When it comes to processed foods, most of us are always focusing on the labels—what’s in it? How much fat, protein, sugar, carbs, fats? What kinds of fats? Is Processed Food the ENEMY?
Ever since trans fats have been blacklisted for doubling the risk for heart disease, we have been quick to pick out single ingredients in packaged food and point the finger at it. Then the manufacturing companies take the infamous ingredient and replace it with something else, which may almost be as toxic as the original nutrient.
As a part of our modernization of the food processing industry, we’ve begun to learn some things: too much of anything, whether it’s sugar, saturated fats, or salt, is not good for us. It’s taken almost two generations to get us to come to these realizations.
Still, picking out these single factors is not enough to revolutionize the way we choose the products we consume. We need to look at the system as a whole: What does manufacturing food mean for human health?
Processed foods are made while removing several micronutrients from whole foods. To make these foods more desirable, we add fat, sugar, and salt. Even the whole foods we have in the modern day seem to contain less nutrition because everything operates on the clock of convenience. Agriculture has been considered only for its monetary value, not for its nutritional value.
Processed foods are also lacking the water and fiber that whole foods contain. Without these nutrients, we have a harder time fueling ourselves with processed foods.
Water and fiber are also helpful in appetite control. We tend to eat less when we have more water and fiber-rich foods. It’s no mystery why we can throw back two grilled cheese sandwiches in one sitting.
Processed foods have something else going for them that whole foods don’t: Advertising. Milk cartons have pictures of fields with roaming cows. Commercials show the ingredients that go into the product instead of the actual product itself.
It’s not only the eye-catching aspect of processed foods but their convenience that makes them more appealing. Just add water. Heat in the Microwave for three minutes.
I’m just as guilty of relying on processed foods. They have become a necessity. What do we have time to eat if we only get 20 minutes for lunch at work? A cup of chicken noodle soup?
We quickly bypass the additives in the ingredients labels because we don’t understand them. We go right to the cooking directions, but we really ought to know what we are putting into our bodies.
Many of these “processing aids” and chemicals are difficult and foreign to our bodies, and sometimes we don’t know how to digest them. Weight gain isn’t the only concern: there’s no telling how many health risks these synthetic ingredients bring along.
When we overlook these mystery nutrients and read the fats, proteins, carbs, sugars, we make ourselves more susceptible to nutrient-targeting advertising. We get told fats are bad? Get something “Fat Free!” Not supposed to have sugar? “Low Sugar” oatmeal!
All these food companies know what is “healthy” and will do anything to advertise their products as such. Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, Carlos Monteiro observed, “they all have the same policy” of promoting ultra-processed food.
Instead of falling into the black hole of single-nutrient scrutiny, it would benefit us to focus on preparing more whole foods.
And let’s be realistic here. It would be incredibly difficult to avoid ALL processed foods. I think the best we can hope for is to eat them in moderation.
A realistic goal to set for yourself is to make your diet 80% whole foods and 20% processed foods. Even some whole foods have processed additives to make them look fresher and more colorful. (Apples have wax on their skin to maintain the firmness of the fruit). It’s almost impossible to avoid it entirely. The 80/20 rule is sustainable.