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Are we being JERFed Around?
JERF, for the uninitiated, stands for Just Eat Real Food.
This is a very popular concept within the nutrition world.
Paleo, Vegan, Weston Price, Mediterranean Diet, Mayo Clinic, Registered dietitians, the WHO, the one thing they can all agree on is that the more unprocessed, or natural, a food is, the better it is.
Pieces of advice such as:
- Avoid Processed Foods
- Don’t Eat Tinned foods or Microwave Meals
- If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, don’t eat it
- If the use by date has more than a week, don’t eat it – real food rots
- Shop the periphery of the supermarket
Indeed, I myself have made all these recommendations.
Is there any basis behind these recommendations, however, or are we all falling trap to a logical fallacy?
The Appeal to Nature Arguement
In sceptical circles, the Appeal to Nature Argument is recognised as an oft used logically fallacy (also sometimes referred to as the Naturalistic Fallacy).
Essentially, it involves claiming that something is good because it is natural, or that something is bad because it is “unnatural”.
That which is natural, is good.
N is natural.
Therefore, N is good or right.
That which is unnatural, is bad or wrong.
U is unnatural.
Therefore, U is bad or wrong
From the Fallacy Files
Organic Tomatoes are good, because they are natural, GMO tomatoes are bad because they are unnatural, for example.
It’s a Fallacy Because?
Side stepping the much more complex question of exactly how (or even if) we can define natural vs unnatural, we can very quickly demonstrate the faulty thinking behind the appeal to nature argument with some concrete examples.
First – That Which is Natural is Good.
Well, if we are thinking about food (or perhaps I should say things we eat), there are literally millions of perfectly “natural” things out there which will kill you pretty swiftly.
The Death Cap Mushroom, for example, is 100% natural, organic, GMO free, hasn’t been cultivated or tampered with in any way by humans, but eating just half of one will deliver enough amatoxins to kill most adult humans through fatal liver and kidney damage.
I think we can pretty safely say then, that just because something is “natural”, does not give any assurance that it is “good” or “healthy”.
So how about That which is Unnatural is Bad?
So, there are various different interpretations about what is natural, and what isn’t natural.
A common view, however, would be that our ancestors lived a more natural life, living “in harmony with nature”, hunting and gathering wild plants and animals. Modern humans, on the other hand, live “unnaturally” in cities, surrounded by technology, disconnected from nature and the food chain.
Overall though, this unnatural life doesn’t seem to be working out too badly: Life expectancies have more than tripled, we’ve cured countless diseases, can repair broken limbs and suture wounds.
I love a good camping trip to the wilderness to disconnect once in a while, and yes, there are plenty of things wrong in the modern world that we could do with sorting out, but I wouldn’t want some catastrophic event to send civilisation back to the paleolithic, nor any other “more natural” era.
If we look at food specifically, personally, my view would be that for a food to be truly “natural” it would need to be a wild species eaten raw – i.e. uncultivated and totally unprocessed by human hands.
By this definition, however, probably nothing you’ve ever eaten could be classed as natural, except perhaps breast milk when you were a baby (Or an adult possibly if you’re into that kind of thing).
Every grain, seed, fruit, vegetable, or legume that you eat has been cultivated by humans over 1000s of years to be more nutritious, easier to digest, lower in toxins, more resistant to disease, drought and pests, and more productive. This process has been going on since the dawn of agriculture via selective breeding, the last century via irradiation, and during the last 20-30 years via genetic engineering.
The meat you eat, comes from animals that have been selectively bred to give more meat, more milk, and be more passive and obedient.
Even if you buy “organic”, heritage, pesticide free produce from small local farms, there is no way it can be considered natural.
There is also no way that one consider a food “natural” if you have processed it by cooking, fermenting, soaking, sprouting or juicing/blending/mashing.
Though of course there are raw foodists, who believe we should eat everything raw, they are in the minority, and for very good reason!
In his book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human” Richard Wrangham makes a very convincing argument, that these techniques were actually developed by our pre-human ancestors, and it was thanks to these “unnatural” processing techniques that we were able to develop our larger, energy hungry brains. Without them, we’d be like our ape cousins, with huge digestive tracts, having to spend most of our days chewing down on huge quantities of raw plants and animals.
While the above may be debatable, what we do know for sure, is that food preparation techniques, such as cooking, fermenting, and soaking increase our foods digestibility, and the bioavailability of the nutrients within.
A raw food diet will very likely result in rapid weight loss – It’s often much harder for your body to extract the calories from raw food (and it tastes like crap so you don’t eat as much). This might have beneficial short-term effects on body composition and health for someone who has excess body fat, but it is not a good long-term strategy. Ultimately it will lead to deficiencies in both calorie and essential nutritent intakes.
