Like many things, the definition of processed food is not black and white, and is definitely debatable. It depends on who you ask. If we were to go by the strictest definition, then canned tomatoes, pasta, and even homemade ice cream would be considered “processed”. Processing simply means changing a food from its natural state into a new product. That’s no sin all by itself. But there’s a massive difference between turning wheat into pasta, and altering corn in a laboratory to make it into a chemical compound. Of course, there’s a whole range of processing in between these two extremes, and a wide variety of definitions.
For my own purposes – that is, eating fresh, delicious food that sustains my health, my community, and my planet – I keep it simple. In a perfect world, everything I eat would be organic, local, sustainably harvested, humanely raised, ethically produced, healthy, whole food. In reality, I have to set boundaries based on what’s most important to me. I buy my eggs from a local farm not 10 minutes from my apartment, where I can drive past and see the chickens frolicking in the grass. That’s my most ideal food source, but everything else comes from Trader Joe’s and good intentions. For me, a food is too processed if: it no longer resembles its natural state, its nutrients have been stripped out, it’s been “enriched” to replace those lost nutrients, it’s been manipulated with additives, I cannot read the ingredients, or it would be physically impossible for me to make from scratch without a laboratory or factory.
It is up to you to set your own limits, and decide what you deem acceptable. To me, it’s a matter of common sense: if I can identify it as something that came from nature, whether plant or animal, and have a decent understanding of how it got to my plate, then it’s okay by me. If I can read the label and understand the list of ingredients, I’ll eat it. If not – I won’t. Better yet, if it lacks a label altogether (ie: zucchini, strawberries, or a baguette from my local bakery) it’s a winner! Health claims, scientific-sounding words, and artificial colors/flavors/preservatives/additives are all Big Red Flags. Hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, “enriched” flours, and nitrites are all bad news on their own, but are also an indicator that the product has been extremely processed.
But why? (Use your whiney voice, you have permission.) Why should you make the effort to read the label, to change your habits, to add one more thing to your list of worries? If it’s on the shelf, and FDA-approved, it’s safe, right? Everyone eats it, so it’s harmless, isn’t it? Why bother?
Because your health is up to you, and the food you eat is the single most powerful decision you make every day.
Because nature provides everything we could ask for in terms of nutrients, flavors, and variety – so why corrupt it?
Because the manipulation, packaging and shipping processes cause pollution and environmental degradation.
Because you don’t know how a healthy ear of corn became soda… or ketchup… or yogurt… or crackers… and you probably don’t want to know.
Here are 10 more reasons. Ultimately, you have to have your own reasons to make a change.
What is the opposite of processed food? Real Food.
- “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” (The number is arbitrary, choose your own.)
- “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” (Think about where produce, meat, and dairy are located. Everything else is packaged, with a long ingredient list and a longer shelf life.)
- “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
- “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
Product Breakdown: Tomato Soup
The tomato is one of the most beloved, beautiful, and beneficial vegetables (fruits, whatever) on the planet. It is truly a “power food”, with lycopene, vitamin C, several B vitamins, potassium, iron and fiber. They’re good for your heart, your immune system, and lowering your risk of several cancers and eye diseases. There is nothing like a fresh, ripe tomato straight from the vine, juices dripping down your chin as you sink your teeth into a perfect tomato sandwich… ahem, let’s not get distracted.
Tomato soup, especially paired with grilled cheese, is pure, unadulterated comfort and bliss. Or rather, it would be unadulterated, nourishing joy if it wasn’t corrupted with salt, sugar and creepy additives. Let’s examine the classic Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup. I loved this stuff when I was growing up. I probably ate it twice a week in high school. It is undeniably an American classic and reigns supreme in the supermarket aisles and the minds of most consumers. But have you ever read the ingredients list?
Tomato puree (water, tomato paste), high fructose corn syrup, wheat flour, water, salt, potassium chloride, flavoring, citric acid, lower sodium natural sea salt, ascorbic acid (vitamin c), monopotassium phosphate.
Need translation? The second ingredient in this can of soup is high fructose corn syrup. I’m not going to get into the evils of this heinous stuff. Either you already get it, you’re in denial, or you’re with Monsanto.
Next up: potassium chloride. Is this something you’d keep in your pantry? No, it’s a salt derived from metal, also used in fertilizers.
“Flavoring” is about the vaguest thing you could put on a list of ingredients, and could mean anything. What is it made of? Where did it come from? Why does one of the most flavorful vegetables need anything else?
Lower sodium natural sea salt… this is one of our classic red flags: a product making a health claim.
Vitamin C – something naturally present in tomatoes – why does it need to be artificially added? Perhaps the natural vitamins were lost in processing…
Monopotassium phosphate. I’d like to note my computer believes this is a spelling error. Another type of salt (this makes 3). Also used for fertilizer, fungicide, and in cigarettes.
Wow. If you read the nutrient label, a single 1/2 cup serving contains 480mg sodium – a whopping 20% of the RDA and 12g sugar (recommended cap is 10g). First of all, who eats 1/2 cup soup? Toddlers, and possibly my cat if I gave him a chance. If you consume the entire can, that’s HALF your daily sodium intake and 3x the sugar limit! Not only that, it’s highly processed salt and sugar. Most people, if they glance at the Nutrition Facts, will quickly see 90 calories and 0g fat, and assume a healthy serving of vegetables. Yikes.
Let’s compare. If you make your own tomato soup from scratch, it will contain tomatoes, water, maybe garlic or cream if you’re into that, possibly chicken or vegetable stock. Might I recommend a recipe? Try a hearty, rustic tomato-bread soup (pappa al pomodoro) from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups, or a Roasted Tomato Soup with built-in grilled cheese(!) by Smitten Kitchen.
Need a quick lunch without hitting the drive-thru? If you’re going to buy packaged soup, I suggest Pacific Natural Foods. Their ingredient list: organic reduced fat milk, filtered water, organic tomato paste, organic evaporated cane juice, sea salt, sodium citrate, organic rice flour, organic cheese flavor, organic garlic powder, organic onion powder, organic white pepper. This is still a processed food, and still high in sodium and sugar for a vegetable product – but it’s a far cry from Campbell’s. Trader Joe’s has some pretty good soups as well.
My point is this: pay attention to what you eat. Health claims are advertising, nothing more. You don’t see broccoli parading around in a Miss-America-style sash that reads “High in Calcium and Iron!” Broccoli doesn’t have anything to prove, or more to the point – to hide. It’s truly a shame to take a perfectly nutritious plant and manipulate it until it may give you a stroke from all the sodium.
Your motivations have to be your own. Your parameters have to be your own. Your decisions have to be your own. Your health has to be your own. Own it!