Processed Food, Processed People

By David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP

In the age of “advergaming,” more than food is being processed. We are being processed by food industry marketing distortions. Our kids are being processed.

Anyone living and eating in the modern world, and paying even a little attention, knows that we are a very long way from Michael Pollan’s advice to eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Not only does our food come mostly in bags, boxes, bottles, jars and cans, but mostly it isn’t really food. It’s food stuff. It doesn’t come from an animal or plant, it’s made in a plant. It rolls off an assembly line.

How We Can “Unjunk”
Our Food and Ourselves

That seems a bit ominous on its own, but of course the plot is much thicker than that. As told recently by Michael Moss in the New York Times Magazine, food is not processed haphazardly – it’s processed to very clear specifications. It’s processed to be addictive. We may have thought “Betcha can’t eat just one!” was a clever marketing slogan, but it’s clearly been much more than that for years. It was a performance measure for Big Food’s R&D departments. If we could only eat just one, somebody probably lost their job.

This story has been out there for years. But even as we were hearing about it, we just kept succumbing to it, as did our kids. And the result is that fully a third of the calories in the typical American diet come from – junk. For our kids, it may be as much as half.

We buy junk! We eat junk! We feed our children junk! It’s almost unbelievable. Of course we love our children and grandchildren. But we all look on passively as they derive construction material for those precious bodies from junk. Are we really supposed to be OK with this?

What it all really means is that we have long since left the era of processed food in the rear view mirror of cultural inertia. We are now well into the realm of processing – people. We are processing you and me. We are processing our kids. How else could the notion that ‘junk’ that would not be suitable to build a home, make a dress or fuel a car is a legitimate food group ever have been established?

For food to be addictive by design, it can’t be only the food that’s being processed. Addiction, and every variation on that theme, resides in our nervous systems. There is no question: We are being processed! Our taste buds are being co-opted. Our preferences are being programmed.

Of course, food has long been processed, initially for some good. Cooking and preservation methods are processing of sorts, and they have helped make food safer and more digestible for the most part. But over recent years, processing has run amok and done a whole lot of ill.

And in this era, the processing of the people eating the food, the ills are greatly compounded. We can tally them up in epidemics, in years of life, in life from years, and in dollars changing hands.

We have epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, fueled by ever more calories, sugar, salt, atherogenic fats and processed starch. We need that sugar, salt, starch, bad fat and high calorie count because we’ve been conditioned to crave them. So we treat our condition with the very stuff that created it in the first place, and created epidemic chronic disease as a by-product. Big Food treats our cravings, Big Pharma treats the rest. We translate years of life and life in years into dollars, and hand them over. It’s all just part of the same process.

But it doesn’t need to be! We and our kids can send our taste buds to rehab! We can free ourselves of the process.

And to that end, my associates and I are proud to offer up the second in the “UnJunk Yourself” music video seriesThe PROCESS.” Fans of “The Matrix” should particularly enjoy it.

We want you and your kids to know what’s going on. We want you to know that they’ve been processing food, and now they’re processing you! And we want to put a stop to it. You and your kids should, of course, eat what foods you want, when you want. But food designed to be addictive and marketed aggressively to 6-year-olds does not exactly support your autonomy.

The benefits of eating real food are well established. We can break our addiction to junk food and learn to love food that loves us back. We can get to a place of less processed food, but only if we wake up to a contrived reality we have tolerated for far too long, and start “unprocessing ourselves.” Welcome to the real world!

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP is the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is the director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital in Derby, CT. For more information visit and

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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