Part one: a general overview
This is a logical first place to begin an examination of processed foods: what is it about them that's so bad? After all, they're convenient and often cheap. Eventually, I'll cover the following:
- why we should try to avoid them as much as possible (and what's possible will differ for different people);
- how to avoid processed foods as much as possible;
- obstacles to avoiding processed foods;
- and tools and techniques to help you overcome those obstacles and make the switch to a diet richer in nutrients and poorer in added sugars, fats, salt, and those ubiquitous food additives.
Let's start by defining "processed food." Here's a definition that sums up what I consider to be processed food:
My definition of processed food is any real food that has been altered in any way in order to lower its production cost, lengthen its shelf life, make it look more appealing, or make you want to eat more of it, and that results in the reduction of its nutritional content and/or the increase of toxins.
Arguably, frozen plain vegetables or canned beans with no additives of any kind could be called "processed," since they do undergo specific processes that change the raw material into something conveniently packaged. Cooking itself is a process, for that matter. But I think most of us have something else in mind when we hear the term "processed food," and the above definition captures it.
The opposite of processed food is, of course, whole food--what you find in the produce section of the supermarket, or at your local farmer's market, for example.
Why avoid these handy, time-saving, colorfully packaged foods? You're probably thinking of health reasons, and that is one good reason. But it's not the only one.
Here are my reasons for avoiding processed foods, in no particular order:
Processed foods are often nutrient-deficient. The processing they undergo robs them of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients.
They often contain added salt, sugar, and fat (including trans fats) to make them more palatable. In a population with record levels of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes--or precursors to same--we should avoid excess amounts of these ingredients.
The addition of salt, sugar, fat, "flavor enhancers," and so on actually alters your taste, so that you lose the ability to taste subtle characteristics of actual food and learn to prefer and to crave altered food.
Additives to bring about a desired characteristic ("enhanced" flavor, longer shelf life, texture, fewer calories, etc.) can be harmful to your health.
There may be hidden ingredients that you'd rather not ingest; not everything in a "food" has to be labeled. Some of those ingredients may come from countries that have little regulation (witness the pet-food episode, where melamine was added to wheat gluten, which was then added to pet food--and also made it into the human food chain).
Compared to food that you can buy locally (or grow yourself), processed foods exact a heavy cost in terms of energy use and environmental degradation: the processing, packaging, and transporting of all that food uses an enormous amount of fuel, water, etc.
Processed foods may be overpackaged, another strain on resources and the environment. Whole foods like oranges come in their own natural packaging; grains and other dry goods bought in bulk save energy because they are not pre-packaged in millions of units.
Every dollar spent on processed food profits the food industry, giant conglomerates that care only about the bottom line and have gone to great lengths (and great expense) to get regulatory agencies (so-called!) to see things their way, regardless of the evidence that many food industry practices are detrimental to our health and well-being.
Processed foods, once you wean yourself from them, have off-flavors and strange chemical tastes that make you realize just how adulterated such foods are. I myself can usually taste trans fats in a food, because I don't eat them and haven't for some time. There's a nasty effect where the roof of my mouth feels coated with something icky.
For all these reasons, and probably some I've forgotten to list, it's a good idea to avoid processed foods: you're kinder to yourself, to local farmers, and to the environment.
But, given that 90% of American money spent on food is spent on processed foods, how does a concerned person move away from a processed-food diet and on to something more satisfying and nutritious? Given that food labeling is far from rigorous or comprehensive, how do we decide what to put into the shopping cart?
Stay tuned ... But first, a few words of reassurance.
It doesn't have to be hard to eat better--really!
If you're still reading, you want to know how to go about making the change to unprocessed foods, beyond reading labels in the grocery store. Or perhaps you're hoping to influence a friend or family member to eat better, and having a few ideas that don't sound terribly difficult seems like a good way to start the conversion process.
