That’s what David Freedman argues in this month’s Atlantic. In fact, he says that the “real food” movement — represented by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and friends — is not scalable:
If the most-influential voices in our food culture today get their way, we will achieve a genuine food revolution. Too bad it would be one tailored to the dubious health fantasies of a small, elite minority. And too bad it would largely exclude the obese masses, who would continue to sicken and die early. Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population—even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets.
Like Hank Cardello (a former food industry insider), Freedman argues that the answer is to work with the processed food industry, not against it:
Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50.
I am sympathetic to both Cardello’s and Freedman’s argument (be sure to read the whole article), even if it’s seemingly quite the Catch-22. Can something be both disease and cure?
Ultimately, the food industry can be the source of “fresh, local, unprocessed meals … sold as cheaply, conveniently, and ubiquitously as today’s junky fast food.” But for that to happen, there will need to be a market for it.
Then again, Freedman suggests that there’s a good reason to go with the food industry:
given the food industry’s power to tinker with and market food, we should not dismiss its ability to get unhealthy eaters—slowly, incrementally—to buy better food.
I don’t agree with Freedman’s calorie in vs out frame (e.g., when he compares Bittman’s corn & bacon dish to a Whopper), but his arguments re the processed food industry are, pardon the pun, definitely food for thought.