Eat This Newsletter 099

  • The Washington Post’s intrepid Rome reporters recently filed a long story about Italy’s equally intrepid parmesan police. It is a good piece, as far as it goes.
  • A tweet from Rachel Laudan alerted me to a conversation about food processing and food safety between Anna Zeide and Robert Shewfelt (start here).
  • A massive EU study looked into the DNA of 487 different kinds of wheat. Results support the current view of its evolution, and also offer some surprising insights into its recent history.

Longer — much longer — version here (and while you’re there, consider subscribing).


  1. I enjoyed reading your take on Canned laughter and a critique of the dialog I had with Anna Zeide on my blog. You asked for comments so here are a few counterpoints. First, most commentaries urge us to avoid processed food without making the distinction of avoiding ultra-processed food. I appear to be not the only one engaging in bait-and-switch. I have real problems with the classification of ultra-processed foods, though, as the concept entails almost all pre-packaged foods that can be found in a modern supermarket. Ultra-processed foods are described as those containing “ingredients like added sugars, saturated fats and high amounts of sodium,” but also include those “often full of preservatives and artificial ingredients that might not be best for you and your family.” For example, the definition you site and the recent study highlighting the dangers of ultra-processed food groups both of these categories together. I call the first group junk food and the second convenience food. Junk food includes ice cream, cakes, cookies, sodas and salted snacks. Convenience foods classed as ultra-processed include mass-produced breads, ready-to-eat foods, meat-and-chicken extracts, and instant sauces and soups. In other words, almost any product that could make it easier for a disabled person to maintain autonomy by preparing their own meals or a single parent working minimum wage jobs trying to keep food on the table for their kids are ultra-processed. By these guidelines almost all sandwiches made in America are also ultra-processed foods. I will not defend consumption of large amounts of junk food, but to lump it together with convenience foods is naïve at best and misleading at worst. Not all processed foods are junk, and not all junk foods are processed.

    1. Jeremy Cherfas

      NB: To make full sense of the dialogue unfolding here, you probably need to have read the issue of Eat This Newsletter that contains my original take on the conversation between Robert Shewelt and Anna Zeide.

      I fully agree that most commentaries don’t discriminate among different degrees of processing either. Funnier still are those that tell us to avoid processed foods while at the same time singing the praises of kombucha or sauerkraut. But I think that actually offers an insight into how they think of processed foods, so I’m happy to ignore them.

      I disagree, however, that ultra-processed includes “almost all pre-packaged foods that can be found in a modern supermarket”. It certainly does not apply, for example, to a box of polished white rice, or a can of tomato pulp.

      There is definitely a whole web of problems around convenience foods that is worth untangling, and someday I may attempt that. For now, I’ll just say that I do not agree that the things you include in that are, in my mind, equally processed. I am no fan of mass-produced bread, but I consider it to be in a different category than many ready-to-eat foods, and I have no idea what meat-and-chicken extracts actually are. Perhaps I lead too sheltered a life.

      Equally, foods that allow disabled people a measure of autonomy are not equivalent to the very cheap calories that single parents often purchase essentially because they have no options.

      As for ready-made sandwiches, they would be ultra-processed if their ingredents were ultra-processed, but not otherwise.

      I honestly do not think that either I or the authors of the World Nutrition paper I cited were lumping convenience foods and what you call junk food. I can only state once again that my problem is with using the single word “processed” to cover everything from a pre-packaged ingredient or food to a Twinkie.

      With that in mind, and, of course, everything we both know about a balanced diet, I would have to counter that not all junk food is junk, not all processed food is ultra-processed, and no single food is either healthy or unhealthy. Even Michael Pollan’s advice not to eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food falls down in specific cases. My grandmother wouldn’t have recognised sashimi.

      1. I should note that I was referring to American supermarkets, not necessarily ones that you find in Europe. I will quote directly from the World Nutrition article you cite in the original post “The fourth NOVA group is of ultra-processed food and drink products. These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients.” These foods indeed dominate the middle aisles of the American supermarket. This World Nutrition article codifies Michael Pollan’s Rule # 6 in Food Rules: An Eater’s Manifesto to “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” Although this has become a mantra for critics of processed food and has been repeated many times, it is not grounded in science. Many of these convenience foods are directly what Jonathan Katz was describing in his guest blog appearance on my site on Processed Food, Disability and Autonomy. With respect to American home-made sandwiches, if the bread was purchased in a supermarket it is likely mass produced with more than five ingredients and thus ultra-processed. Likewise any deli meat and spread like mustard, mayo or margarine is also likely ultra-processed.

        As far as processed meats that you mention in your original post, it would appear that cured ham and bacon would be processed and not ultra-processed as they “contain additives used to preserve original properties or to resist microbial contamination.” That description clearly applies to nitrates and nitrites whether added directly or surreptitiously as celery powder or celery salt. Virtually all sausages including bologna and pepperoni would also be considered ultra-processed as they are “reconstituted meat products.” I also find it curious that sugar added by the food industry makes a food ultra-processed but highly refined white sugar, honey or maple syrup are culinary ingredients and thus not ultra-processed. Likewise, butter and lard when used by the home cook are acceptable culinary ingredients, but, if added to a commercial product they turn it into an ultra-processed food.

        The problem I have with the World Nutrition classification of ultra-processed foods is that they lump all the high sugar/high fat/high salt foods with convenience foods that have more than five ingredients. Then studies are conducted matching health outcomes to consumption of ultra-processed food. The health outcomes are not good, so the conclusion of a recent study in prestigious journal is that both junk foods and convenience foods are hazardous to our health because they are both classified as ultra-processed (1). I suspect that if you removed convenience foods from the category and lumped fruit consumption with junk food that fruit consumption would be deemed unhealthy.

        (1)Schnabel, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Alles, B., Touvier, M., Srour, B., Hercberg, S., Buscail, C., and Julia, C. 2019. Association between ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of mortality among middle-aged adults in France. JAMA Internal Medicine 173 [JAMA Internal Med doi:10.100/jamainternmed.2018.7289]

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