Degradation of Food Focus of New Book by Guelph Prof

August 20, 2013 - News Release

How did food go from a source of nourishment to a potential health hazard? That question lies at the core of a new book by a University of Guelph professor.

The Industrial Diet: The Degradation of Food and the Struggle for Healthy Eating by Anthony Winson examines forces that have turned food into nutritionally degraded commodities.

“This book is not so much about food as it is about what food has become,” said Winson, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

“The industrialization of food over the last 150 years or so has had a number of profound consequences. The degradation of food is among the most salient, but is one of the least studied and understood.”

Winson focuses on the industrial era because it set the baseline for how food habits have evolved. “We need to understand where we’ve come from and how we’ve changed things because of the industrialization of food.”

Six years in the making, the book examines the “Western” diet from its roots to today, including how technological changes, population growth, and political and economic factors have combined to transform food.

“Food by definition should be a nutritional substance, but most of today’s food products are the opposite,” Winson said. “I call them pseudo-foods or nutrient poor edible commodities.”

Add a sedentary lifestyle, he said, and we have “created a perfect storm, and it’s going to be the death of us.”

The degradation of food started in the late 1800s with the invention of roller mills for producing “patent” flours, Winson said. “We did not understand at the time what we were doing to flour nutritionally, that we were making it deficient.”

Another change came with branding and mass advertising in the early 20th century – think Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s breakfast cereals. “It was a new phenomenon, and it changed everything. It helped “normalize” industrial foods. Much of the success of the industrial diet today is a consequence of it,” Winson said.

His book traces food degradation to three factors: simplification of whole foods, the speeding up of ,food production and widespread food adulteration. He considers, for instance, why beef cattle are so laden with saturated fat, why there are six to eight apple varieties in the supermarket when thousands of varieties are known to exist, and why sugar, salt and fat adulterate so many processed foods.

“You have to understand all three to get a complete picture of how we’ve gotten away from eating in a healthy way.

“The human species evolved eating a diverse diet. But in recent generations we’ve narrowed that diet tremendously without much thought to the potential loss.”

Fewer options for fruits and vegetables – along with the effects of food processing – mean fewer disease-fighting phytochemicals in natural foods, Winson said.

Pushing products more quickly from farm to fork might make it more profitable to produce, say, chicken or beef, but nutritional content declines.

“Adulterating” processed food to make it last longer and taste better means consumers get ingredients they don’t need, such as fat, salt and sugar, Winson said, ingredients that are making us sick.

The book discusses the roles of advertising, food placement in stores and fast food. “Fast food has saturated the urban and suburban markets with outlets,” Winson said, referring to schools, airports and hospitals. “It takes up the most valuable available retail space.”

He looks at how globalization of the industrial diet has led to an emerging health burden.

“All of the mistakes that we made are beginning to show now in developing countries. In places such as India, China and Latin America, you are seeing a rise in obesity and other health issues related to diet.”

Winson examines recent resistance to industrialized food and the challenges of healthful eating.

“Food is very complicated today,” Winson said. “People are increasingly worried about the environmental damage of large-scale farming practices and manifestly unhealthy food environments.”

They’re organizing at the grassroots level to take control of food and to establish healthy and sustainable food environments, he said. “But government and the food industry need to take responsibility, too. This is a social and ethical issue and a political issue -- I firmly believe that.”

The book includes endorsements from food researchers and theorists, including well-known food policy analyst and celebrated author Marion Nestle, who teaches at New York University. It's available in hardcover now and will come out in paperback in October.

Prof. Anthony Winson
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
519 824-4120, Ext.52193

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or

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