Picture a wholesome meal: lots of veggies, maybe some pastured meat or free-range eggs, lovingly cooked at home from scratch. Do a quick count of how many of your meals from the past week looked like that. Close to zero? You're not alone. Illustration by Kevin Whipple.
Our world is full of processed food, for better or worse. It's easy to sit at my keyboard and tell you to avoid it and eat foods in forms closest to how they are in nature: apples, not apple pie. But just because something is "processed" (whatever that means) doesn't automatically make it bad for you. It's time to lose the guilt and own up to eating processed food sometimes — and maybe we'll see it's not that bad.
Don't Obsess Over How Processed Each Food Is
Here's the hard part: defining processed food. Doritos, processed. Not a tough call there. Raw potato with the dirt still on it: unprocessed. So far so good.
But if we wash that potato, boil it, maybe peel it too... mix it with butter, and garlic (and then more butter, and more garlic) — uh-oh. That's kind of processed, isn't it? But it's not very processed, you might say. There's a spectrum, and if you dig a potato out of the ground and boil it in your own kitchen, that's still on the OK side.
The problem comes when you try to draw a line to say these things are processed, and these things aren't. Where would you put a cow that's been chopped up into steaks? Vegetables that are frozen? Beans that are canned? Bread baked by a local baker? Bread baked by a factory?
To get an idea of why this isn't an easy question, take a look at how Megan Kimble describes her year without processed food:
For the purposes of my year, a food was unprocessed if I could theoretically make it in my own kitchen... If I wanted to make table sugar at home, I'd need a centrifuge, bleach, and a few de-clumping additives; honey required only figuring out how to collect the plant nectar that bees regurgitate onto honeycombs. I didn't brew beer, but I theoretically could have; I gave up soda and bought myself a SodaStream for my bubbly fix.
Sure, it takes a lot more work and machinery to process sugar than to harvest honeycomb and extract the honey, but that's kind of beside the point of which is healthier for you. There is no major nutritional difference between the two. And if her SodaStream drinks were healthier, that would have more to do with the ingredients of the syrup than the fact it was made at home. SodaStream offers everything from no-calorie seltzer to DIY Pepsi.
Taken to an extreme, the processed-is-bad mentality would put plenty of things off-limits that shouldn't be. Frozen veggies are as healthy as fresh, sometimes more so. Pasteurised milk is processed, and better for it. There's no solid nutritional reason to shun jarred pasta sauce, or egg whites in a carton, or rotisserie chicken.
But wait, you say. Those are healthy processed foods. What about Doritos? McDonald's? Hungry Jacks?
Decide What You Care About, and Let the Rest Go
If some of the names in that list scared you, you probably have a reason why: sugar, or "chemicals" (we're getting to that) or high-kilojoule portions, or high levels of fat. Before you decide that highly processed food is what you need to avoid, take a minute to consider what really matters to your health goals.
Here are the most common charges against processed foods, and how to steer clear of each:
- They're high in sugar, which is pretty clearly bad for you. Sugar isn't just in chocolate bars and cupcakes, but also in more innocent-looking foods like bread and pasta sauce. It's easy to avoid if you read carefully, though — labels are required to list it. For now, you'll have to look under "Sugars" on the label.
- They're high in sodium. Many are: highly processed foods are a bigger source of sodium in our diet than what we add in cooking or sprinkle with a saltshaker. Deli meats and restaurant meals are top sources. (For some reason, I keep hearing people say that soft drink has a lot of sodium. It doesn't.) You can suss out sodium with its line item on the Nutrition Facts label. That said, unless you're salt-sensitive and have high blood pressure, it's probably not bad for you.
- They're high in fat. This is true of oily snacks like chips, and often a lot of restaurant meals. Fat isn't always a bad thing: it's filling, and probably isn't nearly as bad for you as sugar. Fat is listed on the Nutrition Facts label, along with its sub-categories saturated fat (probably not actually bad for you) and trans fat. Nobody likes trans fat, but it's rapidly disappearing even from processed food.
- They will give you a carb coma. That can be true of foods that are high in sugar (which is a refined carbohydrate) or other refined carbs like white flour. Twizzlers and pretzels both fit the bill, for example. Anything that's really heavy in fat, like potato chips, is actually a little less coma-inducing because the fat slows down digestion.
- They're addictive. There's no label for this one, I'm afraid. Companies like to make money, so they will do what they can to make you want to come back for more. Some ready-to-eat junk foods, like chips and chocolate bars, are devilishly well-designed. A high-fat/high-sugar combo is the signature move, often with a good dose of salt thrown in. Basically, you can tell which foods these are because they're the ones you have all the empty wrappers of at home.
- They're full of "chemicals". Everything is made of chemicals, of course: check out the list of "chemical" ingredients of a banana. It's true that some foods have long ingredient lists, and that many of the ingredients on them are hard to spell or pronounce. But there isn't an association with how hard a name is to read and whether it refers to something dangerous. Heck, ascorbic acid and tocopherols are both used as preservatives, and look pretty mysterious on labels, but they're just technical names for vitamin C and vitamin E. (They're antioxidants in your body and in foods.) Colourings, flavourings and preservatives aren't automatically bad. Even those that have sparked controversy are still very likely to be safe. If you want a list of things to worry about, though, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has one here.
- They're bad for the environment and/or economy. This is a "vote with your fork" (or, you know, orange-stained fingers) situation. If you don't like buying from big companies and you'd rather give your money to the baker down the street than to Mrs Fields, by all means make that choice. Or maybe you object to the abundant plastic packaging and the carbon footprint of all the trucks that brought the ingredients to the processing plant and from the plant to you. Just keep those things clear in your mind: food isn't automatically unhealthy because its maker is greedy or wasteful.
With those factors in mind, you can now wander the aisles of the grocery store (or crunch the numbers for your favourite fast-food meal) with a better idea of what, if anything, you're trying to avoid. If you're trying to avoid sugar, for example, you might have to ditch that super healthy looking agave-sweetened fruit drink, but you can chow down on all the pork rinds you want... if you're into that sort of thing.
Prepare for Hard Decisions
Now that you've got a plan, it's time to figure out how to put it into place. If you often end up hungry at work when there's nothing on hand besides the contents of a vending machine, you now have a way to evaluate what's in that machine instead of writing off the whole thing as bad and wrong and terrible — and then feeling guilty when you get hungry enough that you give in and grab a Snickers.
For example, a pack of trail mix might be a good vending machine pick if you're trying to avoid sugar, but it will be high in fat. At a petrol station, a Lunchable might be hella processed, but it's got protein and won't send you into a carb coma — unlike, say, a pack of Pop-Tarts.
Of course, the best plan is to not need to buy any of that processed food. But how many of us can cook every meal from scratch? Here's where it's helpful to use some of those processed-but-still-healthy things we talked about earlier: the rotisserie chicken, for example. The frozen meatballs and jarred sauce to whip up a spaghetti dinner in minutes that will also become tomorrow's lunch. You get the idea.
It would be great to cook every meal from scratch, from lovingly foraged free-range lentils, but not all of us have time to do that. Sure, in some parts of history, people did — but that was part of their job as a housewife or farmer. Today, cooking every single meal from scratch is more like a hobby. A fine one to have, but not a mandate for everyone. We live in a world that's full of processed food, and it's totally OK to — carefully, thoughtfully — take advantage of that.