The Food Processing Paradox
Now, this is where things get a bit murky.
With the exception of the raw foodists, who are a relatively small voice in the big world of nutrition, the vast majority of different food ideologies tend to agree that processing your food via traditional techniques is a good thing:
- Cooking (Especially slowly at low temperatures) is good.
- Fermenting is good
- Soaking and Sprouting is Good.
As mentioned before, there is no question that these techniques can enhance the digestibility of our food and the bioavailability of the nutrients within them. It’s also very plausible that it was the development of these techniques that enabled our guts to shrink and our brains to grow, enabling us to evolve into modern humans.
The same nutritionists and dietitians, however, recommend that we should try to limit our consumption of “highly processed foods” – avoid the things in the supermarket that come in packets and tins, the microwave meals, products made with refined flours and sugar, foods with added ingredients and preservatives.
Why should it be that traditional food preparation techniques improve nutritional value, while modern, industrialised food processing compromises it?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
As you may have gathered, I do not subscribe to the Appeal to Nature argument. I do not believe that just because something is more natural, it is necessarily healthier, and just because something is “less natural”, more processed, or man-made, it is less healthy.
That said, I do personally avoid most processed foods, and cook and prepare the vast majority of my own meals at home using traditional techniques – slow cooking, fermenting and so on. I choose whole grains rather than refined, and avoid foods with added sugars and industrial seed oils.
Have I Fallen for the Fallacy?
No, as unless you are listening to a really far out guru who’s telling you to eat raw only what you can forage from the woods, I don’t believe anything you are eating is “Natural”. (I don’t believe anything you are eating is unnatural either, but I digress).
Whether you are following a “Real Food” diet, Weston Price, or Paleo, eschewing everything from the supermarket, buying all your food from farmer’s markets, or even growing it yourself, still by no stretch of the imagination can cooked, cultivated produce, be considered as “natural” (at least not by the conventional definition), as it only exists thanks to human intervention.
The question should not be whether or not a food is “natural”, but what effects a specific food processing technique has on a food, and in turn how this affects the health of the person eating it.
Standing the Test of Time
Generally speaking, the food processing techniques widely considered as “Good”, are the traditional ones – Baking, fermenting, soaking and sprouting have been done since the dawn of agriculture, perhaps even long before.
Is this due to some special, magical, ancient wisdom? A cook book sent from the Gods or left by extraterrestrials?
No, it is simply due to trial and error!
(This brings to mind another common logical fallacy – survivorship bias).
We believe that our ancestors had special wisdom because their food preparation techniques have survived the test of time… What we fail to consider, is that in reality our ancestors tried all manner of different foods and preparation techniques, the vast majority of which were abysmal failures.
It is not as if someone saw a grain of wheat, and thought – Hmm, let’s make some sourdough bread, that will surely maximise it’s nutritional value!
The traditional food preparation techniques that we still use today are the result of thousands and thousands of years of trial and error.
The processes of deep-frying and the ability to highly refine flour, for example, were developed in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and quickly became widespread and highly popular. It’s taken us the best part of a century to learn that both of these food preparation techniques can be seriously damaging to human health if such foods comprise a significant proportion of the diet. (Both techniques of course continue to be widely used, which we’ll look at again in a second).
(All that said, the test of time cannot be relied upon too greatly. We’ve been eating grains and dairy for millenia, and red meat for millions of years, and yet there’s still no firm consensus on any of these foods in terms of optimum health and longevity).
It’s All About Motivation
- Traditional Food Processing Techniques were Motivated by Nutrition
- Industrialisation and Capitalism Changed Everything
- The Motivation Required to Drive A Person to Eat has been Reduced
The motivation behind our oldest food preparation techniques came out of necessity – we needed to get the maximum nutrition, both calories and essential nutrients, from the little food we had available to us.
People grew, harvested, processed and prepared from scratch all of their own meals for thousands of years.
This was hard work, and it was important to get the maximum return on your investment of time and effort, especially when crops were seasonal and unreliable.
We no longer labour to produce our own food to nourish ourselves and our families.
Instead, large corporations mass produce food to generate profit.
When it comes to the mass production of food by corporations, the main motivation is to maximise profits, not nutritional value.
The maximisation of profits can be achieved through the reduction of costs to the absolute bare minimum, typically done by the use of cheap, nutritionally void ingredients.
90% of the products on the supermarket shelves are predominantly some kind of amalgam of corn and soy extract – high fructose corn syrup, (often hydrogenated) vegetable oil, a bit of flour and salt. If you’re lucky you’ll get some sawdust and pink slime too.
Now, many will be quick to point out that none of the legally permitted food ingredients (or should we say fillers) are going to kill you, they have been tested and found as non toxic (well depending where you live – Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils probably will kill you, are banned in many places, but not all).
