So, this is the one principle of sustainable nutrition that I take the most issue with. Processed foods have received a fair bit of press over recent years and most of it extremely negative. I want to uncover with this post why this might be and present some alternative realities around processed foods.
What are processed foods?
Looking briefly at the history of processed foods the manipulation of ingredients which allows us to preserve foods and make them easier to eat dates back thousands of years. Early methods of processing include roasting on open fires, pickling, drying, fermenting and salting. Canning, freezing and more technical modern methods of processing include vacuum packing, UV surface treatment and power ultrasound.
All the techniques listed above allow us to extend the shelf life of foods, make them safer to eat and easier for us to digest. Historical methods and those that have incrementally appeared have allowed civilisation to get where it is today (and, by-the-by, also allowed women to get out of the kitchen and contribute to society!!).
One definition of processed foods as defined by the NOVA classification places foods and ingredients into 4 categories depending on how ‘processed’ they are:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, e.g. fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and meat. These foods may have some level of processing but have no added fat, sugar or salt.
- Processed culinary ingredients, e.g. salt, honey, vegetable oils. These are naturally derived ingredients usually used in combination with the above foods.
- Processed foods, e.g. canned vegetables and fruit, fresh bread, cheese. These are foods which are seen as relatively simple and usually contain around 2 or 3 ingredients from the above 2 categories.
- Ultra-processed foods and drinks, e.g. chocolate, breakfast cereals, ready meals. Foods such as these usually contain 5 or more ingredients and are often made to industrial formulations. This also includes foods from category 3 that have additives to enhance taste or appearance such as sliced bread and sweetened yoghurt.
One recent review looked at the highest consumption of processed foods in various European countries and linked it with rates of obesity. This reported a general positive relationship between the two with the UK having both the highest household availability of ultra-processed foods (50.4% – although bear in mind that availability doesn’t necessarily indicate consumption or include foods eaten outside the home) and obesity (24.5%) of all countries in the study. As I’ve highlighted in previous posts (see ‘& Shit’) correlation DOES NOT show causation. Particularly with the complex biological and environmental factors that determine our weight and the nature of our behaviours that influence food choice we cannot say that greater availability of ultra-processed foods causes obesity.
Where has the hate come from?
The use of the phrase processed food, and associated disdain, has become synonymous with bad, junk and unhealthy food. But based on the above definition (which doesn’t take into account nutrient density OR cost of food OR convenience) many foods which we are actively encouraged to eat as they provide a variety of important nutrients such as processed fruit and vegetables, bread, cheese and some breakfast cereals fall into the category of evil processed foods… to me this makes no sense. The hatred of all processed foods also carries a certain level of snobbery to my mind and doesn’t take into account the huge inequalities we have in income, let alone ability to prepare meals from scratch.
There are countless articles online that compound this myth, take a recent article in Women’s Health about how cutting gluten and processed foods helped a woman lose 50 pounds. In the article there is no mention of any medical need to cut out gluten (so is likely unnecessary) and the foods listed in a ‘typical day of eating’ are all fresh meat, fruit and vegetables so her diet is undoubtedly low in fibre (which we mostly get from processed wholegrains and pulses) and other essential micronutrients like calcium from processed dairy or non-dairy alternatives… hopefully you see my point by now. Cutting out processed foods will not magically transform our health or make us a better person.
Just to sum up I wanted to lay out in simple terms why I believe processed foods deserve defending:
- Saves us money – processed foods are often more shelf stable and therefore can be priced more cheaply
- Nutrient content – arbitrarily categorising foods into unprocessed=good and processed=bad doesn’t take into account the nutrients contributed by the foods
- Saves us time – not everyone has the luxury of time, energy or resources to make every meal from scratch
- Saves on food waste – preserving foods means we can keep fresh produce for much longer than if we left them in their natural state
- Processing takes many forms – canning, freezing, baking, blending and countless other methods all count as processing of some kind
- Processing makes foods safe to eat!
This is yet another example of reducing complex nutritional concerns into black and white categorisations, with the intention of improving health but only leading to elitism, confusion and incorrect messaging. Now I’m not saying we should eat ready meals everyday – cooking from scratch is so rewarding (and therapeutic for some, but definitely not everyone!) – but shaming people for eating these kinds of foods due to lack of time, resources or ability is just wrong.
So next time you feel you ‘have to’ choose the £5 hand-baked crusty loaf over the 50p sliced bread, please just take a second to question why. That pause could save you a bundle of cash and make absolutely no difference to your long-term health!
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
Gibney et al. (2017). Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal. Doi: 10.3945/ajcn.117.160440.
Monteiro et al. (2018). Household availability of ultra-processed foods and obesity in nineteen European countries. Doi: 10.1017/S1368980017001379
Plant Based Pixie. In Defence of Processed Food. Available at: http://www.plantbased-pixie.com/defence-processed-foods/
The Angry Chef (2016). An unfashionable defence of convenience. Available at: https://angry-chef.com/blog/an-unfashionable-defence-of-convenience
Women’s Health (2018). ‘I Cut Gluten And Processed Foods From My Diet—And Lost 50 Pounds’. Available at: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/weight-loss/a22629120/lara-lyn-carter-weight-loss-success-story/