Like carbs and fat in the past, processed food is the most recent category of food to be marked as a nutritional no-go by the wellness industry. But what exactly is ‘processed food,’ and is it really as bad for you as they say, or is this just another mistaken fad scaring us into dangerously extreme clean eating?
Let’s first consider what processed food is. Processing is any act of transforming a material from its natural state by physical or chemical means. Therefore, processed food refers to ingredients that have been altered from their raw state. This means absolutely any kind of change to the foods you’re eating, including cooking, freezing, even chopping and peeling. These days, it’s rare for any of us to eat foods that are 100% unprocessed as, by definition, the mere process of getting from soil to store involves some degree of processing. But let’s not get too pedantic about semantics. Most of us would regard processed food to mean packaged foods with more than one ingredient and often containing added or concentrated sugar, salt and additives. These are the kinds of foods we aim to limit as, when to consumed in excess, can have a damaging impact on our health.
With the wellness industry growing in size every day and new health products featuring not only in specialist stores but also high-street supermarkets as well, the ‘natural’ label is becoming a fairly familiar sight on our weekly food shops, flaunting the superior health status of unprocessed ingredients. We’re urged to choose energy bars over chocolate, juices and smoothies over fizzy drinks, unrefined grains and sweeteners over white flour and sugar. Wellness products are waging a war on their evil processed counterparts. But there’s just one problem. These health products are far from unprocessed.
Take for example an energy bar. Usually comprised of nuts, oats, dates and superfood powders. In order to get to that state of crunchy and chewy deliciousness, oats have to be rolled and nuts ground before blending with dried fruit and powdered food in order to create a compact and firm bar – not exactly a regular occurence in the natural world. Bars often use far more nuts than you would eat in one raw serving to create something of substance and these have to be picked, shelled and dried before ready to eat, therefore it’s not atypical for energy bars to have an unusually high fat content. And the process of drying dates results in a concentration of sugar through removing the water content which would otherwise satiate us faster and limit our consumption of excess fructose. Likewise, there is a large amount of processing involved in creating superfood powders, for instance raw cacao. Though marketed as the ‘unprocessed’ chocolate, raw cacao powder does endure a fair bit of treatment in order to turn from plant to concentrated powder. Once harvested, the cocoa beans are fermented, dried and, despite popular belief, slightly roasted* (*raw’ is arbitrarily defined as not exceeding the temperature of 46 degrees C) before being pressed to remove their natural fat content and milled into a powder. So you see, even that one energy bar with just 4 ingredients has seen a lot of processing in its time and, just like ‘conventional’ processed snacks, this results in an increased sugar and fat content that can negatively impact our health. The extent (and marketing) of the product may differ, but the premise is the same nonetheless.
Now, I’m by no means saying that energy bars are unhealthy in the slightest. Yes, they may have a higher calories, sugar and fat and result in the consumption of far more than if you were to eat their ingredients in isolation. But, the processing of these ingredients also enables food to become convenient and, most importantly, tasty. With dried dates, you can enjoy a bar without concerns of short shelf life and, with powdered cacao you get to enjoy that rich chocolatey flavour which would otherwise be inaccessible in places where the cocoa tree doesn’t grow. Just like any thing, energy bars, though processed, will do absolutely no harm in moderation.
My point here is that processed food is not the enemy as wellness products would have you believe and we would do well to quit demonising an activity that is actually fantastic for enabling our current food culture and consumption. Processing food is not done with the sole intention of damaging your health. It can enhance flavour, allow for convenience and aid the safety of consuming certain food products. Processing can even benefit our health. For instance, cooking tomatoes actually increases their antioxidant content and makes the nutrients more readily accessible to the body. Pulses can be toxic when consumed raw, whereas cooking them gives us a nutritious source of plant protein.
To avoid all kinds of processing is an impossibility and, furthermore, completely unnecessary. There are no good or bad foods. What matters is how much you consume. In the majority of instances, try to eat foods that you yourself have prepared at home so that you know exactly what is in them and can control their added sugar and fat contents. But don’t be afraid to pick up snack bars, prepared salads and even a packet of biscuits every now and then as these foods will not hurt you in moderation. It’s all about balance, flexibility and enjoyment so that healthy living is a part of your life and not an imposition or cause for anxiety.