But before I begin making suggestions about how to avoid processed foods and replace them with more nutritious whole (or nearly whole) foods, I want to emphasize a couple of points in order to keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Making the switch to whole foods is a big step if you've been eating a lot of processed food; just ask the folks on the BBC's You Are What You Eat. In fact it can seem like such a major change, requiring all sorts of learning and behavioral adjustments, that some people can't face it.
It doesn't have to be that way.
So, three things:
One: It would be ideal to completely avoid certain products and behaviors or habits, but trying to go cold turkey can lead to failure. If complete avoidance of, say, carbonated beverages just doesn't seem possible, then try cutting down, or substitute a beverage made with cane sugar for that high-fructose corn syrup-laden stuff you've been downing. In other words, try to phase out certain products or ingredients, or cut down on the number of habitually consumed processed foods you buy. Begin replacing your usual highly refined foods with real food, making substitutions gradually. (Unless you're really gung-ho, and then go for it, of course!) If you can't stand the thought of never again eating at McDonald's, then for heaven's sake go to McDonald's--occasionally. For most of us--certainly for me!--there will be some processed foods we just don't want to forego completely, whether for convenience, taste, or nostalgia.
Two: There's a continuum from "nothing but processed foods" to "nothing but whole, completely unprocessed foods." Most of us will fall somewhere in between. I think it's important to move from processed foods toward healthier foods, but the extent to which you do that will depend on your circumstances and desires. You might not ever grind your own organic grain and bake bread with it, but you might decide to buy bread that lists only a few basic ingredients (flour, water, yeast, salt) on the label. You might not want to make your own chicken stock but instead buy organic chicken stock. The fact is that most Americans, even if they don't want to make everything from scratch, could still improve their diet by making smaller changes. And that's the goal: a healthier diet.
Three: Some of you are thinking, "But I like the taste of convenience foods!", or "I can't afford to eat whole foods--just too pricey," or "I don't have the time to cook." These are not irrational objections, but in fact, if you sincerely want to eat real food that's good for you, each of these obstacles can be overcome, at least to a great extent. I'll be offering some tools and techniques--and a philosophy--that can help you get past these seeming obstacles.
If you have some of your own strategies, techniques, or ideas about any of this series, please feel free to comment or send me an e-mail. I don't claim any all-inclusive knowledge on this topic; I just want to share some things that have worked for me over the years. No sense in re-inventing the wheel.
General guidelines, with a nod to Michael Pollan
Supermarket shelves are full of what Michael Pollan has called "foodlike" or "foodish" products. All these highly processed, nutritionally deficient products are heavily advertised and come in colorful packaging designed to lure the buyer--or the buyer's children, all too often. Looking at the ingredient labels of such products, one wonders whether they should even be designated as food at all.
1. Thus Pollan's first rule of thumb when buying groceries: Don't buy anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. Think about it: would great-grandma (or perhaps great-great-grandma--you might have to go back a way, depending on your age) recognize those blue beverages as food? How about aerosol "processed cheese food"? Or squeezable yogurt?
Those things may be ingestible, but that doesn't mean they're food. They've gone through any number of processes to enhance or change color, "enhance" flavor (often a means of covering up for either bad tastes due to processing, or no taste due to same), create a particular texture, give the product a long shelf life, and so on.
If your great-grandma wouldn't recognize it as food, just do not buy it.
2. Again, per Michael Pollan: stay out of the middle aisles of the grocery store as much as possible. Meat, dairy, and produce are on the outside, while the heavily processed foods are in the middle aisles. You can't avoid those aisles altogether, of course, because that's also where the flour, coffee, rice, dried beans, etc. are, but you can train yourself to ignore the vast displays of Hamburger Helper and Frito-Lays offerings and zip right past them without a glance.
(By the way, the meat and dairy cases aren't without their problems, which I'll address in the next post, where I'll discuss specific categories of food.)
3. Another good policy is to buy the least processed version of a given food that can fit within your circumstances. For example, dried beans are less processed than canned beans (and cheaper, too). You may not feel that you have time to cook dried beans; in that case, find the canned beans with the fewest ingredients listed. Fresh produce is better than frozen, but if you feel you don't have time to clean, trim, and chop, frozen is better than canned (more nutrients are retained in flash-freezing). On the other hand, vegetables frozen in sauces, etc., are not a good choice, as a look at the ingredient list will show.
