Processed food has become synonymous with the Western diet—and, although their products are generally healthier than the conventional potato chips and toaster pastries sold to Americans, natural & organic food companies are playing a part in enabling U.S. consumers to easily choose packaged options laden with fat, sugar and salt over healthier fresh foods.
According to an April 4 New York Times article, Americans consume 31% more packaged food than fresh food and much more processed food than people from nearly every other country in the world. The average American eats a total of 787 pounds of packaged foods, such as frozen meals, condiments, soups and baked goods, while consuming only 602 pounds of fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, nuts, beans, meat, poultry and fish. On average, Spain, France and Mexico also each consume more packaged than fresh food per capita. In comparison, the average Chinese citizen eats 1,034 pounds of fresh foods and 116 pounds of packaged foods.
Of course, eating a diet made up predominantly of what celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has termed “processed crap” often leads to obesity and a cascade of serious, long-term health maladies, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. “Processed foods contain large amounts of fat, salt and sugar, and Americans have become addicted to them,” T. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist at Cornell University, told the New York Times. “There is a lot of money tied up in the [packaged food] industry because it is profitable for companies to make these foods.” Americans also gravitate toward processed food because it is convenient and fits into a non-stop lifestyle that is spent in the car or in front of the computer or TV.
If you attended this year’s Natural Products Expo West tradeshow, you know the natural & organic food industry—like the overall U.S. food industry—is all about packaged convenience. I was amazed at the number of products designed to help people consume more antioxidants and other nutrients associated with fruits and vegetables without having to actually eat a fresh fruit or vegetable.
Although most of the natural & organic products sold in the United States are much healthier than their conventional counterparts, the industry is still guilty of peddling food and beverage products that are contributing to—rather than helping to prevent—America’s health crisis. This was a point Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey lamented last summer when he acknowledged that his company now sells “a bunch of junk”—or in other words, food that, while natural or organic, is still loaded with fat, sugar and salt.
Whole Foods’ new campaign to “Retake Our Plates!”—which is devoted to encouraging food system reform and educating consumers on how to make healthier food choices—is certainly a step in the right direction. But this and other natural food retailers and really the entire natural & organic industry must do more to clean up the products they are selling to American consumers. And, at some point, rather than spending oodles of money to position highly processed food as being more nutritious, wouldn’t it be better to simply encourage people to enjoy the taste and goodness of fresh food?
As more consumers wise up to the fact that they are what they eat, those companies and retailers that can provide truly healthy alternatives that incorporate fresh over processed whenever possible will be in a good position to boost their bottom lines while helping the United States cope with its ballooning health crisis.
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