Type the phrase “processed foods cause” into Google, and the autocomplete feature brings up “cancer”, “constipation”, “allergies”, “inflammation”, “obesity”, “depression”, and “stomach pains”… The list could go on and on.
Based on this description, processed foods sound more like a toxin than a viable food source. However, many questions need to be answered before coming to any sort of conclusion on whether processed foods are actually as bad as they are made out to be. For example:
What exactly makes a food “processed”?
Is it possible that some processed foods could fit into a healthy diet?
Is it even plausible to feed the entirety of our growing population from completely “natural” food sources, when 1 in 6 Americans already struggle to put food on the table?
Can processed foods really cause all of those horrible maladies listed in the first paragraph?
The questions are innumerable, and we simply do not have the answers for many of them; however, in this blog and a follow up next month, I will attempt to shed some light on this complicated issue.
What does “processed” even mean?
According to the American Society for Nutrition, “food processing” is the alteration of foods from the state in which they were harvested or raised to better preserve them and feed consumers. Everything from washing, freezing, and cooking, to microwaving, irradiating, and pressurizing are methods of processing food.
Processed foods range from minimally processed foods, such as frozen vegetables and grilled meats, to more highly processed foods, such as refined grains (i.e., white rice and bread) and snack foods such as potato chips.
Thus, when most people talk about processed foods they are actually referring to those that have been highly processed and are usually higher in calories, fat, and sodium.
What do we KNOW about processed foods?
Processed foods are affordable:
- In 1920, nearly 25% of household disposable income was spent on food. In 2008, that number dropped below 10%.
Processed foods are quick:
- In 1887, nearly half of a household’s labor hours were dedicated to food prep; today that number falls below 25 minutes.
Nutrient-enriched foods save lives:
- Niacin enrichment has nearly eliminated deaths due to niacin deficiency (“pellagra”). Vitamin D-enriched milk has helped reduce the incidence of rickets in children and promotes bone health in adults. Folate-enriched cereals reduced defects in newborns by 28% within 4 years of mandatory fortification. The list goes on and on.
Only 1.5% of Americans meet the daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables:
- Until this number goes up (and we DO need it to go up), processed foods will remain responsible for meeting much of the nutritional needs of the population.
- Processed foods contribute the majority of our dietary saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, fiber, folate, and iron, and at least 20% of our vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B-12.
So we know that processed foods save us a lot of time and money. The advent of modern food processing has supported the multi-income family, increased leisure time and quality of life, and allowed us to at least come close to adequately feeding our growing population.
Additionally, most people simply do not eat enough natural, nutrient-dense foods to meet their dietary needs. Until we are willing and able to put more fruits and vegetables into our mouths, processed foods must pick up the slack for meeting our nutritional needs. However, processed foods also provide us with the majority of many nutrients we get in significant excess, such as sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar. Excessive intake of these nutrients is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and increased morbidity.
Like most things in life, this is not a black and white issue, and is more a shade of grey.
In my blog next month, I will attempt to provide ways to responsibly incorporate processed foods into the diet. I will also scour the pits of “Research Land” in search of an answer to the all- important question: “BUT IS IT BAD FOR ME?!”.