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.

  • 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.
    Photo by Fotolia/adisa
  • A rare form of historical activism, “Grow Food, Cook Food, Share Food” by Ken Albala is written for anyone who likes to eat, loves to cook and is ready to ditch the processed food overtaking their diet.
    Cover courtesy Oregon State University Press

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.

11/15/2019 7:10:49 AM

It seems likely that much of this “back to the kitchen” emphasis will fall on women who are already stretched without the demand that they prepare every meal from scratch in their home kitchen. Whatever happened to the idea of community kitchens, where people could share the tasks of food preparation, save time (by taking turns) and develop social connections at the same time? How about demanding higher quality and nutritional value from our food industries? Let’s develop some progressive options.

8/9/2019 2:22:27 PM

I object to the idea that a can of tomatoes , or a bag of frozen peas is the same as canned ravioli. Some of us live far enough away from stores that daily trips to buy fresh produce are both unreasonable and environmentally unsound. Also, frozen vegetables directly from the field are often more nutricious than week old broccoli at the store. I buy frozen fish because I live in Kansas City, almost a thousand miles from any ocean. If I buy a bushel of peas and freeze them myself, how is that better than buying a bag of frozen people. I agree that food processed to the point that the original ingredients are not longer recognisable is probably unhealthy, but to lump all "processed" food together is silly. It also shows a degree of arrogance and entitlement to thinks that peopple who use processed food are lazy and uneducated. Fresh, raw ingredients are expensive and not readily available in all areas. Transportation is sketchy, and many families no longer have a stay at home mom who can spend hours preparing meals. I think my most basic disputes with this article seems to feed that anything but raw ingredients are "processed food". Is flour a processed food ? What about hamburger ? Both of these are not in their natural state. If you can't make a real contribution to the problem, why are you writing this article?

1/11/2019 10:45:20 AM

After reading some of the comments that essentially say "just cook! It is easy!" I would like to describe the circumstances and attitudes of many young adults with whom I work as my therapy clients. Many of them grew up in households with two busy working parents who did not have the time to do much home cooking. They grew up eating packaged foods and/or grabbing takeout. If they can nuke it in a microwave, they are good to go. When their parents did cook at home, many did not want to slow down enough to get in teaching mode. Many of their parents did not learn home cooking skills either. Some of my young adult clients wish that they had grown up in a home where they were taught to cook. They are intimidated by the process of planning, shopping and cooking. As silly as that sounds to those who know how to cook, think of something you are intimidated by, such as learning auto repair or a foreign language as an adult, and think how frustrating it might be if someone who is experienced with these skills said "Just watch a YouTube video" or "Just read a book about it!"

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