How Processed Food Saved the World

Processed foods changed life for the better when first introduced, says food historian Rachel Laudan. Tamara Staples/Getty Images
Processed foods changed life for the better when first introduced, says food historian Rachel Laudan. Tamara Staples/Getty Images

When Rachel Laudan grew up on a farm in rural England in the 1950s, her mother cooked the equivalent of a Christmas feast for eight to 10 people day in, day out, 52 weeks a year.

In Laudan's home, breakfast was grill-toasted bread, eggs, sausages and tea. The mid-day "dinner" consisted of a roasted meat, two vegetables — straight from the family garden or the home-canned pantry, potatoes and a proper English pudding for dessert. For the traditional 5 o'clock tea, there was always a home-baked cake and a full spread of homemade jams and jellies.

"My mother was enormously proud to be a farmer's wife, but the work was relentless," says Laudan, a noted food historian and author, most recently of "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History." "If we didn't have a certain vegetable in February, it was because she forgot to plant it at the right moment in August or September. And whether she had the flu or was breastfeeding, it didn't matter — she cooked."

Laudan knows that her British country childhood might sound idyllic to modern ears, particularly to committed foodies who worship the self-sustaining family farm as the epitome of slow-food virtue. But Laudan says she would never trade places with her mother, and neither would most avid locavores if they really understood what it meant; laboring all of their waking hours to put meals on the table without even the option of the occasional Chinese takeout, to say nothing of a career or off-the-farm hobbies.

Food Practices of the Past

The truth, Laudan argues in an eye-opening essay, is that many of us who love to cook with fresh, local ingredients are also in love with an idea of the past that either glosses over the toil and monotony of old-school cooking or never really existed in the first place. We shun processed food and industrial agriculture and exalt the healthful virtues of a time before factory farms and high-fructose corn syrup when everyone by default ate seasonally and locally. But that nostalgia is not only misplaced, says Laudan; it's in many cases dead wrong.

"No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat," Laudan writes. "Were we able to turn back the clock, as [the Culinary Luddites] urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving."

In the last decade or so, there have been a spate of books advocating a return to eating fresh, local, preferably organic food. For instance, in the book "In Defense of Food," best-selling author Michael Pollan, makes a compelling argument for ditching our highly processed American diet and returning to "the sort of food our great-grandmothers would recognize as food," as his website page on the book explains. But it's a past that never really existed, says Laudan.

How Processed Food Changed the World

Before the industrialization of food and agriculture in the 1880s, she notes, the vast majority of the world's poor subsisted on meager diets of coarse bread (stretched with sawdust and tree bark), corn porridges, rice gruels, boiled potatoes and nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. Brief seasons of feasting were followed by excruciating famine. The wealthy aristocracy could afford lavish feasts, but it was on the backs of slaves, serfs and colonial pillaging.

The rise of inexpensive canned and processed foods — factory-made pasta and tortillas, canned tomatoes and processed white flour — meant that women in Mexico didn't have to spend five hours a day grinding corn for their family's tortillas. It meant that men were unshackled from subsistence farming and could seek out new jobs.

One of the great achievements of the American democratic experiment, says Laudan, is that everyone can afford the occasional hamburger. "A hamburger is white bread, red meat, fresh vegetables out of season — even if it's just a bit of them — a sauce and a cold fizzy drink," says Laudan. "That had been the ultimate desired food for hundreds of years, and industrialized food delivers that."

Although this is the image we have of "farm to table" cuisine, the reality was quite different in the past.
Although this is the image we have of "farm to table" cuisine, the reality was quite different in the past.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Does that mean that Laudan thinks that McDonald's is the best food on the planet? Far from it. (She claims to have only eaten two hamburgers in her entire life.) Instead, she wants influential and important food writers (like Pollan) to stop pointing to a whitewashed past for inspiration and instead look to anew and healthier future where processed food is a partner, not the enemy. Indeed, not all processed food is bad for you, though many have high levels of added sugar, sodium and transfat.

"We'd like to have a greener agriculture and a greener food processing system and more fresh and local food," says Laudan. That won't come from abandoning processed food, but by making sustainably raised produce and the best-quality processed food more accessible and affordable to more people.