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Oregon Family Magazine

Too Processed or Not to Process

06/03/2014 ● By Sandy Kauten

Processed Foods Defined

Once upon a time all food was fresh.  Produce, meat and dairy items were grown, farmed, slaughtered, or purchased from supermarkets, but they did not come out of a can, box or even a bag.  Think of how massive our nation’s refuse problem has become over the last 50 years.  We generate more trash, because less and less of our food waste is biodegradable.  The processing of food, to the extent that it is, has gradually occurred over the last almost 75 years, since the 1940s. 

Any food changed from its original form is processed.  The orange that is peeled, the broccoli that is steamed, or the radish that is cut are all processed foods.  However, they are all still healthy contributions to one’s diet, despite their mechanical processing.  The issue is when food is chemically processed. 

Foods are typically chemically processed for three primary reasons: to prolong their shelf-life, to enhance their taste, or to make them convenient.  According to Melanie Warner in her book Pandora’s Lunchbox, “processed foods are, plus or minus, 70 percent of what most of us eat.”  These foods typically contain artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives, extra salt and sugar, MSG, partially/fully hydrogenated vegetable oils, high fructose corn syrup, and a variety of bleached, enriched emulsified, or refined items.

Despite this, there is a place for processed foods and they have helped grow the national and world economy through trade, and helped feed people throughout the world.  As a society, we can enjoy a variety of foods, whether they are in or out of season.  We can prepare meals for our families in a relatively short amount of time each morning, afternoon, or evening.  Most processed foods can also be stored without the fear of consumers being contaminated by bacteria, bugs, rodents, or other products (cross-contamination.) 

However, the problems come into play due to the over consumption of overly chemically processed products. What makes a product as overly processed?  To name a few, foods that go above and beyond a reasonable shelf-life, like prepackaged baked goods that never seem to spoil, or canned soups that contain enough sodium for a full-day’s nutritional supply along with and added dose of MSG for flavor enhancement, or muffin mix that should and looks like it contains fruit – but doesn’t, foods that should not contain added sweeteners like spaghetti sauce and salad dressings, or frozen foods with lengthy lists of ingredients that cannot be pronounced.  

There are thousands of additives that go into foods today.  In many cases, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot even disclose exactly what each food contains, due to proprietary information.  A particular flavor, or process used to arrive at a certain consistency, or an easily identifiable color for an item can all be labeled under artificial flavors or colors, without the specifics being made public knowledge.  The color or flavor can contain an additional dozen (or more), chemicals unbeknownst to the consumer, making an already lengthy ingredients list, alarmingly long.  Not to mention the fact that unsuspected products are chemically enhanced.

The Stats

The U.S. has an alarming rate of obesity that has been steadily climbing for decades.  According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 1990 the obesity rate was at 12%, in 2012 the rate was at 27%.  Between 2009 and 2010 the number of obese children between 2-5 years of age was 12.1%, between 6-11 years of age were 18% and 12-19 years of age were 18.4%.  The statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics concluded that 69% of adults were overweight or obese.  Roughly 2/3 of the American population is struggling with weight issues and it directly correlates with the increasing over processing of foods that has occurred over the last several decades. 

The Draw

There are currently entire generations of people who have been raised on processed foods.  In fact, most Americans spend almost 90% of their food budget on processed food items.  The reason is - processed foods taste good!  They appeal to the body’s natural inclination for sweet, fatty, and salty foods – the items needed for fuel and nourishment. 

Advertisers capitalize on the body’s natural cravings and enhance them with visually appealing commercials, catchy slogans like “you can’t have just one!”, and gorgeous layouts of crunchy, salty, gooey, sweet favorites in magazines.  Food manufacturers, in turn, employ scientists (who often boycott the very same products they are responsible for enhancing) to make a food item taste better, last longer, or appeal to a wider market.  When these two are combined with the convenience factor of a drive-thru on the way home after a long day, or between work/school and an evening activity of function, it’s easy to see why processed foods have become so popular.

Some of the worst culprits are:

Potato Chips – Back in 2011, it was finally disclosed that chips, among other items including baby food, contain high levels of acrylamide a known cancer-causing chemical.  Note: Scientists lobbied since 2002 to get the levels reduced in foods.

Microwave Popcorn – The problems begin with the packaging.  The bags are coated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the same chemical used in Teflon pans.  In addition to the other processed ingredients, microwave popcorn also contains diacetyl butter flavoring, which has been linked to compromised lung health and Alzheimer’s Disease. 

Sodas – Both diet and regular sodas have their issues.  Diet sodas are particularly addressed due to their artificial sweeteners. Studies show that artificial sweeteners may make you gain weight faster because it slows the metabolism.  Additionally, artificial sweeteners have been linked to Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s, lupus, multiple sclerosis and autism.  Regular sodas for their high concentration of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, which have been linked to obesity, liver issues, diabetes, dementia, cavities and heart problems.

Cereals/Breads/Snack Bars – If they are enriched, the original whole grain has had the nutrients removed in order to increase its shelf-life.  White flour can cause digestive issues and causes insulin spikes.  These products are often full of preservatives to keep them from spoiling quickly.  Note: I once had a loaf of bread that was misplaced in the pantry for over 4 months and showed no signs of mold.  It was tossed when it was found.

Meats/Cold Cuts – Meats of all kinds are typically chemically processed in some manner.  Be it through antibiotics or growth hormones to the animals themselves, or chemically with solutions during the production process to enhance flavor, increase tenderness, improve their appearance or increase the preservation process.  Cold cuts are often loaded with sodium, sodium nitrites and nitrates.  Note: Fooducate has a very interesting video where it asks the viewer to identify the item in the photo.  It’s a pink fluffy concoction that resembles pink marshmallow or crème filling.  Visit the website to identify the substance.

The Alternatives

1.     Whenever possible eat fresh, organic, or locally grown foods.  Better yet, garden what you can to also reduce food costs. 

2.     First, be sure to read all food labels.  If you cannot pronounce the ingredients, put it back on the shelf and look for an alternative.

3.     Cook whenever possible using natural, unrefined, products and avoid frozen foods that are preservative laden.  Look for frozen organic alternatives.

4.     Eliminate as many artificial sweeteners and colorants from foods, as possible.  Look for items made with honey or maple syrup, instead of aspartame and sucralose.   Purchase foods colored with natural items like beets, carrots, or paprika.

5.     Avoid laboratory manufactured refined oils and stick to butter, olive oil, grapeseed oil and unrefined coconut oils for cooking, salads and marinating. 

6.     Foods that have a long(er) shelf-life should be avoided, when possible. The longer the shelf-life the more additives the food contains.

7.     Avoid processed meats of all kinds.  However, if bacon or a sandwich is calling, watch the frequency. 

8.     Avoid the snacks. Many “healthy” bars, candies, chips, popcorn, etc. are chemically processed.  Read the labels and look for healthy substitutions.  They do exist.

Children need fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins and nutrients in order to grow and thrive.  Too many of the products marketed to children are created from chemically over-processed foods.  Children should be educated to make smart choices when selecting what they are fueling their bodies with.   Remind them that “garbage in, garbage out” is indeed true, for all aspects of life – including their food choices.