Are All Processed Foods Bad?

Are All Processed Foods Bad?
Are All Processed Foods Bad?

What is processed food?  Are all processed foods bad?  Can processed foods ever be healthy?  Where do we draw the line?  These are questions we ask ourselves every day.

Many people see processed foods as a bad thing but foods are neither good nor bad, black or white.  Like everything else in life, there are shades of gray.  And here’s the truth:  Everything we eat is processed.

The key is to educate ourselves on what processed foods we can introduce into a healthy diet and which ones we should stay away from.  It’s easier than you think.

First, let’s take a look at the different categories of processed foods.

Categories of Processed Foods

Categories of Processed Foods
Categories of Processed Foods

What we typically think of as unprocessed foods are actually “processed” in the regard that they are slightly altered from their natural state for the sake of consumer convenience and/or the purpose of preservation.  These include foods that are picked from the vine, cleaned, pasteurized, refrigerated, frozen and/or vacuum-sealed. Examples of this would be fresh or frozen whole produce, milk, fresh herbs and eggs.

Minimally processed foods have been manipulated in some way.  They have had inedible/unwanted parts removed, been pressed, dried, ground, cooked, milled and/or packaged. This category includes meat cut by a butcher, seafood, bagged salads, roasted nuts, grains, legumes, oils and whole-grain flours.

Foods can be further processed when they are modified from their original state to become something else.  This includes butter, sour cream, hummus, salt, sugar, pickled and fermented foods.

Now we move onto the next level of processed foods.  These are foods processed in a factory and come to us canned, jarred or otherwise packaged.  This is where we must begin to be vigilant.  

Highly Processed Food

Highly Processed Food
Highly Processed Food

Many highly processed foods appear to be healthy on the surface.  Let’s take these granola bars, for example.  The label shouts that it’s made with 100% WHOLE GRAINS!  No high fructose corn syrup! No artificial flavors!  No added color! 100 calories or less per serving!

But there’s a rude awakening when we look at the nutrition label.

Whole grains?  They may be whole but there certainly aren’t many of ‘em in there…1 gram (or less, depending on the flavor) of fiber per serving

No high fructose corn syrup?  That’s true, but each bar is chock-a-block full of other sugars:  Cane sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar, corn syrup and corn syrup solids.  At 7 grams per serving, that’s more than 25% of the recommended daily allowance for children.  As for the high fructose corn syrup argument?  Studies show that, although it’s metabolized differently from other sweeteners, all added sugars have the same metabolic effects on the body and can lead to the same health consequences.

But, it’s low in calories, right?  Unfortunately, the nutrition label shows that there is no notable nutrition being added to your diet when you eat this bar.  It’s empty calories.  It’s adding nothing to your body except calories and sugar.  (Yes, just like a candy bar). In my opinion, this is the most overlooked aspect of these highly processed foods.

When you swap out the granola bars for this homemade fruit nut granola, you’ll be gaining 3.5 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals per serving.  And while there is honey added to the mix, it’s partially offset by the fiber and protein content and the added nutrition found in this natural sweetener.

Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?
Can You Judge A Book By Its Cover?

So are there any highly processed foods that we can eat?  How can we know which ones to choose?  I’m here to tell you this:  You, without a doubt, CAN judge a book by its cover.

Any food that’s considered processed must have a nutrition label, which lists ingredients as well as calories, fat, added sugars, fiber and nutritional values. It takes less than a minute to decide if any particular item should be added to your shopping cart.

Take a look at the ingredients.  Everything you see there should be something that you can find in your own kitchen. If there are any ingredients you can’t pronounce, don’t know what it is or wouldn’t be able to buy it on the grocery store shelf, put that package right back and move on.

You should also keep in mind that less is more.  Look for items with only a few simple ingredients.  Just like you would make it at home.

Now look at the nutrition section and ask yourself these questions.  How many servings are in this container?  How many servings would you eat in one sitting?  How much sodium, fat and sugar would you be ingesting in that one sitting?  Is there any protein, fiber, vitamins or minerals that would nourish your body?

For more information on understanding this information, check out this article from the FDA.

How To Make Good Choices

How To Make Good Choices
How To Make Good Choices

Shelf-stable grocery items do have a valid place in every kitchen.  Things like canned tuna, canned or dried fruits/vegetables and legumes remain edible for a long time, much longer than fresh.  They also retain the same level of nutrition for their entire shelf life.

Dry pasta, whole grain flours, granulated sugar and rolled oats are convenient to use and have a long shelf life.  Nuts, nut butter and dried meats need no preparation and can be eaten directly from the container.

Having said that, we cannot assume that all these products are created equal.  In general, most “flavored” items such as honey roasted nuts and tuna packets have added sugar and/or sodium.  So do many nut butters.

Do you know that a single serving size container of many flavored yogurts can contain (or even exceed) your RDA of sugar?  Just as delicious (and much healthier) is unflavored yogurt with a few drops of honey and vanilla and/or fresh fruit.

I hate to be a nag but I’m going to say it again and ask you to take a few seconds to read those nutrition facts.  I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you see from one brand to the next! 

It’s All About The Balance

It’s All About The Balance
It’s All About The Balance

You may wonder why I’m telling you this.  I’m the one who’s always preaching about cooking fresh, whole foods, thinking ahead, saving leftovers, yada, yada, yada.

Right?

Because cooking from scratch is not always in the cards.  I get busy, I get tired, my plans change. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to cook.  Sometimes I want a shortcut and that’s ok.