This may well be true, but while saw dust can both be considered natural, and a better snack than a death cap mushroom, it can hardly be considered as a nourishing foodstuff.
The food industry is hardly open, transparent and ethical in its operations either. That ingredients get approved thanks to solid science, rather than effective palm greasing is worryingly doubtful, nor is it assured that companies are going to abide by the laws they are supposed to.
In short, the problem with most processed foods on the supermarket shelves, and why I still choose to avoid them, is not because there is anything inherently wrong with food processing, or that they are unnatural, but that the companies making them do not care what they put in their foods, nor the effects that they have on your health.
The maximisation of profits is also achieved by increasing sales.
Food sales only increase, if customers eat more food.
Food corporations employ teams of scientists and researchers to design foods that you will want to eat more and more of, regardless of whether you are actually hungry or in need of the calories. I won’t go into detail now, as I’ve written about the science of food reward before here.
Fancy a cheese and tomato sandwich?
What if you had to mill the flour, knead the dough, bake the loaf, culture the cheese, churn the butter, and pick the tomatoes?
You’d probably have to be really hungry.
If you just had to slice the bread, cheese and tomatoes, spread some butter and put it together, you’d still probably need to be reasonably peckish to make the effort.
If the sandwich is sitting in front of you, ready to eat, be it in a vending machine or sitting behind a coffee shop counter, however, you might eat it just because it’s there.
Studies into motivation have shown that the tiniest things can make a huge difference to your behaviour.
Want to go to the gym? Having your kit bag ready by the door vastly increases the probability that you’ll go. Want to learn a language? Installing an app on your phone that sends you reminders to practice 10 mins a day will keep you on track.
Unfortunately, these same psychological tricks can be used on us in reverse. Making foods cheap, ready to eat, and easily available can have the effect of us eating more of the things we don’t really need to that we would do otherwise.
In all of these cases, the issue is not that a food has been processed, but rather that the food has been processed by someone else – Someone who’s motivation is not to nourish us, but to make profit from us.
Eat Food Made for Love Not (just) Money
We live in a capitalist world, therefore I don’t expect anyone to produce and/or process food purely for love (Though perhaps with the economic singularity looming, we’ll get there again one day…).
Farmers, bakers, chefs, cooks, and anyone else who works in the incredibly important sector of food production need to make a living (I make a living in this sector myself via the sale of Grass Fed Beef!).
I’m not by any means “anti-capitalist” either – on paper, it’s a great idea, until unethical, greedy, dishonest people come and mess everything up… (just as with communism and anarchy!)
In theory, capitalists invest their time, money and energy into producing something of real value.
The consumer benefits from the created value, the capitalist is rewarded by making a profit.
Unfortunately, all too often, this ideal is far from the reality. The capitalist creates a false need, makes sales based on lies, conceals the true costs of their products, or fosters unhealthy addictions to get people to keep coming back for more, rather than generating real value.
Not that all the blame can be placed on the producers – Consumers demand low prices, don’t ask questions about what is in their products, where they came from, or at what cost they were produced.
Personally, when I buy a product, I don’t care whether it is “natural” or not.
I do want to know however, what is actually in it? Does it have nutritional value? Were the workers exploited? Did animals suffer? Were rainforests destroyed? How big was it’s carbon footprint?
Your best bet to ensure this, is finding local, artesian produce, ideally where you can meet and speak with the producers. Go to farmer’s markets, independent bakeries, butchers, fish mongers and green grocers.
Avoid supermarkets like the plague!
Make Food with Love
If you want a job doing well, do it yourself!
Not only is making your own food the only real way to know what’s going into it, there is also a great deal of pleasure to be gained from it.
Though I would certainly enjoy a really good ready-made sandwich that was made with sourdough bread and artisan cheese, there is a satisfaction that comes from making food yourself from scratch which just can’t be purchased.
We’ve been conditioned into believing that cooking is an unwanted inconvenience. We’re so busy, we don’t even have time to pour milk on cereal, better to buy a cereal bar!
Reality check – If you don’t have time to pour milk on your cereal, you have to seriously address your life.
There’s no need to spend hours in the kitchen every day, there are plenty of delicious healthy meals you can cook up from scratch in under 10 mins, but the more you do it, the more you’ll enjoy it and want to do more, especially when you see how much your friends and family appreciate it, and how much better it is than the mass-produced supermarket rubbish.
Just Eat Good Food
So at the end of the day, while I acknowledge that the appeal to nature argument is a logical fallacy, I’d have to agree with the majority of nutritionists, dietitians, and even the gurus, that if you value your health, your best bet is to avoid the aisles of processed junk in the supermarket, and eat mainly fresh produce, whole foods, minimally processed, prepared using traditional techniques.