Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.