4. If a product is too convenient, don't buy it: you can bet that it's heavily processed. There are exceptions to this rule--I can make Potato Buds at home using my food dehydrator--but for the most part, stay away from products that require no effort whatsoever. Especially avoid any foods expressly designed for microwaving. Again, there are exceptions--I've seen dried single-serving organic, additive-free soups meant to be microwaved--but for the most part, this is a rule to shop by.
5. Read the label. How many ingredients are listed, and how many do you actually recognize as actual food?
Look at the ingredients list of soy-based "sausage" patties (soy's supposed to be good for you, right?):
textured vegetable protein (wheat gluten, soy protein concentrate, water for hydration), egg whites, corn oil, sodium caseinate, modified tapioca starch. Contains two per cent or less of lactose, soybean oil, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (wheat gluten, corn gluten, soy protein), autolyzed yeast extract, spices, natural and artificial flavors, sodium phosphates (tripolyphosphate, hexametaphosphate, monophosphate), salt, disodium inosinate, caramel color, cellulose gum, whey powder, modified corn starch, maltodextrin, potassium chloride, dextrose, onion powder disodium guanylate, vitamins and minerals (niacinamide, iron [ferrous sulfate], thiamine mononitrate [vitamin B1], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], riboflavin [vitamin B2], vitamin B12), succinic acid, ascorbic acid, lactic acid, brewer's yeast, torula yeast, soy lecithin.
And to think I used to eat that stuff when I was a vegetarian!
Some of the items on that list are perfectly harmless, but some are not: the presence of MSG is often disguised by terms such as "autolyzed yeast extract." And such things as wheat and corn gluten, soy protein, and the like indicate that foods have been broken down into constituent parts only to be recombined in a new way. The vitamins have been added, of course, because the final product would be nutritionally deficient without them. Food? Well, it's edible.
Whether or not you know what each ingredient is, a list this long and this full of chemical nomenclature ought to set off an alarm in your head that this is about as far from whole food as you can get.
6. And speaking of labels, look specifically for high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil and don't buy anything that contains these dangerous substances.
I've written about high-fructose corn syrup before, and a good source of information can be found hereand here. HFCS has been implicated in the onset of diabetes in children. Fructose is processed by the liver, which converts the fructose into fat and stores it in the liver. What we are seeing today is an alarming growth in the incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Some researchers suspect that all that HFCS being ingested is contributing to those rising rates, and that there may be something in the HFCS, separate from the issue of fructose itself, that is to blame.
HFCS is in so many processed foods, not just soda pop. Look at the labels of salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, yogurt, jams, baked goods, and on and on, and many times you'll find high-fructose corn syrup listed among the ingredients. It's bad enough that processed food is so heavily sugared (on some labels you'll see sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose--or one of the other -ose sugars--ALL listed), but HFCS seems to bring its own problems.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (corn oil, soybean oil, whatever) on the label means that the product contains trans fats. By now most of us know that trans fats are worse than naturally occurring saturated fats. The problem is that a package can boast "No trans fats!" and yet contain trans fats: the FDA allows manufacturers to claim zero trans fats as long as there is less than .5 gram of trans fat per serving. So you must look for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," "hydrogenated vegetable oil," or "shortening" on the label. (Fully hydrogenated oil is okay, but ifthe word "hydrogenated" is used without the "fully," you can't be sure what is meant.)
While there are other additives that are far from desirable, in my estimation it's crucial to rid yourself of these two ingredients as much as possible.
Once you start reading labels, you'll be shocked at how adulterated our food really is, and--I hope--you'll want to start changing your habits. But before I get into how to substitute wholesome food for its processed counterpart you may regard as tasty, cheap, and/or convenient, there's more to say about the act of obtaining food.
Go on to the next page to begin a trip through the supermarket.