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A Closer Look at Processed Foods

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

A deeper look into what processed foods are, how we got hooked on them, and my six favorite tips for staying away from them.


One of my favorite TED talks is by Jane Poynter who was one of the eight people who lived in Biosphere II, an atmosphere sealed off entirely from the world. The biosphere was designed as an experiment to understand human-made ecosystems and while living there Jane and her colleagues were responsible for growing and harvesting all of their own food.

When Jane craved a pizza it took her much longer than the 2 minutes it usually took her in her everyday life to pick up the phone and place an order. Instead, it took her 4 months to make a pizza between harvesting the wheat grown for the dough milking a goat, and fermenting the cheese. After leaving the biosphere she retells the immense feeling of losing the connection she had felt with her food in Biosphere II. Every day she worked closely in the production of food. She planted it, watched it grow, pulled it from its home, and prepared it to be eaten. She was with it every step of its life. “I could no longer tell you what was in my food, or where it came from and I felt that loss immensely,” she says.

This is something that most Americans will never feel. And that’s OK. Most of us don't have the time or resources to live sustainably and it's not necessary. But I do feel that we have lost some of the connection we have with our food. Processed foods have taken over our country. The CDC reports that 60% of an American diet is from processed foods and many health professionals say that we live in a food epidemic.


What Processed Food Is and the Types of Processed Foods

As we stroll through the aisles of a grocery store we are bombarded with processed foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines processed food as “any food that has undergone any changes to its natural state” and has defined the different types of processed foods.


Unprocessed Foods

Think of a peanut. Pulled from the soil, still in the shell and attached to its stem. This is an example of unprocessed food.


Minimally processed

Take that same peanut and remove its stem and then give it a good wash. This would be an example of a minimally processed food. They are foods that have been slightly altered so they can be more easily stored, prepared, and eaten, but the nutritional value doesn't change.


Processed Culinary Ingredients

Now the peanut has lost its shell. It's smashed and grinded into peanut butter and a bit of salt is added for taste. Now, it's considered a processed culinary ingredient. These are the foods that use minimally processed foods and go through a process of refining, grinding, or milling.


Other Culinary Ingredients

Oils made from plants, seeds, or nuts

Vinegar

Honey

Pure maple syrup without any added sugars


Processed foods

Now that our peanut is a peanut butter we are going to add sugar, more salt, and emulsifiers (a food additive to stabilize processed foods). Now it’s smooth and creamy. The color is a light caramel color and tastes much more sweet than an actual peanut.

It belongs to processed foods, foods that originally belonged to three of the groups above but have added salt, sugar, and fat. Our peanut, which was a good source of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and magnesium, has now doubled in calories and contains 5 times more sugar.


Other Processed Foods

Store-bought white bread

Deli meats

Cheeses


Highly Processed Foods

Our simple and nutritious peanut has officially left the building as it is now a peanut butter candy, a favorite like Reese’s peanut butter cup. These foods go beyond just adding sugar, salt, and emulsifiers and continue adding things like artificial colors, thickeners, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners to enhance taste and last longer in stores.


Other Highly Processed Foods

Sodas and sugary drinks

Cookies

Breakfast cereals

Some frozen dinners

Chips


The History of Processed Foods

When and how processed foods took over


Our history is filled with processed foods. They were just much healthier. Our ancestors pressed olive oil, wrapped their cheeses in cloth, and hung stringy noodles to keep them from sticking together. It wasn’t until World War I, when we worried about feeding soldiers when we needed a cheap and easy way that food in tin cans became popular. Since then new methods and techniques were invented that changed food entirely. We started spray drying, freeze-drying, and evaporating to keep our foods fresher for longer. We were introduced to artificial sweeteners. Factories adapted to quicker methods to produce and package food. Our lives got busier and along with busier schedules came the invention of the microwave and TV dinners. Cake and brownies could be made from a box and lunches became easier to pack with chips, crackers, and juice boxes.

Convenience became king and nutrition was stripped away from the majority of our food and replaced with preservatives and additives. For centuries we had been eating the same. It has only been in the last 200 years that our food has changed.




Why Processed Foods Are So Hard to Stay Away from


Eating processed foods isn't entirely all of our fault. Micheal Moss, the Pulitzer prize winner writer and investigator explains, “We have sensors in the gut and possibly even in the mouth that detect calories when we’re eating or drinking, and the brain gets excited by calories almost as much as it gets excited about sugar. [Our ancestors] wanted more calories…because that meant our brains could grow and we could have more offspring and we could get through hard times. So what do companies do with that? They create snack foods with nutrient-empty calories densely packed in a way that gets the brain really excited and kind of overwhelms our ability to put the brake on overeating.”


Speed is the most significant contributor to our addiction to processed foods. When we are hungry we go into our kitchens looking for food. We see an apple and a bag of chips. Processed foods, the bag of chips, contain more calories per gram of food delivering energy into our system and ridding ourselves of uncomfortable hunger in our stomach faster than an apple would.




My Tips and Tricks to Stay Away from Processed Foods


1. Leave fruit on your counter


The next time you wander into the kitchen you are less likely to pick up a piece of fruit you have sitting on the counter than dig around in your kitchen pantry for a box of stale crackers. A bowl of washed blueberries, a banana, or an orange that you can peel.


2. Have a go-to meal


There are so many days when I have made a plan for dinner but when it actually comes time to make that meal I drag my feet and start wishing I picked an easier meal to make. That’s why I recommend having a go-to meal. Something you don’t have to follow a recipe for, that takes less than 30 minutes to be on your plate, and that you are excited to eat. My go-to meal is noodles ramen with bone broth. I simply heat a jar of bone broth on the stove, cook my ramen noodles, and add a couple soft boiled eggs or fully cooked pork belly that I get from Trader Joe's. It takes me less than 15 minutes and is healthy while also satisfying my cravings.


Prepping your food

This is why I love my meal prep coaching program! Because I get to teach busy individuals how much simpler and straightforward your meals can be. And the secret is planning and prep! After grocery shopping, go straight into prepping your food. Cut up your vegetables for dinner, and wash the fruit you want to eat as a snack or top on your oats. Do the things that will make it easier for you during the week to make healthy choices and cook healthy dinners.

1. Make your own packaged foods

Instead of reaching for a bag of chips or granola bar make sure you have healthier options ready to go in bags that you can take with you when you're on the go. When you're doing your meal prep, grab a handful of almonds and put them in a baggie.

2. Find your own favorite recipes

A lot of the processed foods that you're buying can actually be made at home. Granola bars, hummus, peanut butter, and even my salad dressings I choose to make at home because I know exactly the ingredients that are going into them and I can ditch all the additives and preservatives.

3. Learn your labels

Even though the packaging might say organic, or gluten-free doesn't mean that they are actually unprocessed or healthy. Take a look at the ingredients list and stay away from things that you don't recognize. Also, watch out for added sugars and salts.


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