Processed food – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
What is “processed” food anyway? We’re talking about foods that have changed form, and are therefore different from how they occur in nature.
Because not all of us have daily access to farmer’s markets, processing food becomes necessary in order for it to reach us in good condition.
Modern advertising has taught us to distance our perception of food from the farm it came from and to expect uniform, predictable, perfectly attractive foodstuffs.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way food grows.
The presentation of food affects our perception of quality and expected taste, and it influences our buying practices. By processing food for uniformity, color, and texture whilst “educating” people on how red and round an apple “should” be, we have come to a point where we need to relearn what natural, whole food looks like.
How is food processed?
There are two main kinds of processing. The first consists of a physical change, such as cutting the food into pieces, “refining” or removing a less desirable part, cooking or heat treating, or using the food in a recipe with other ingredients.
That’s generally okay, but be aware that this processing can change the nutritional value.
White flour, for example, has had the wheat bran and germ (the outside and inside of the seed) removed before grinding. This removal decimates the flour’s fiber and vitamin content. High temperature pasteurization of dairy products kills all the good bacteria (along with the bad), making them less beneficial.
The second is chemical processing. At this point, I’d like to point out that the words “chemical-free” are a fallacy.
The word chemical refers to any substance made of atoms that has the ability to change form. Every substance in the world follows the rules of chemistry. Therefore, everything is made of chemicals.
- Artificially made in a lab, such as sodium benzoate (a known/likely human carcinogen, according to the EPA)
- Semi-artificial foods such as aspartame (purified, modified waste from specially-bred bacteria)
- Naturally occurring, such as citric acid (from fruit), which is used as a preservative
Have you ever added lemon juice to apples to stop them from turning brown? You’ve just chemically treated your fruit.
Why are foods processed? To protect them from bad bacteria and to make them more visually appealing, packageable, marketable, and shippable. It’s all a matter of convenience.
White bread is made from flour so processed that it is almost pure starch, and it is barely recognizable as a wheat product – but it’s fluffy and white, and that’s what everyone uses to make PB&J!
These products are so fake that classifying them as “food” is quite a stretch.
Even whole healthy foods are processed. Vegetables are sprayed so that they can be stored longer – potatoes may be six months old before you eat them!
“When shopping, look for labels and terms that are defined by a government or other reliable agency; those that were developed by organizations that are invested in better agricultural, animal- and human-welfare, and environmental practices (as opposed to labels that are developed and monitored by the company that produces the food or the retailer that sells it); as well as those that are verified through third-party certifiers.”
–Wendy Rickard, co-founder of Eating Fresh Publications
Read the ingredients list – how many things do you recognize? How many are “extracts,” “from concentrate,” or just scary scientific words?
Processed foods are bad for the body and mind in so many ways. For one thing, they contain all sorts of artificial ingredients like preservatives and colorants that cause reactions in the digestive, immune, and nervous systems.
Furthermore, processed foods lack many crucial nutrients found in whole foods.
“You’re going to get more nutrient bang for your buck to eat less refined foods when you can,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Common Highly Processed Foods
Bleached and Highly-refined Flour
Of the many processed foods that make up the standard American diet(SAD), refined/ processed grains are among the worst. Refined carbs (wheat or all-purpose flour) still represent the primary source of dietary carbs in many countries – including ours.
Carbohydrates get a bad rap these days, but not all carbs are bad for you.
In fact, vegetables are actually a source of high-quality carbs. It takes your body longer periods of time to convert whole grains into sugar thanks to their fiber. Refined grains are devoid of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leaving nothing but starch and a small amount of protein in these products.
White bread, pasta, and baked goods are the main culprits. It’s these refined, simple, high glycemic carbs that you need to avoid. They’re quickly digested and cause your blood sugar to spike, and your body immediately either uses or stores them (as glycogen and/or fat).
This process causes a carb crash cycle – bringing your energy up before it eventually plummets – making your cravings worse than ever.
Be careful with gluten-free products, which often make up for the loss of texture and taste with added sugars and refined oils. If you aren’t gluten intolerant, opt for unprocessed whole grains rather than g-free grains, which can be misleadingly labeled as “health foods.”
Low-carb expert and author Jimmy Moore writes,
Fat is high in calories, yes, but it is far more energy dense, and it is more efficient at powering your muscles and brain!
A better option is to opt for whole, complex, quality carbohydrates such as quinoa, buckwheat, or groats, or you can try minimally processed whole-grain breads and pastas.
Too much sugar stresses your body – your pancreas struggles to produce insulin, and your body stores excess glucose as fat. Artificial sweeteners exacerbate cravings, disrupt gut bacteria, and cause glucose intolerance.
Minimizing your sugar intake is the first step, but changing the way you choose to appease your sweet tooth can make a big difference in how you feel! Ditch the aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, and even agave nectar.
A better option, if you must sweeten your coffee, is to use natural sweeteners low in fructose. Raw honey, coconut palm sugar, and dark maple syrup are best.
Refined, Trans-fat or Partially-hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
“Refining” an oil can be as simple as filtering it, but the process can also involve bleaching, deodorizing, or treatment with an acid or alkali to prevent it from going rancid.
Many oils are hydrogenated, a process that makes them solid, but also creates trans-fats. These are the unhealthy fats that increase bad and decrease good cholesterols and cause heart disease and diabetes. They’re unsaturated, cheap, and processed, and they are used in most fast foods, take-out, and fried foods.
You’ll also find them in your home in margarine, packaged baked goods, and frozen meals. Margarine is particularly gross. After being hydrogenated, it is a sticky, smelly, gray grease, which is then deodorized, colored, and retextured with additives.
It’s time we all stopped fearing good fat.
“Eating fat will keep your hunger under control, give you incredible energy throughout the day (in tandem with cutting carbs), improve the taste and texture of your food, and improve your blood sugar and relevant cholesterol levels (saturated fat increases HDL better than virtually anything else you could do).”
A better option is to toss the canola. Stick to extra virgin olive oil (which is extracted by machine only), animal fats like butter, lard, ghee, and unrefined coconut oil.
Where do you get your meat? Have you read the label recently?
Fresh, organic, grass-fed meat is best, but what should you avoid?
Traditional meat preservation has been around for centuries in salted or smoked form. The most concerning aspect of these methods is the increased sodium content, as a diet high in salt has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.
The main culprits are salt and nitrates, which are used to preserve pinkness. These two items have been extensively linked to an increase in risk of colorectal cancer. Processed lunch meats have so many other bulking agents, additives, and preservatives that it’s better to avoid them altogether.
A better option is to choose antibiotic-free, air-chilled chicken, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and sustainably-farmed fish.
The Bottom Line
By focusing on consuming whole foods with little processing, you will minimize your intake of artificial additives and preservatives, some of which can be dangerous.
The best advice I can give you is to make time to read ingredient labels and make sure you understand what you’re eating.
If you don’t recognize something, don’t buy it! Go to the store more often and stick with the KISS method – minimally-processed, natural, whole foods. Your body will thank you for it.
Educate yourself – take a look at this rundown on the Worst Food Additives You Didn’t Know You Were Eating.
Infographic by Low Carb Foods