What’s a processed food and why should I care?

I’m back! Sorry I’ve been in and out, this semester has been tough. Here’s a snapshot of what I’m learning this week as a nutrition major: chemical reactions of aromatic compounds, how the life course influences food choice, and how cheese is made! But I don’t think any of that stuff is actually interesting or inspiring enough to explain to y’all, so I’m going to write about processed foods. I was inspired to write this a couple of weeks ago when I was astonished to learn that my friend did not know that brown rice was better for you than white rice.

I know I’ve written so many times that I believe the best diet for health (and sustainability and animal welfare) is a whole food, mainly plant based diet. But what is a whole food? And what is not a whole food? And why should you care?

Strictly speaking, a whole food is one that you purchase as unaltered from its original form (sometimes with leaves/shells/guts removed). This includes foods like fresh produce like apples, celery, and potatoes, or whole grains straight from the stalk like brown rice, quinoa, and wheat berries, nuts, or any raw cut of meat or plain milk or whole eggs you might buy.

Practically, though, I also include in this category what are often called minimally processed foods, like breads made from whole grains, dried beans, dried fruit, tofu, plain, unsweetened yogurt, and many cheeses. I should explain what processing is first though.

So if a whole food is one that is in it’s original (or practically original) form, then a processed food is one that’s been altered from it’s original form. This includes, as I alluded above, anything that’s been dried, or cultured like cheese, yogurt, and tofu, or ground into a flour, like whole grain bread or pasta. As far as I’m concerned, those types of processes are generally not nutritionally harmful. But there are processes that alter foods in a much more fundamental way. Let’s take white rice, for instance. Or any refined grain like white wheat flour, which is used to make white bread and many baked goods. A whole grain has three main components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. To go from whole wheat to white wheat or from brown rice to white rice, manufacturers strip away the bran and the germ, which contain all of the fiber and vitamins of the original grain, leaving the endosperm, which is just starch, to be milled into flour.

Refining grains is just the beginning. A highly processed ingredient that’s often a component of highly processed, packaged foods is high fructose corn syrup. To make corn syrup, corn starch is isolated from the corn plant and treated with either acid and heat or amylases (enzymes that break down starches), which turns it into a syrup of glucose plus water. To make high fructose corn syrup, manufacturers add an enzyme to the corn syrup to convert a lot of the glucose to fructose, which is what makes HFCS as sweet as table sugar. As you can tell, this degree of processing makes the end product almost unrecognizable from the original food.

More examples of processed foods: most breakfast cereals, french fries, candy, snack foods like chips and pretzels, sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and sports drinks, packaged baked goods, anything canned, anything “instant,” most anything frozen, granola bars and cereal bars and power bars and meal replacement bars, anything sweetened, anything preserved chemically, anything that’s had anything added to it, and I think you’re starting to get the idea.

Notice that whole foods are mostly foods you would not buy packaged, while processed foods are mostly foods you would buy packaged.

So why are processed foods, and especially heavily processed foods, not the foundation for a healthy diet? And why are whole and sometimes minimally processed foods the foundation for a healthy diet?

There are two simple reasons: one, processing often removes important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and two, it often adds the things that are worst for us in excess, namely fat, sugar, and salt.

The food industry would argue first that they can add back the nutrients lost during processing, like in fortified cereal. The reason this argument fails miserably is that adding a nutrient to a food doesn’t give you the benefits of eating it as part of a whole food. Plants and animals have evolved to provide us and we have evolved to live on nutrients in the extremely complex proportions and contexts that are naturally found in whole foods. You may absorb the same nutrient differently from different foods, and different nutrients differently from the same food. It’s not cut and dry, and science and certainly the industry are nowhere close to fully understanding how it all works. What we do know is that the healthiest people who live the longest lives eat diets based on whole, mainly plant based foods.

The food industry would argue second that you should just eat the fatty, sugary, and salty foods in moderation. The reason that argument fails miserably is that by removing the fiber and adding in fat, sugar, and salt, you make the food much more palatable and much less satisfying at the same time, so it’s literally a recipe for overeating. If you’re hungry for a snack, you could probably eat 6 oreos for 360 calories and nothing nutritious to speak of, OR an apple for 80 calories and a plethora of beneficial nutrients and feel just as satisfied.

I know that in the world we live in, it’s almost impossible to avoid processed foods, and I would say it’s totally unnecessary to avoid most minimally processed foods. In any case, I’m not advocating that you eat no moderately or highly processed foods, but do not make them the foundation of your diet; rather, make whole foods, and primarily plant-based foods, the foundation of your diet. That and exercising, I believe, are the two best and most important things we can do to prevent obesity and chronic disease.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Thanksgiving! Save room for veggies =).