The New York Times had a small article and a big graphic recently on America’s love affair with processed, packaged food:

Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries. A sizable part of the American diet is ready-to-eat meals, like frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, and sweet or salty snack foods.

This probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone, especially given our outsized obesity rates compared to other countries. But the accompanying graphic helpfully illustrates a most unfortunate kind of “American exceptionalism.”

It’s worth pointing out, however, that there’s nothing inherently evil about packaged foods. It’s what’s in them that counts.

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For example, though we favor processed foods less than the Japanese do, ours tend to be frozen pizzas and microwave dinners while theirs are predominantly minimally-processed frozen seafood or dried seaweed (both of which are very nutritious and neither of which have much in the way of additives).

The Spanish and the French, meanwhile, eat comparable rates of packaged food overall, but more of it is dairy and baked goods. Although American food companies have figured out how to pack our “bread” with HFCS and other corn-based additives and sweeteners, Europeans tend to enjoy more fresh-baked breads that lack industrial byproducts.

In other words, it’s not that we need to abandon packaged food if we’re to address obesity and reform the food system. It’s that we need to recognize that outsourcing our, and more importantly our children’s, nutrition to food industry scientists was a bad idea and isn’t working.

At the end of the day, the food industry’s primary concern — indeed their legal obligation — is to shareholders, public and private. Our nutrition is secondary to them and only a factor in so far as it affects sales. 

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That said, this chart also makes clear that broad categories like “processed” or “packaged” food can be misleading. There simply isn’t any excuse for ignoring what’s in what you’re putting in your mouth. At some point in the last few decades, Americans decided to do just that. And now we’re paying for our ignorance not just with our wallets, but with our waistlines and with our health.