Can McDonald’s and other fast food outlets help reverse the nation’s obesity epidemic? Are Michael Pollan and other proponents of “natural” unprocessed foods creating barriers to developing healthier eating habits? This is the thesis of a controversial article in the summer issue of The Atlantic.

Contributing editor, David Freedman argues that advocating of fresh, unprocessed, local foods as a response to the obesity epidemic is unrealistic and elitist.  It’s unlikely that the 160,000 fast food outlets serving 50 million Americans each day are going to be replaced by organic food stands and wholesome food restaurants.

The wholesome foods offered as a solution to the obesity epidemic are too expensive for the majority of the obese population (Whole Foods Market, a leading purveyor of healthy fare, is sometimes referred to as “Whole Paycheck Market.”)

Even if local, organically grown, vegetables, fruit, legumes, fish, etc. were inexpensive and widely available, what percentage of the obese, Big Mac-loving population would be willing to substitute broccoli for French fries? Despite ongoing efforts to encourage eating fruits and vegetables the Centers for Disease Control found a drop in fruit consumption and no increase in vegetable purchases in the last decade. Likewise, posting caloric contents on fast food menus has had little effect on food choice.

In his article Freedman described a Charbroiled Atlantic Cod Fish Sandwich served at Carl’s Junior (a California fast food chain) and McDonald’s Premium Grilled Chicken McWrap as tasty and lower in fat, sugar, and calories than much of the food served in wholesome restaurants. But he notes that the fast food industry has learned that it can’t promote the nutritional benefits of a food because customers view healthy foods as unappetizing. Instead, the marketers will need to stress that the food tastes good.

Creating tasty fast food while cutting back on sugar and fat may require engineering the foods to provide the same sensations with less sugar and fat. For example, adding a vanilla smell can mask a reduction of up to 25 percent of the sugar content. Foods could be modified to change eating behaviors. Giving food a chewier texture would increase the amount of time between bites. This would give the brain a chance to register feelings of satiety so you’d feel just as full having eaten less.

While Pollan et al rail against processed food Freedman states that there is no evidence that processing, by itself, renders foods unhealthful. In contrast, the Centers for Disease Control have documented cases of food poisoning traced to raw milk that is often seen as wholesome.

Freedman suggests that the wholesome food movement doesn’t offer help to most obese Americans and may get in the way of more realistic strategies that could be useful. He acknowledges that it will be necessary to continue to draw attention to the unhealthy foods currently served at fast food restaurants. Publicity and perhaps some forms of regulation would encourage them to change their menus. If the purists succeed in convincing us that processed food is evil, the effect will be to promote the status quo. The purveyors of fast food will have no incentive to provide healthier meals.

Despite the repeated exhortations to avoid processed foods, the fast food establishments aren’t going to serve locally sourced arugula and it’s unlikely that they’ll just close up shop. The millions who regularly eat there will continue consuming Big Macs and fries and gaining weight unless we accept food processing as an alternative.

Freedman’s article provides some healthy, processed food for thought.

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