THE BLOG
02/25/2011 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's The Problem with Processed Foods?

Only Mark Bittman could take the humble rolled oatmeal flake, cook up a column on the industrial indignities to which McDonald's has subjected this wholesomest of whole grains, and have the resulting lamentation shoot to the top of the New York Times most widely e-mailed list and cling like Qaddafi.

It's a testament both to the power of Bittman's newly amplified advocacy (kinda like Dylan going electric, I guess) and our growing preoccupation with processed foods. Bittman's piece also offers a response, of sorts, to Pete Wells' final Cooking With Dexter column from last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Busy Signals, in which Wells suggests that the problem is not processed foods, per se, just processed foods made with crappy ingredients:

...there's nothing wrong with processed food. The problem is bad processed food. Instead of cajoling people to get "back" into the kitchen and shaming them into avoiding processed foods, it might be more helpful to work on turning out proc­essed foods and fast foods that taste like more than just salt and grease and that don't make kids fat and sick.

Well, sure. You betcha. But, as the case of the adulterated oatmeal demonstrates, McDonald's seems congenitally incapable of shifting from its default formula of highly processed sweeteners, fats, and, for good measure "11 weird ingredients you would never keep in your kitchen."

Bittman asked McDonald's via e-mail:

"Why could you not make oatmeal with nothing more than real oats and plain water, and offer customers a sweetener or two (honey, the only food on earth that doesn't spoil, would seem a natural fit for this purpose), a packet of mixed dried fruit, and half-and-half or -- even better -- skim milk?"

Their Big-Ag-gravating, autopilot response?:

"Customers can order FMO ("fruit and maple oatmeal") with or without the light cream, brown sugar and the fruit. Our menu is entirely customizable by request with our 'Made for You' platform that has been in place since the late 90s."

Is that platform by any chance built on the usual commodity crop components that form the foundation of McDonald's menu? And where are the real options for folks who'd like to be emancipated from the salt/fat/sugar axis?

For the definitive exposé on why food corporations doggedly foist this stuff on us (and why we Pavlov-doggedly continue to eat it), we'll have to wait for Michael Moss's Salt, Sugar, Fat, due out from Random House next year. Moss is the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who's written scathing pieces on tainted meat, subsidized cheese, and salt apologists.

Given Moss's track record, it's a safe bet that Big Ag and Big Food are already coordinating their Astroturf pushback. I'd like to say that a rolling Moss gathers no stones, but I'm afraid Moss had better prepare to be tarred and factory farm-feathered.

I'll be buying a copy of his book to give my friend Karen, a brilliant medieval scholar who can explain why Joan of Arc's a saint, but remains puzzled by why Jimmy Dean's pancakes and sausage on a stick constitute a sin.

She asked me, "Aren't all sausages processed? How about the healthiest, organic apple sauce, made from local apples? "Processed" sounds so evil, but aren't there lots of good things (like cheese, sausages, and apple sauce) that are processed?"

Sure, I could try to answer Karen's question, but as an academic she's sure to value the two cents of a fellow scholar far more than my bloggerly blather (for which the going rate is, alas, somewhere south of two cents--not to bite the hand that doesn't feed me! Foraging for edible weeds is plenty o' fun.)

So, I'm steering Karen to my NYU nutrition professor mentor Marion Nestle's recent piece on real vs. processed foods, which expands on Carlos Monteiro's commentary about ultra-processed foods in the November World Health Journal.

And if that's not wonky enough, Karen can sink her teeth into Monteiro's whole series of in-depth analyses on processed foods, the most recent of which is here.

Of course, I could just give her a copy of Michael Pollan's Food Rules. The problem is that Karen, like so many of her fellow Americans, just doesn't relish being told what to do. Or what to eat. Telling her something is healthy is tantamount to telling her it's been dipped in some kind of fecal fondue. And that, in a nutshell, is why we're in such deep doo-doo.