Reply to: The processed food tribe

Cathy Reisenwitz is trying to reconcile her belief in the benefits of free enterprise with her growing realization that many industrial-produced edible substances are not healthy food. See: The processed food tribe.

Personally, I do not find those ideas at odds: Corporations operating in a free market will make maximizing their profits their only goal.

Producing food that’s cheap to make and tastes great is the obvious way to maximize profits. Negative health effects that don’t show up for years (and don’t kill the customer for decades) are entirely consistent with the profit-maximizing goal of a corporation.

The health of their customers will only be prioritized to the extent that poisoning their customers isn’t profitable. (Sometimes not even then: See the multiple scandals related to Chinese companies adulterating milk and baby formula with melamine.)

A free society would make a priority of allowing each individual to choose what to eat based on their own values. One would assume that being as healthy as possible would be a priority for most individuals, but there are many stumbling blocks. (One of the biggest is that getting accurate information is hard in a world where corporations fund studies designed to produce and publish inaccurate results about the harms of eating too much sugar. Another is that food scientifically designed to be hyper-palatable is in fact so tasty as to be hard to resist, especially for children—and the tastes one forms in childhood influence one’s tastes as an adult.)

Free markets are the best mechanism we’ve found for optimal allocation of resources. But the market only allocates resources to achieve one set of goals (maximum profits) and ignores other goals. Maximum public health is one of the goals that a free market does not concern itself with.

As to the topic of the term “processed” food, I have found it useful to include a category of “minimally processed” food when thinking about what’s likely to be healthy.

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