a primer on processed foods
Yesterday we told you about the October Unprocessed challenge, and how we here at Important Media are going to be sharing recipes and insights for a whole month of clean eats. If this sounds interesting to you, but you are not quite sure WHAT processed foods are, WHY we should eliminate them from our diet, and HOW to decrease processed foods in our diet, read on to learn some answers to those questions:
WHAT are processed foods?
According to the Eating Rules/October Unprocessed website,
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with whole-food ingredients. If you find an ingredient on a label that you’d never use in your kitchen and couldn’t possibly make yourself from the whole form, it’s processed (if it doesn’t have a label, it’s probably unprocessed). This doesn’t mean you actually have to make it yourself, it just means that for it to be considered “unprocessed” you could, in theory, do so.
Processed foods are ubiquitous in the Standard American Diet (SAD). Wander any traditional grocery store and you will find many foods on the shelf that are not, if fact, foods. Though many products have lots of wholesome ingredients in them, these are augmented with a wide range of chemicals, additives, preservatives, sweeteners, and other processed items. Soups contain monosodium glutamate, meats contain saline solutions and nitrites, candy contains corn syrup and caramel coloring, soda contains phosphoric acid, cereal contains TBHQ (that’s tertiary butylhydroquinone), boxed foods contain hydrogenated oils, and everything contains food coloring. Processed foods are hard to avoid simply because they are everywhere. The outcome of over-processing of foods has been devastating: our population suffers from exceptionally poor health, and has limited food preserving, growing, and preparation skills.
WHY do we want to eliminate processed foods from our diet?
Eating a clean, wholesome diet is the best preventative medicine. Our bodies have evolved to eat real, wholesome foods. When we feed ourselves food coloring, trans-fat, and sugary, chemical drinks, our bodies cannot process them properly. Additives in food have been linked to all varieties of diseases and disorders. Soda and sugary beverages are linked to obesity. Trans-fat, which has come under fire in the past years, is linked with increased cholesterol, diabetes, and other heart conditions. Worst of all, chemicals in food are not regulated by the FDA as they should be; in many cases additives that are banned in the UK and EU because of potential dangers are allowed in American food products.
Most importantly, eating processed food decreases our taste for real food. Processed foods contain high amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and added flavorings, and our tastebuds become accustomed to these enhanced flavors- and eating real food become boring. A recent study showed that kids will eat more vegetables when they are served with water rather than soda, proving this connection. The more real food we eat, the more sensitive our tastebuds become to the subtle, real flavors of vegetables, fruits, grains, natural sweeteners, and other fresh ingredients. This allows you to expand you palate into newer foods and begin a path towards healthier eating.
HOW you should clean your diet of processed foods?
The best advice is to not buy things in packages; if there is not a label, you are already off to a great start! But since it’s nearly impossible to not buy any packaged foods, the first step should be to check the ingredients of every packaged product. How many ingredients are there? Can you pronounce them? Can you recognize them as actual food products? If the ingredient list is short, and you can recognize all the foods, then generally the food will be pretty good; if there are lots of chemical things in a very long ingredient list, you likely have a heavily processed food. Here is a comparison between my favorite crackers, Ryvita Brand, and Ritz crackers. The ingredients for the Ryvita:
WHOLEGRAIN RYE FLOUR, CURRANTS, WHOLEGRAIN WHEAT FLOUR, SUGAR, PUMPKIN SEEDS, SUNFLOWER SEEDS, WHOLEGRAIN OAT FLAKES, HONEY.
Pretty simple, right? I have most of these things in my cabinets (or could buy them if needed) and I could potentially make these at home. Compare this to Ritz Crackers (which I loved as a kid!). Their ingredient list looks like this:
ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), SOYBEAN OIL, SUGAR, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, SALT, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA AND/OR CALCIUM PHOSPHATE), SOY LECITHIN (EMULSIFIER), NATURAL FLAVOR, CORNSTARCH.
What of these ingredients would one have at home? Flour, soybean oil, sugar, cornstarch, probably. But would we have partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, natural flavorings, or any of the vitamins available to enrich our flour? Probably not. The other thing to note is that while soybean oil and cornstarch are products we might have at home- they don’t pass the ‘kitchen test’ of Eating Rules- and most importantly, these are likely unlabeled Genetically-Modified foods (GMOs), which by their very existence are processed in the worst possible way.
Hopefully this post serves as a bit of primer about the hows-and-whys of processed foods. This month Eat Drink Better and VWJ will be sharing our favorite recipes and tricks to limiting processed foods in our diets, so please check back! Let us know if you have a processed food conundrum! What can we help you with?