric flubs, I concluded it was nothing new. Just longer.

A common device used by Big Food minions such as the "Center for Consumer Freedom" is to overstate the opposition’s position, so that itself can seem more reasonable. Freedman’s first example is: “An enormous amount of media space has been dedicated to promoting the notion that all processed food, and only processed food, is making us sickly and overweight.”

Uh, no. It’s not “all,” and it’s not “only.” Not even Pollan or Bittman suggests going into the field to chew wheat from the stalk. But processed food is more likely to be harmful than whole foods, and the more processed a food is, such as too-typical monstrosities like this, the more likely it is to be unhealthful.

One of Freedman’s first points is about the economics of food as they stands: Only yuppies can afford the oh-so-precious fare at Whole Foods. I don’t disagree that Whole Foods’s whole food is both better and more expensive, and that price is only one bar to wider distribution of these goods.

But how can you discuss food economics without talking about the billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies that underwrite the ingredients of junk food? If you think it’s wrong that better food costs more, then you should think it wrong that meddlesome government manipulated by industry has made it that way, and could change it but won’t.

Freedman points out that many more-whole ingredients are often tarted up with just as much sugar and fat as the more processed ones, and I agree with that. But he cites it as evidence that “Michael Pollan has no clothes,” while I take it as proof that too much sugar and fat is (still) too much sugar and fat. Not much news there.

Here’s a passage I quite agree with:

People who want to lose weight and keep it off are almost always advised by those who run successful long-term weight-loss programs to transition to a diet high in lean protein, complex carbs such as whole grains and legumes, and the sort of fiber vegetables are loaded with. Because these ingredients provide us with the calories we need without the big, fast bursts of energy, they can be satiating without pushing the primitive reward buttons that nudge us to eat too much. ... To be sure, many of Big Food’s most popular products are loaded with appalling amounts of fat and sugar and other problem carbs (as well as salt), and the plentitude of these ingredients, exacerbated by large portion sizes, has clearly helped foment the obesity crisis. It’s hard to find anyone anywhere who disagrees. Junk food is bad for you because it’s full of fat and problem carbs.

First, I have to ask: Who are these people “who run successful long-term weight-loss programs”? Regardless: Yes, that’s right! A healthy way of eating, followed by the reasons that Big Food’s crap is driving the obesity crisis. Excellent! But what’s it doing in this story that stakes a contrarian claim?

I’m happy to stipulate that even healthy ingredients can be bastardized, and that some of the leading voices in any movement can have clay feet (Bittman’s display of corn sauteed in bacon fat raises questions for me, too.) But to me, they don’t undercut the basic premise, that whole foods are healthier than processed foods, and we’d all be better off if we ate with that in mind. Nothing, at least in the part I could stomach, undercuts that.


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