What Exactly is Processed Food?
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You’ve probably heard “avoid processed food” and “processed food is bad for you”. But is it really true? We’ve all heard things that turn out to be wrong a few years later (like fat is bad for you). Is it the same with processed food?
In this three part series, we’re going to take some time to talk about processed food. Specifically, we’ll cover three parts:
- 1: What exactly is processed food?
- 2: Is it really bad for us?
- 3: If we want to avoid it…how do we do that?
What is Processed Food?
Processed food, according to Wikipedia, is food that is commercially prepared to optimize ease of consumption. Think about food and where it comes from. Food comes from plants or animals. Now think about what the food looks like on the plant. If it looks different when you pick it out at the store, it’s processed.
Now, there’s certainly a spectrum of processed food. There’s minimally processed food like bagged salad greens, dried food, frozen fruit and vegetables, and food that’s been preserved with just salt. You might already “process” some of your own food at home using these methods. It’s a fun family activity to pick fruit at a farm or in your backyard and preserve it by freezing, drying, or canning.
But it’s certainly more convenient to be able to pick out a bag of frozen vegetables at the store and pay a little extra for someone else to do that step.
Then there’s the moderately/heavily processed food. Some examples are cake mixes, crackers, boxed dinners, granola bars, salad dressings, and sauces. All are processed and preserved by adding something other than salt (like sugar, flavorings (artificial or natural), chemicals, etc.).
From here on out, when I mention “processed food” I’ll be referring to the moderately/heavily processed food.
Processed Food is Commercially Prepared
Think about some of the common brands of food you see on the shelves in the store. Those companies make their products in a factory and ship them across the country.
In order to mass produce something, you’ve got to make it in the most efficient way possible. In a factory, you have machines that are programmed to add ingredients, stir, squirt it into a package and seal it all up. It’s pretty impressive from the technical side of things.
And it makes a LOT of business sense.
Processed Food is Easy to Consume
Processed food is designed to be easy to consume. It’s often packaged in a convenient way to make it easier on us. Maybe it’s packaged in a single serving container, or preserved so that it will stay “fresher” longer.
Processed food started making its way into mainstream America in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s when refrigerators (and freezers) were increasingly popular. For the first time people could buy frozen meats, fruit, and vegetables and use them when they were ready.
But companies continued to experiment and develop ways to make even more ready-to-eat food to take the burden off the home cooks. And people welcomed the convenience of store bought bread, crackers, meals into their homes. Less time in the kitchen meant more time for other things.
Somewhere along the line, we complained about having to take food from a large container and put it in a small container. So the companies did it for us!
Some examples are granola bars, yogurt, single serving guacamole cups, and the bag of chips that come with your sandwich at the restaurant. Single serving items were created to fit into our busy lives. We’re always on the go. So we need convenient ways to eat on the go.
Long Shelf Life
Processed food is made with storage in mind.
If processed food spoiled quickly (like fresh produce does), the companies wouldn’t be able to ship it to stores in huge quantities like they do now. And the food wouldn’t be able to sit on the shelves for months before you bring it home and eat it.
But let’s think about it for a minute. If someone gave you a plate of cookies and said, “Here you go. I made these a couple months ago and they’ve been sitting on my shelf. But when I made them, I added some chemicals to them so they will stay soft for you.”
I think you’d at least think it was a little strange. Not only does it seem strange to eat food that is old and has been loaded with chemicals, there are serious health concerns for doing so. We’ll get more into that in Part 2.
True story: my mom found a Christmas ornament my sister made about 25 years ago. It was a sweet little snowman made with marshmallows. Would you believe me if I told you the marshmallows are still soft? Believe it.
And now think about that. No bacteria wanted to eat the marshmallow to decompose it. Nothing. For 25 years. And for some reason we want to eat it? Does that seem backwards to anyone else?
So what is processed food? A food that’s been processed before it gets to you. Minimally processed food provides an opportunity to eat a wider variety of food that was picked at its peak freshness and then frozen, dried, or canned.
Other processed food is different in that there are additives, preservatives, artificial flavors and/or colors, and refined ingredients. In Part 2 we’ll dive into the question of what’s so bad about moderately/heavily processed food? And in Part 3, we’ll talk about how to avoid these processed foods if you want to.
Tell Me What You Think
What do you think about processed food? Love it? Hate it? Maybe a little bit of both? Comment below and let me know. I really do want to hear from you.
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