The impact of processed food

An image of various kinds of processed food, derived from a Guardian article, titled, Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price.

An article came out in the Guardian today that reminded me to post on this topic. Here’s the headline and link: Revealed: the true extent of America’s food monopolies, and who pays the price.

The main point of the article is that a few multinational corporations dominate our food supply and that they do this by exploitation of people and the planet. This is not new information but it’s good to have a reminder of the situation with some useful stats on market share. Domination of our food supply by a few, largely unscrupulous, players is central to many of our social and environmental problems.

We found that for 85% of the groceries analysed, four firms or fewer controlled more than 40% of market share. It’s widely agreed that consumers, farmers, small food companies and the planet lose out if the top four firms control 40% or more of total sales. – The Guardian

At least 450 farmers died by suicide across nine midwestern states between 2014 to 2018, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2020, 552 farmers filed for bankruptcy – 7% fewer than the previous year, as commodity prices and government aid increased during the pandemic, but still the third-highest figure over the last decade. – The Guardian

Minimize your processed food intake

Ethical Bargains is focused mainly on evaluating products that I’ve bought at the Grocery Outlet and most of them are processed food items. I focus on the most ethical products in each category (e.g., plant-based butter, vegan cheese, beer from sustainable breweries, etc.) with the aim of minimizing our impact when we do buy processed food. My last post on Earth Balance is an exception in that it’s all about a product to avoid: I specifically wanted to highlight this product as it serves to illustrate what’s wrong with “Big Food” (in that case, Conagra).

I’ll summarize what I want to say in a few bullet points just to make it clear:

  • The vast majority of us are going to buy some processed food (pasta, beer, cheese, etc.) and it’s important to make the right choices. This site focuses on the evaluation of processed food and aims to highlight the more ethical choices.
  • Most processed foods entail larger carbon and material footprints compared to eating fresh veggies. It’s hard to completely avoid processed items because there are some products (e.g., chocolate) that we’re not so likely to make at home from scratch. But bear in mind that there’s a huge difference between a good chocolate bar (e.g., Alter Eco, Endangered Species) versus a bad one (e.g., Hershey, Nestlé). Note also that there are some processed food items (e.g., the pasta that I’ll feature in my next post) that have a minimal footprint and are perhaps even net positive.
  • However, even for the items that I’ve rated highly, I’m not suggesting that we buy a lot of them – our intake of processed food should be as minimal as possible. I try to spend at least two-thirds of my shopping budget on fresh veggies and fruit (no packaging, mostly organic, and mostly from local farmers).
  • Many studies show that if we mainly ate fresh veggies and fruit (sustainably farmed, as much as possible) that we would go a long way towards solving many of the world’s problems, from deforestation and climate change to food shortages and equality.
  • Everyone’s on a different stage in their journey. To take a common item of milk, I’d say that a good first step is to move from dairy to plant-based milk, even if it’s packaged in plastic. Then, if you’re ready to take another step, consider making your own vegan milk (I’m planning a Green Stars Project post on this soon, focusing on oat milk) to further reduce your footprint.
  • When evaluating products on this site, I’ll always state when the brand is owned by a major multinational company. In general, the best brands are independent but there are a few that I still consider fairly ethical despite the fact that they are now owned by larger corporations. There is, after all, a need for the largest multinationals to clean up their acts, so their purchases of smaller, ethical companies is not always a bad thing (unless they are ruined in the process).

Here’s a little more on the impact of processed food and why cooking is one of the best forms of activism.

Published by jkaybay

I have two sites, both focused on ethical consumerism. The Green Stars Project ( aims to start a movement based on crowd-sourced ethical ratings. Ethical Bargains ( is focused on new products that I've bought at the Grocery Outlet.

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