Processed foods are foods that are drastically altered from their natural state. Humans love to process foods, and have done so throughout human history, though never before with such drastic health ramifications. For many centuries, we have baked, boiled, fermented, chopped, dehydrated, chewed, canned, mixed, frozen, pressed, steamed, distilled, fried and added chemicals to our food. We process it for convenience, safety, preservation, and taste. Some of the processing that our ancestors did, such as fermentation, actually provides health benefits; however, within just the last hundred years or so, we have taken this processing to a new level, destroying many of the nutrients in our foods that we need to maintain healthy bodies. It is absolutely astounding to pick up a seemingly simple processed food and read the ingredient list. For the sake of example, let’s examine the ingredients in a type of chocolate dip (brand to remain un-named):
Sugar: refined from a sugar beet slurry by the use of calcium hydroxide, carbon dioxide, phosphoric acid, and carbon from animal bones. The process to obtain phosphoric acid can leave impurities such as arsenic.
Hydrogenated palm kernel oil: Pressed from the seeds or kernels of the oil palm, the oil is then combined with hydrogen atoms to make a more stable and more solid oil. It contains trans fats. The hydrogenation process uses heat, pressure and a catalyst such as nickel to force the hydrogen to bond with the oil.
Dutched cocoa (processed with alkali): Cocoa beans are ground and separated into cocoa butter and solids. The solids are further processed to become cocoa powder that is slightly acidic. An alkali is added to neutralize the acidity, creating Dutched cocoa. Dutched cocoa is mellower and darker than “natural cocoa” and also has fewer antioxidants
Reduced mineral whey powder: Do we even know the natural state of reduced mineral whey powder? Until the 1970s, whey was a discarded byproduct of cheese-making. In short, here are the processes associated with turning milk into whey:
- Pasteurization (heat)
- Combination with a culture
- Separation into curds and “sweet dairy” (saturated fats, lactose, water and whey)
- Filtration of the “sweet dairy” to remove the saturated fats and the lactose
- Ion exchange to further purify
Nonfat dry milk: Similarly to the whey, nonfat dry milk starts out as the rich, creamy stuff taken directly from the cow. Raw milk is partially evaporated. Then it is pasteurized, separated (the fat is separated out), dried, and enriched (with desired vitamins, preservatives, lecithin and/or lactose).
Sorbitan tristearate (an emulsifier): Can this even be a food when my spell checker doesn’t even recognize it as word? Sorbitan tristearate is a far cry from its origins of fruits, fats and oils. It is combination of sorbitan and stearic acid. Sorbitan comes from sorbitol, a sugar alcohol found in apples, pears, peaches and plums. It is extracted, dehydrated, and combined with chemicals to create sorbitan. Stearic acid comes from many animal and vegetable fats and oils. The fats and oils are combined with water, heated, and then distilled. The resulting combination of stearic acid and sorbitan is a food additive that helps oils and waters to remain mixed.
Soy lecithin (an emulsifier): Are you getting the idea? Soybeans are one of the most highly processed foods on the planet, with a huge variety of processes being used to make soy palatable, including a mixture of chemicals. One of the byproducts is soy lecithin.
Salt: “Once it’s brought to the surface, the salt is processed to remove impurities and give it its fine texture. All the minerals are stripped away. Chemicals are added to prevent caking, along with a little bleach to keep it white.” (from Momma Health’s article “Sea Salt vs. Table Salt; Is There a Difference?”)
Natural and Artificial Flavorings: Natural flavorings can be called natural as long as they are derived from the natural source, such as vanilla which comes from the vanilla bean. The final result is often far removed from the source. Artificial flavorings are derived from other sources. There are many sources for artificial vanilla, including coal-tar and a byproduct of paper manufacturing.
To me, that’s overwhelming–and that’s a relatively short ingredient list. Imagine truly making this chocolate from scratch–collecting the source ingredients from around the world and then heating, refining, and enriching them. It would cost a fortune in both money and time. Instead, due to the miracles of mass production, it costs you a few dollars and a few seconds to buy it.
Highly processed foods have very little nutrition. They will contain unwanted chemicals. Frequently, the stripped foods are “enriched” by vitamins and minerals in forms unable to be utilized by the body. The cumulative effects of eating processed foods are a build-up of toxins in the body and nutritional deficiencies, making our bodies vulnerable to illnesses and maladies, including inflammation, auto immune disorders, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
You don’t have to spend hours analyzing each label to decide whether you should feed it to your family. An easy rule of thumb is to buy foods with no more than 3 ingredients. Count things that can be grouped together–such as carrots, onions and celery–as one ingredient. Avoid foods with any ingredients you don’t recognize as being natural. Control the nutrition, taste, shelf life and safety of the foods consumed by your family by buying fresh foods and processing them yourself. With as little space as a kitchen window you can even grow many of the foods yourself. You will discover that avoiding highly processed food doesn’t really take much more time, just a little planning and practice. It’s not only healthier, but it’s also fun and tastier!