What do you think of when you hear the words “processed food”? If you’re like many health enthusiasts you might think about potato chips and junk food, or maybe McDonalds or boxed Macaroni and Cheese. Processed food has gotten a bad reputation over the past few years, and even I’m guilty of blanket advice like “avoid processed foods.” But what exactly are “processed foods,” and what is so bad about them anyway?
Processed Foods Defined
While there is no legal or consensus definition, the International Food Information Council Foundation defines it as
“Any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.”
This means that an apple is not processed, but beans (they must be soaked before cooking) and pasteurized milk (a heating process to destroy bacteria) are processed. This definition is tricky though – is home made bread processed? What about potato chips – does cutting, salting, and frying count as “processed” or just “prepared a certain way?”
Processing Is The Wrong Scapegoat
As I have said about high fructose corn syrup before, I don’t think it’s the actual ingredient or change that makes a food less healthful (barring some obvious example like trans fats), rather how it interacts with the system overall. For example, is it that high fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar when consumed in equivalent or appropriate amounts? Or is it perhaps that high fructose corn syrup is cheap, making it easier to over sweeten everything from soup to cereal? Sweetening everything yields a population used to more sugar, and the cycle goes on. I’m convinced it’s more the latter.
Likewise, is it that processed foods have been altered for a certain purpose, or is it that often they are commercially produced, and designed (after rigorous and extensive research) to contain the exact texture, flavor, color, and other qualities to prompt us to eat as much of the food as possible? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter on this point too. It’s not that anything in White Cheddar popcorn is inherently deadly or will more adversely effect our health than similar calories, carbs, sugars, and fats from less processed foods, it’s that the cunning folks at Smart Foods have made their popcorn such that I can’t help but eat three times as much of it as I should in a sitting. Something that might be a bit harder to do with a block of white cheddar and unsalted popcorn. It’s not the processing it’s the engineering which ultimately results in a lot of over eating.
These go hand in hand, of course, the processing and engineering. But it’s important to remember that there are “processed” foods like baby carrots (because no carrot comes out of the ground in a perfect oval), beans, pasteurized dairy, or prepackaged hummus that shouldn’t be met with the same skepticism with which we meet commercially engineered foods like Goldfish crackers, flavored potato chips, and brownie bites.