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The term “processed food” has gotten a bad rap in the last few years. We are told to buy unprocessed foods because they contain less chemicals, because they are natural and healthy for us. At worst a food product should be minimally processed.
But what exactly is processed food? And is a processed food bad for you by default?
What you need to know:
Food processing is a set of methods and techniques used to transform raw food ingredients into consumable food. Food processing can be as simple as cutting up some vegetables to prepare a salad, or as complex as manufacturing a Twinkie in multiple processing facility.
From the early days of food processing, the primary goal was to extend the life of a foodstuff, by acting as a preservative. This helped balance humans’ need to eat daily with nature’s trend to provide crops only during certain times of the year. To this day, extending shelf life is one of the most important reasons food manufacturers add so many weird sounding ingredients to products.
One of the first forms of food processing, dating back to BC, was the salting of meats as a means of preservation. Sugar was introduced much later as a preservative for fruit, and thus the jam was born. Keeping food cold, either underground, or by using ice, was an effective, if primitive method of preservation until the ascent of ice boxes and recently electrical refrigeration.
In the early 19th century, a new technology was introduced to vacuum bottles of food for French troops. It would lead to the use of tin cans a decade later and thus the canning industry was born.
Pasteurization, another French invention from the mid 19th century, greatly improved the safety of milk and milk products, as well as increasing their shelf life. (We won’t get into the raw milk debate in this post).
It was only in the industrialized 20th century, and more prominently after World War II, that a third and crucial factor became the driving force behind food processing – convenience.
With legions of moms joining the work force, there was less time to toil in the kitchen, and a demand for quick, easy to prepare foods skyrocketed.
Additional benefits of food processing include lower prices to consumers due to the economies of scale of mass manufacturing, increased availability of a wide variety of foods, and a consistency in taste, texture, and mouth feel.
With so many advantages to food processing, one may ask why is almost every other American so bearish on processed foods?
Here are a few reasons:
The further a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins evaporate, minerals are leached, and fiber is long forgotten.
True, the decrease in nutrients has led to enrichment and fortification, but these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, where hundreds of others are lost in translation from the original orange to the orange drink in a plastic bottle.
Increasing shelf life requires the use of preservatives, whether natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals that have more specific functions (mold inhibitors, bacteria killers, antioxidants, antimicrobial chemicals, etc…). Some of these preservatives have adverse side affects on some or all human populations.
In order to make food more palatable and attractive, additives are used. Food colorings are a huge category of additives. The color of a food is an important psychological consideration. But in many cases, the color of the processed product is not as bold as expected by the consumer. Take strawberry yogurts. Almost all manufacturers add some sort of coloring, whether a natural red color such as beet juice, a natural but quirky bug juice, or artificial Red #40. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.
And since cost has become a driving factor in consumer consideration, food companies are constantly on the lookout for cheaper manufacturing techniques and cheaper source ingredients. Anything that can be made in a lab is cheaper than a naturally sourced ingredient. Substituting quality ingredients with cheaper or inferior standbys is the only way to keep prices down. Don’t even ask what parts of animal carcasses go into your baloney.
Farm subsidies in the US have made corn and soy products very cheap. Guess what – soy oil and high fructose corn syrup are found in many processed items. They add the fat and sweet components that make so many junk foods tasty to us. Salt is natural and cheap, but excessive consumption causes hypertension and other health problems.
We haven’t talked about processing that takes place before the “ingredients” are harvested (GMO crops, hormones and antibiotics to for livestock, etc..), but these too are affecting the food we eat, in ways that science has yet to get a full grasp of.
What to do at the supermarket:
You know our position – the more you can do to prepare your food from scratch, the better service you’re providing to your family. Buying fresh or frozen produce and whipping up a soup, a salad, or a pasta sauce is not rocket science and does not require hours of kitchen work.
But hey, we’re pragmatists too. Try to find the balance that best works for you. But the next time you complain about not having enough time to cook, consider how much time you spend watching TV and on Facebook.