It’s all about the balance in life so go ahead and make things easier by picking up a few cans or boxes.  Just don’t forget to read those labels!

All my best,

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

Change Your Food, Change Your Life

Change Your Food, Change Your Life
Change Your Food, Change Your Life

We are all acquainted with those people who wouldn’t know a fresh vegetable if it ran them down in the street. Maybe you are one of those people. Or, rather, were one of those people.

The fact that you’re here, reading this article, tells me that you’ve changed. It tells me that you want to eat differently.

I had a dear friend who embraced the motto, “I only have a kitchen because it came with the house”. Yes, she was being funny but it was also (mostly) true and, if we’re being truthful, we all feel that way from time to time.

We’ve become a society of convenience-based, fast-food junkies. I’ve made a decision to change my life, to change the way I eat, so now I’m embracing this new motto: “Change Your Food, Change Your Life”.

Here are a few reasons why.

Do Processed Foods Make You Hungry?

Do Processed Foods Make You Hungry?
Do Processed Foods Make You Hungry?

The US National Institutes of Health say that eating a diet full of processed foods causes a rise in hunger hormones.

In a month-long study, 20 volunteers lived in a laboratory and spent two weeks eating a diet of processed foods followed by two weeks eating a diet of unprocessed foods.

It was discovered that the unprocessed diet caused appetite-suppression hormones PYY to rise while hunger hormone ghrelin went down.

This did not happen for the processed food portion of the study. As a matter of fact, the volunteers consumed an average of 500 more calories every day while on the processed foods diet.

Why is this happening? The answers aren’t clear. Obviously more studies are needed to get to the bottom of this.

Do Processed Foods Make You Fat?

Do Processed Foods Make You Fat?
Do Processed Foods Make You Fat?

The study I’ve noted above took great care to make sure that the nutritional intake for the two diets was similar but, here in the real world, things look a little different, don’t they?

We tend to choose (and overeat) processed foods that are full of refined carbs, added sugar and fat, all of which appeals to the human palate, but tend to fall short when it comes to fiber, protein and nutrition.

When we couple that with the information garnered about hormones in the study mentioned above, it’s no wonder we’re gaining weight.

Studies have shown again and again that beings who eat (humans, mice, dogs, etc) gravitate towards foods that taste good and we don’t mind compromising our health to do it.

In past generations, this desire was mitigated by the food that was available and the process of preparing it. If you missed that deer or didn’t have wood to build a fire, then you simply had to consume what you had.

In today’s society, the plethora of readily available and inexpensive convenience foods assures that we can eat as much as we want, whenever want.

Do Processed foods make you tired?

Do Processed foods make you tired?
Do Processed foods make you tired?

We’re Bushed. Zonked. Fried. Done in. Pooped. Whatever you call it, it’s no fun to be weary.

As we struggle valiantly to stay awake during the morning meeting, we vow to do better.

We promise ourselves that tonight we’ll lose the screen time, skip that second glass of wine and hit the sack earlier. So why isn’t it helping?

While all these things are certainly issues in our day-to-day lives, the fatigue that we’re suffering could be directly linked to the foods that we eat.

More and more, experts are uncovering the reasons that processed foods make you tired. And they’re not necessarily the reasons you may think.

I think we all know that when we eat a donut, the blood sugar spike we get will be quickly followed by a dip, leaving us tired and cranky.

What many people don’t realize is that the same holds true for so-called “white” carbs. These are the refined carbs found in many white foods such as white bread, white flour, white rice and some breakfast cereals.

The better choices to avoid that sugar crash are whole grains such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice and oatmeal.

Things go much deeper than that, however.

Because many processed foods don’t contain the nutrients that our bodies need to function, using them as a main food source can lead to a variety of health issues such as anemia. The higher salt sugar and fat content can cause high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

The chemicals that are used in processed foods can cause fatigue as well. Inorganic phosphate, for example, is shown to reduce oxygen uptake as well as impede the body’s ability to produce fatty acids. Considering that it’s used in up to 70% of all processed foods, I think we can agree that it’s a problem.

Do processed foods make you crave sugar?

Do processed foods make you crave sugar?
Do processed foods make you crave sugar?

Why does it seem that the more we eat, the more we want?

The answer is simple: Modern industrial food manufacturers have worked tirelessly to create foods that make us want more.

They have surrounded us with food that is cheap, delicious, calorie-dense and impossible to resist.

They have created food that is, by design, addictive.

So, yes. That sugar-filled donut you ate this morning really did make you crave more sugar.

But how do they do it? This next part’s a little scary so buckle up.

Manufacturers have discovered how to use a precise combination of sugar, salt and fat to virtually ensure our overconsumption of the foods they’re pushing. This concoction lights up the pleasure centers in the brain, creating a euphoria that compels us to want more.

It’s so powerful that it’s been compared to cocaine. Yes, you heard me right. Check out these findings put together by Yale University.

The Future of Processed Foods

The Future of Processed Foods
The Future of Processed Foods

Despite the outcries of those who look to regulate the industry, I wouldn’t expect things to change anytime soon.

Where there is a demand, there will, without doubt, be a supply and right now processed foods account for more than half the calories that Americans consume.

Ultimately, it’s up to each and every one of us to educate ourselves and then map out a nutritional plan that works in our individual lives.

No, we’re not experts but we don’t have to be.

We only have to strive each day to be a little better than the day before.

We only have to want to make those small changes and see them through until they become so ingrained that we find that we have, after all, changed our lives.

Please feel free to share your personal journey in the comments below!

 

Cynthia
cynthia@cynthiaeats.com