Processed food. We all know it’s bad for us, don’t we? Some tasteless slop of a meal that has less flavour than the cardboard wrapper it came in. Rubbish stuff, that. Wouldn’t catch anyone eating that. Right?
The answer, it would seem, is not nearly so straightforward.
As with every single thing that I turn my confused gaze upon, the picture is far from clear. The truth probably is out there, but it’s hidden behind a haze of obfuscation, misdirection, over-excited commentary, corporate spin and misguided hand-wringing. But we have to start somewhere, so let us start by considering the main players…
As a country – nay, as a western culture – we consume a lot of processed food. Lots and lots. More than you would expect. And every single processed product has to be processed by someone. Or, probably more accurately, processed by something, operated by someone. To lump every manufacturer of processed foods into one camp would be a gross over-simplification, so let’s say thank you for the ability to over-simplify and do just that: these people, ladies and gentlemen, are the processed food industry.
How do you identify a ‘foodie’? Is every other tweet a picture of their dinner? Do they take any opportunity to talk about meals they have eaten and restaurants they have visited? Do they actually know what it is that you’re meant to do with aubergines? Do they – shudder – have a blog all about food? Yep, they’re probably a foodie. They love their food and processed food is not for them.
The journalists, columnists, scientific professionals and authors who are paid to get to the truth of the matter. To weed out the fact from the fiction and to let us all know what to believe. Which is, of course, what they do. Ahem. Of course.
Everyone else: The people
Again, let’s over-simplify and pretend that everyone else is just trying to have a decent meal at the end of the day. Mainly they don’t care, or don’t have time to care, about every aspect of their food. They just want something good to eat. Is that really too much to ask?
All of the characters are on stage; let the action begin…
Over in one corner the industry starts to crank the handle on their machines. Things are poured in at one end and spat out at the other. A crescendo of whirs and clicks and hisses and clunks accompanies this most mechanical of methods. Think bagels made by Bertha. At the end of the machinery, a pile of products forms. Some are in cellophane and cardboard. Some are not.
Some of the people rush through, scan the pile and pop a few of the industry‘s products in their baskets. They rush off again. All the world’s a stage, but their world is clearly bigger than this stage. Things to do and places to be. The things in their baskets? They’re just a prop, not the plot.
One or two of the commentators take an interest in the machinery clunking away at the back of the stage. The industry waves a hand and a stagehand starts to pull a curtain across in front of their machinery. The commentators wander away again. The pile of food continues to accumulate at the end of the machine; Bertha’s bum poking out from behind the drapes. With their baskets in-hand, the people still gamble through and grab the goods, leaving stage right to get on with their lives.
Throughout, the foodies have huddled together at the side of the stage, staring at their smartphones and looking at photos of quinoa on instagram. But now the curtain has been pulled across in front of the industry‘s belching behemoth, a collective amnesia settles in and they forget about the machine murmuring away behind the curtain. One or two of them begin to drift towards the pile of food accumulating at the other side of the stage. They eschew the cardboard-covered, cellophane-wrapped offerings and plump instead for something healthy-looking. Perhaps the packet has a picture of a squirrel on it. Or a tree. Or a squirrel in a tree. They tweet a picture of their Squirrel in a Tree Super Soup™ and soon their foodie friends are also sipping a soup, and digging into a delicious dukka dip, and chomping on a charcuterie collection.
They take to their laptops (does anyone else still use a laptop, or is it just me?) and blog about their fantastic food finds. From behind their screens they stare down their noses at the people rushing past and grabbing the gaudier goods from the pile of processed products. From behind their curtain the industry chuckles at this, and cranks the handle a little harder on the Squirrel in a Tree Super Soup™ machine.
The commentators sidle up to the curtain and peer intently at a packet. They shake it, and rattle it, and wonder about what goes on inside those hidden machines. Is it good for us to eat these industrial delicacies? They ponder and pontificate and a few of the people stop to listen. They argue and disagree; the people shake their heads and wander off again.
Bertha jiggles and jerks and the pile of food in the corner continues to grow.
It is clear from this small scene that this play has a full complement of villains, victims and fools. Sadly, outside of this theatre of my mind, the position is not so cut and dried – even if the charcuterie is. Ahem. Sorry.
Are the industry really the bad guys? No, not really. There are bad apples, but there are also those protecting us from having to eat bad apples. Do the people really blunder by without thinking about what they eat? No, not all of the time. And are the foodies all mistakenly hypocritical? Er, hopefully not, but I’m a little shakier on this one.
What about the commentators? Do they all just ignore what is happening? No, not all of them. Some of them are peeking behind the closely-drawn curtain. And occasionally they write books about it. Books that I have read in my search for answers. And that is what we will be looking at next time…