Why Do They Make So Much Crap? - The UltimateFatBurner Blog

Why Do They Make So Much Crap?

Question: There are so many food products that are bad for us out there!  Why do food processors make so much crap?

Answer: Because they can.

That was simple, wasn’t it?  But that’s really what it boils down to: food is a consumer item, no different from cars, video games or clothing.  And – just as it is in other consumer-driven industries – manufacturers both respond to, as well as create, demand.  As always, it’s profit über alles.  The competition is stiff: so innovation is the key to competing successfully.

And food processing is a rich field for innovation.  Each product on the shelf represents the collective effort of microbiologists, biochemists, chemists, engineers and other technicians – food is simply an area of specialization within these fields.  Research and development is an ongoing process, and new products are rolled out every month, to swim…or sink

Now, raw agricultural products have their own, unique characteristics, which dictate what you can do with them.  But even within those limits, there are a staggering array of physical and chemical manipulations you can do to achieve different characteristics.  You can make physical modifications using heat (wet or dry), cold, pressure (high or low), shear forces (as in grinding or extruding), pH changes and so on.  The wide world of additives provides even more possibilities: emulsification, stabilization, changes in water-holding capacity, flavor enhancement, color, texture, shelf-stability, etc. 

Food ingredients are essentially building materials, just like concrete, glass, steel or wood. When I was studying Food Tech at UC Davis, for example, I did my graduate and (and some post-grad) research under Dr. Larry Merson.  Dr. Merson was a food engineer, so it was no surprise to see a blueprint for a cream-filled cupcake hanging on the wall of his lab.  It wasn’t a joke, either: it was a real, honest to God, technical schematic summarizing how you “build” a cupcake – just like the ones created for cars, buildings and bridges.  To me, it was the perfect example of the food processor’s mindset.  Manufacturers hold a completely mechanistic view of food, that’s largely divorced from concepts of nutrition or health, except as factors that can be manipulated to target specific markets or to satisfy regulatory requirements.

A lot of people see this as immoral, and they’ve got a point.  It’s easy to paint food processors as “evil”, as this narrow perspective all-too-often leads to products that are “food” in name only: they’re high in calories, fat (the wrong kind), sodium, and/or sugar; as well as low in fiber and naturally-occurring nutrients.  This is, however, where new profits lie: there’s not much you can do – by definition – to whole, minimally processed foods.  And people (literally) eat this stuff up! They’re designed to be appealing, after all.  It’s no accident that one of the professors who taught my “sensory analysis” classes was a psychologist.

Personally, I’m more inclined to see it as amoral: unlike the depictions by various conspiracy theorists, food scientists aren’t so many Lex Luthors, intent on world domination and the destruction of humanity. They aren’t sitting around in board rooms, rubbing their (chubby) hands together and high-fiving each other when new reports on increasing rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes come out. After all, it’s not as if they’ve stopped producing basic “whole foods” either, and where demand for healthier products exists, the industry responds with alacrity.  If they can make money off Oreos, then Oreos will be sold.  But if they can make money off organic broccoli sprouts, then they’ll be sold too (and they are).  

The grocery store is a minefield, but when you know where the landmines are hidden, it’s possible to navigate through it in relative safety.   How to do that will be explored in future posts.  Stay tuned… 

Author: elissa

Elissa is a former research associate with the University of California at Davis, and the author/co-author of over a dozen articles published in scientific journals. Currently a freelance writer and researcher, Elissa brings her multidisciplinary education and training to her writing on nutrition and supplements.


  1. Elissa,

    Given your background – explain this Franken food – what in the H E double hockey stick is in the fries sold at the local Mc Joints et.al that allows them to age gracefully for well over a year and not go moldy or disintegrate??

    Every year our crew trucks (construction) come in for a clean out, and among the left over, moldy, stinky sandwiches, and fruit there is always some franken fries in pristine shape, looking like they just came out of the deep fryer!! If bacteria won’t touch this “food” what are people doing eating it? Kinda scary eh!

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  2. You’re not the first to make this observation. Morgan Spurlock made a similar experiment during the filming of “SuperSize Me.”

    What actually occurred to me, was that the interior of the fries is functionally sterile, due to the high heat, and the surface crust has a very low water activity – too low to support the growth of bacteria or molds. Water activity refers not to the actual percentage of water, but the amount of “free” water. Thus, even some relatively “wet” foods, such as jelly or honey don’t support the growth of bacteria or molds, as the bulk of the water is associated with sugar molecules and therefore unavailable for microbial growth…there’s a somewhat technical explanation here: http://www.lsbu.ac.uk/water/activity.html

    While I don’t have any info on hand about the water activity of McDonald’s fries, this patent: http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsrchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=5,997,938.PN.&OS=PN/5,997,938&RS=PN/5,997,938 from Procter and Gamble describes an oven-finished french fry product with a surface water activity below 0.45. As noted in the link to the explanation of water activity, absolutely nothing will grow below 0.6. Thus, as long as the surface crust isn’t broken or appreciably dampened, not much would happen to them.

    It’s also not impossible that they put something on the surface to prevent discoloration of the cut surfaces by enzymatic action (like sodium sulfite). This could also deter microbial growth, as would the salt added after frying.

    So it’s probably not as nefarious as it looks. Manipulating water activity is a classic food preservation technique.

    Don’t get me wrong: McDonald’s fries are pretty gross, IMHO: but you have the fry-o-later fat to thank for that, I think…and in that, they’re no different than most other deep-fat fried restaurant foods.

    Years ago, I worked as a restaurant cook, so had to change the grease in the deep fat fryers at the end of my shift. It was awful stuff: thick, greasy-smelling and coffee-colored. Fresh grease started out quite pale and foods had to be cooked for a comparatively long time before they’d develop that nice, golden brown color characteristic of deep fried foods. But as successive batches were cooked, various compounds that leached out of the food would polymerize in the continuously heated oil, and stick to subsequent batches of food, so the food cooked in it would get toasty much faster.

    The darker the oil, the darker the food. Eventually it would get too dark (the food would get brown before completely cooked through – lol), and would have to be changed. A good analogy would be the La Brea Tar Pits: the stuff was dark from heat-catalyzed organic chemical reactions. Mmmmmm…

    These days, I avoid anything that comes out of a restaurant deep fryer.

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