It is a lovely idea of course... The notion that the land, our home, will provide us with safe, nutritious and wholesome food. We extol the virtues of those horny-handed sons of toil, tilling, planting and harvesting that we might eat and be thankful. From farm to fork, with scarcely a half acre walk and a hop over a dry stone wall between the two... You can almost picture the fields of wheat bending softly against the summer breeze (and a young Teresa May running through them shouting, "one day all this will be subsidised by the Common Agricultural Policy!")
If it is a myth (and this much is certain) then it is a powerful one. Consumers like the notion of a minimal gap between growing and eating. Make my food safe, and make it tasty and healthy, but don't show me the industrialised, highly-mechanised way in which you do it. This is partly the inevitable result of clever marketing, but also of our view of rural living as a healthier, more virtuous option in a world overrun by AI, cybercrime and 24 hour rolling misery, sorry, news...
This story in New Food magazine highlights the gap in public understanding of what constitutes 'processed' foods. A survey carried out by plant-based spreads manufacturer, Upfield, found that 51% of people believed that 'processed' foods are less healthy. Given that two thirds of people in the same survey admitted that they were not sure what 'processed' meant suggests that there is more than a hint of 'I don't know what it is but I don't like it' going on here.
In fact, almost everything we use to prepare meals is 'processed'. Much more than shaking the dirt off a parsnip and putting it in a bucket is liable to earn the 'processed' term, as is bagging lettuce leaves and turning Mrs May's beloved wheat fields into flour. Ditto salting, drying or smoking food, all of it termed processed, despite their centuries-old use. So why the blanket negative connotations?
This is possibly the lack of a publicly recognisable scale denoting the level of processing and the absence of accompanying legal definitions. The association the mind makes is between the term 'processed' and products with a poor nutritional profile or containing a significant number of chemical additives. And in that association there is often no room for a back story to be told.
The closest we have come to (at least in part) addressing this, comes from the NOVA classification system. The NOVA system was developed by the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in order to "group foods according to the extent and purpose of the processing they undergo." It splits foods into four groups ranging from 'Unprocessed or minimally processed foods' (dried fruits, coffee, fresh and dried herbs) to 'Ultra-processed foods' (pre-prepared burgers, sausages, ice-creams and biscuits).
The system has been accused of occasionally focusing its 'Ultra-processed' classification on HFSS (high in fats, salt and sugar) products which have been called out by nutritional profiling, but the term has become widely used in the media and it feels closer to the public notion of 'processing'. Dr Chris Van Tulleken's BBC documentary, 'What are we feeding our kids?' last week investigated the physical and mental effect of a diet based around 'ultra-processed' foods, which will surely fix it more permanently in the public mind.
The poll results do make it clear that education is required around processed foods and their louche 'ultra' cousins if consumers are to make an informed health choice in their food purchases. I could happily support legislation and public health initiatives to make that happen...just don't get me started on the use of the word 'Natural'...
A survey has revealed that most Brits are clueless over what ‘processed’ means and the majority associate it with being unhealthy.