What is Processed Food?

I don’t think I rail against anything more than processed foods, in my gentle and non–authoritative way. There’s nothing “evil” about these foods; they are just not the healthiest and will in fact cause health problems in many people. But I need to explain what I mean by processed foods, because there are definitely some foods that undergo processing and are still very healthy. Processed foods are defined in opposition to whole foods, which are fresh fruits and vegetables, dried grains and beans, nuts and seeds, spices and herbs, meat and milk. Processed foods are made from these fresh, whole foods. So let me start by explaining some kinds of food processing that I think are helpful and necessary.

The Great Processed Foods. Some foods need to be processed so that they can be digested better or preserved longer. For example, the grinding of grains of wheat (called berries) into flour to make bread is a kind of processing. Wheat berries are so hard that it is counterproductive to cook them like you would brown rice or quinoa. All natural, whole wheat bread is not quite as nutritious as cooked whole grains, but is still a healthy food when eaten in moderation. Another food that needs to be processed to be digested is the soybean. Soybeans, like wheat berries, are very hard and take forever to cook. That’s why they are soaked and fermented to make tempeh, miso, and soy sauce.

We also process food to make it last longer. The modern processing methods that have this purpose in mind can be very destructive, but traditional ways of preserving food also preserve its nutrients. These traditions include pickling and fermenting, smoking, drying, salting and curdling. Eating foods that have been processed according to these methods (in other words, pickles, cheese, yogurt, butter, smoked and salted meats and fish, beef jerky, dried fruit) is just fine.

The Good Processed Foods. A second tier of processed food that’s still okay is that of whole foods that have been frozen, canned or combined to make another food. For example, take ice cream. It’s great if you can make your own ice cream using the best quality milk and cream, but there are also ice cream brands available at the store that use pretty high quality ingredients. The same thing is true of many other foods available at the store: sauces, dressings, fruit juices, chocolate, pasta, condiments, etc. These are foods that you could make yourself but might not have the time. In that case it’s okay to get something that’s not whole. The key, again, is to read the ingredients. Look for things that don’t belong. Peanut butter should just have peanuts and salt, not sugar and hydrogenated oil. Tomato sauce doesn’t need sugar either. If you’re eating mostly whole foods, you don’t need bread that has added niacin, lecithin or other vitamins and minerals (whether you even absorb them in this form is questionable). We don’t know why manufacturers put in all this extra fat, sugar and artificial chemicals, but these are the exact things that accumulate in your body and are dying to get cleansed out in the spring. Look at the ingredients and make sure the ingredients used to make what you’re buying were whole foods.

Regarding frozen and canned foods, neither, unfortunately, are nearly as good as fresh vegetables. They’re definitely better than eating no vegetables. Some people develop a dislike for vegetables because they eat them frozen or canned too often instead of fresh. Frozen vegetables are better because they preserve more nutrients. Canned vegetables and canned beans often have high amounts of sodium, so keep that in mind if you choose to get them.

The Okay Processed Foods. These are foods that are largely made from other processed foods, like cookies or crackers or cereal made from flour and sugar. I would also put in here foods like potato chips cooked in a high amount of oil. These foods really don’t have much nutrition in them, though they provide some energy (usually in the form of a blood–sugar spike). The tipping point here when you go from the okay to the bad is whether they use artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils (trans fats). Stores like Whole Foods and other health food stores sell loads and loads of these processed foods, but the ingredients are at least all natural. Up to this point, all the processing, though it has decreased the nutritional value of the food (whether because you’re not eating fresh, the ingredients are refined, etc.), there are no ingredients that have been manufactured in a laboratory.

The Worst Processed Foods. These are foods that contain either artificial chemicals such as artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol, saccharin), chemical preservatives like sodium nitrite and potassium sorbate, flavor enhancers like MSG, fat replacements like olestra, “modified food starch” and polydextrose, or they contain natural ingredients that have been modified in some way, like hydrogenated vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup, or, finally, they contain natural compounds extracted from foods and other sources that are not nutritious on their own, such as glucose, fructose, and soybean oil, hydrolyzed soy protein, ammonium hydroxide, sodium carbonate, and other chemical compounds. Almost all conventional snacks contain these preservatives, sweeteners, fat substitutes, thickeners, colorings, leaveners, firmers, stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers. Fast food, junk food, candy, soda, pastries that can sit on the shelf at a highway rest stop until they’re covered with dust, etc., all contain these ingredients in abundance. There are many more such ingredients, but you can recognize them by the fact that they are hard to pronounce. These ingredients are often used to cover up the fact that the main ingredients are past their prime or of poor quality. Some of them are also used for their addictive properties. These are the ingredients that are closely linked to weight gain, digestive problems, headaches, colds, stomachaches, and serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and many other concerns for which we take medication.
In summary, some processed foods can be healthy, while others will lead to health problems. That doesn’t mean you can never have them, but try to make sure you balance the unhealthier ones with whole and cleansing foods, like those mentioned in the Spring Diet. Also, avoiding the worst processed foods doesn’t make you healthy automatically, thought it will make you feel a lot better on a day to day basis. Even if you eat all whole foods, it’s still necessary to have a balanced diet (for example, just eating a ton of salads all year is not a great idea for most people). If you run out of time for food preparation, stick with the “Good” and “Great” processed foods and try to avoid the ones that are just okay or worse. Remember that the foods with artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers are addictive, and it can take a while to switch off of them. A good first step is to get rid of the two most pervasive unhealthy ingredients: high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Just by taking that step, you’ll start feeling a lot more cleansed.