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What is Processed Food?

This is a question we as Health Coaches receive quite often. In a world where food is not only a means of survival, but also a part of our culture and our health, it is essential to distinguish between processed and un-processed foods. And while it might seem a little (pardon the pun) indigestible, rest assured that learning about the impact of food processing is an important part of our daily nutrition and overall health goals.

History

Approximately 2 million years ago, our ancestors learned the valuable tools to preserve, cook, ferment, and freeze food products in an effort to improve food longevity, flavor, and safety. And while these methods have proven to contribute to the survival of our species, food processing has arguably gone a little overboard, where food quality is now being compromised among some food items. When we look at the timeline of food processing, it’s interesting to learn that roasting meat began nearly 1.8 million years ago, bread 30,000 years ago, sugar (500 b.c.), and more recently—Corn Flakes (1894), monosodium glutamate (MSG) (1908), SPAM (1926), high-fructose corn syrup (1957), and lab-grown meat (2013). As food scientists and manufacturers continue to develop food products, it is becoming increasingly important to learn which are considered healthful and which compromise our overall well-being. And although food processing is intended to destroy harmful pathogens and bacteria from making us ill, it has also introduced a whole host of health problems often associated with nutrient deficiencies.

Food Processing Levels

Certain terms might be familiar to you when you hear about food processing. Unprocessed or minimally processed, for example, refers to foods that are left unchanged (or minimally changed) from their original state. We often see these foods referred to as being ‘raw’ or ‘perishable’, having little to no heat processing or change from added preservatives or chemical treatments. Some examples of minimal processing include: washing, cutting, juicing, and low-heat exposure. Many believe that not heating a food above 180 degrees maintains its original nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Heating has shown to degrade or denature foods from having these vital micronutrients. Foods, such as raw dairy, nuts, seeds, greens, sliced fruits and vegetables, and even raw fish fall into this category. Smoothies and fresh pressed juice that has not undergone pasteurization are also considered unprocessed foods. These are commonly found to be abundant in micronutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium, and selenium—to name a few of the many available nutrients available.

Processed foods are those that undergo various heating and treating systems. Some examples include milling grains into flour, extracting oils from vegetables and seeds (olive oil, sesame oil, corn oil, etc.), and refining sugar from sugar cane or beets. These are not generally eaten alone, but are commonly used for baking, cooking, and as thickening agents. These food items are commonly left void of their original nutrition and especially with heating processes, result in altered food products. Shockingly, most fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King previously only used hydrogenated oils, but because of the learned dangers of hydrogenated oils and their impact on heart disease and obesity, they intentionally made the switch to vegetable oils instead. And while it would appear to be a healthier alternative, the heating of these vegetable oils (commonly used oils include: corn, peanut, and canola oils) actually alters them, producing the toxic by-products: aldehyde and formaldehyde, along with cholesterol-raising trans fats. Not only are aldehyde and formaldehyde known carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds), but they also contribute to the aging of our cells.

The other level of processing to consider is highly processed, where unprocessed, minimally processed, and processed foods are combined. These include things such as frozen TV dinners, cookies, pastries, cereals, chips, breads, cured meats, tofu products, and many, many more! These foods are made through techniques such as frying, curing, enriching (with additional vitamins or minerals), mixing, baking, and smoking. While some of these food items have been enriched with nutrients to make them more healthful, many health professionals worry that these foods are quickly replacing unprocessed, whole food items that are the foundation of our food culture.

What’s our suggestion?

Opt for selecting unprocessed foods at your local market. If you do choose to heat or treat your foods, do so sparingly and with awareness. Use low-heat where possible and focus on foods that are abundant in vitamins and minerals. When selecting foods that are considered ‘perishable’, look for those that have not undergone excessive heating through pasteurization and pre-cooking methods.  Avoid meals such as frozen dinners and most canned soups as they are generally high in sodium. Look for low- or no-sodium on the label, and always read the ingredients list to determine whether preservatives have been added. Choose whole grain bread products if you are not able to bake your own. If you choose to eat out, opt for restaurants that offer healthy and/or raw menu options. Salads and homemade soup are generally going to be more healthful than other menu items. If you do want to purchase deli meat, have your butcher cut the meat for you. Generally the pre-packaged deli meats are laden with sodium, chemicals, and preservatives. Avoid foods that say ‘low-fat’ as they often have additional sugars added. Limit or avoid refined sugar products such as fruit juice and dried fruit.  Lastly, learn to prepare meals at home where possible. This can be enjoyable, simple, and cost-effective once you get the hang of it!

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