We hear a lot these days about the health issues created by the consumption of processed foods. Anyone who has asked me what they should eat gets essentially the same answer:
"Eat a diet full of nutrient-dense, whole foods".
In a previous blog post, ("Which Diet Is The Best Diet?"), I touched on what I consider to be a "whole food". In this blog post, I want to explore this topic in more depth.
One thing that is critical to understand is that food is not just a source of calories. Real, whole, unprocessed food contains a variety of nutrients that are incredibly important for good health. Nature, in it's wisdom, has packaged up these nutrients in the forms and proportions that our bodies can most effectively use. Put another way, humans have evolved along with our food sources. It's these natural, whole foods that our bodies are tuned to thrive upon. In a sense, the human body doesn't recognize processed foods as food. It reacts poorly to these things which results in suboptimal function. If this is allowed to progress, it leads to disease. Food scientists would have you believe that they can do better than nature, that they can cram together a bunch of food extracts and partial foods and make something better than nature can. Well, this is simply not true. The reality is that they're not trying to make something healthier/better than real food, they're trying to make something more profitable.
So, what is a processed food? Well, as with many things in life, the extremes are easy to identify. Beef, broccoli, and an apple are considered unprocessed. They are whole foods taken directly from nature. They have one ingredient. They don't come in a box or package. Well, ok, the beef usually does, but you know what I mean :). Meanwhile, Corn Chex, a Clif Bar, and Wonder Bread are all clearly highly processed. They are products built out of partial foods and processed ingredients. The labels on the packages are required for us to know what's in these things. As it turns out, breakfast cereal is probably one of the most processed and unhealthy things people eat on a regular basis. This is why I chose it for the picture above.
Now, let's talk about some less obvious examples. What's a hot dog? Is it processed or not? Here are the ingredients of an Oscar Meyer beef hot dog:
BEEF, WATER, CULTURED DEXTROSE*, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF DEXTROSE, SALT, CULTURED CELERY JUICE*, DISTILLED WHITE VINEGAR*, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, CHERRY POWDER, FLAVOR, EXTRACTIVES OF PAPRIKA. *INGREDIENTS USED TO PRESERVE QUALITY.
See anything there that doesn't sound like a food? I do :). Cultured dextrose, sodium phosphate, cherry powder, extractives of paprika (whatever that is) are not food.
Contrast this with a sausage recipe I found online:
2 pounds ground pork
2 teaspoons ground sage
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Notice anything different? This sausage is literally ground up pork with herbs and spices. Yeah, the brown sugar isn't the best of ingredients, but otherwise, it's quite a simple recipe. If good quality pork is used (pasture-raised), I would argue this sausage would be quite healthy.
To me, this illustrates the difference between a processed food product and a recipe. The hot dog is a product; that sausage is a recipe.
Let's look at another example. What is cheese? It's a processed food, right? To a degree, yes. But, details matter. Here's what's in Kraft grated parmesan cheese:
Parmesan Cheese (Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes), Cellulose Powder to Prevent Caking, Potassium Sorbate to Protect Flavor
Parmigiano-Reggiano is literally nothing more than cultured whole milk and salt. So, do I consider cheese like this to be an "unprocessed" food? Yes, I do.. One important side note: healthy dairy comes from grass-fed cows and is full-fat. The Kraft stuff isn't that.
Finally, let's consider bread. Is bread a processed food? In it's simplest form, bread is just flour, yeast, water, and salt. Here are the ingredients of Wonder Bread:
Unbleached Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of Each of the Following: Calcium Carbonate, Soybean Oil, Wheat Gluten, Salt, Dough Conditioners (Contains One or More of the Following: Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Calcium Stearoyl Lactylate, Monoglycerides, Mono- and Diglycerides, Distilled Monoglycerides, Calcium Peroxide, Calcium Iodate, DATEM, Ethoxylated Mono- and Diglycerides, Enzymes, Ascorbic Acid), Vinegar, Monocalcium Phosphate, Yeast Extract, Modified Corn Starch, Sucrose, Sugar, Soy Lecithin, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Soy Flour, Ammonium Sulfate, Calcium Sulfate, Calcium Propionate (to Retard Spoilage).
That's an insane number of ingredients. I don't think it takes a certification in Nutritional Therapy to see how unhealthy something like this would be.
Now, what if I made the simple bread? Is that processed? Since flour is the main ingredient, it really depends a lot on how much the flour has been processed. Is it whole wheat or white? Is it bleached? It matters. Having said this, I do consider any type of bread to be heading towards the processed end of the food spectrum. Just the act of grinding the wheat into flour causes it to spike blood sugar quite dramatically. I also think that grains (wheat in particular) are problematic for a variety of reasons, but that's a topic for another day. Clearly though, the simple bread is less processed than the Wonder Bread.
One other related topic I wanted to cover here is something I call "partial foods". A partial food is a part of a whole food. Examples include fruit juice and low-fat (or non-fat) dairy, As I said earlier, mother nature knows what she's doing. Fruit juice belongs in fruit and dairy is supposed to have plenty of fat. Consumption of partial foods is unhealthy. The human body doesn't react the same to partial foods as it does to the whole versions.
Well, there you have it. Now, go forth and eat nutrient-dense whole foods. Toss your breakfast cereal in the trash. Eat that full-fat Russian yogurt. Think twice about that bagel. Try to avoid eating anything that came in a box. Your body will thank you for this with energy, vitality, and the absence of chronic disease.