In my last post, I talked about how difficult it is for working-class Americans who live in rural areas to get reasonably priced, healthy food—either in the grocery store or in a restaurant, but I didn't really get into a very detailed explanation of why processed foods are bad for us.
Just so we're all on the same page, processed foods are foods that "have been altered from their natural state for safety reasons and for convenience. The methods used for processing foods include canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration and aseptic processing."1
One easy way to spot processed food is the ingredient list. If an item has a long list of ingredients, then it's probably processed. Because, let's face it, most food should not have an ingredient list! Beans do not need sodium nitrate. Cranberries do not need high fructose corn syrup. And our bodies don't need them either.
Another way to think about it is, "If it's boxed, bagged, canned or jarred," it's probably processed. 2
I think most of us are aware that processed foods are bad for us, but I'm not sure that all of us—including myself—fully understand what is meant by "processed."
When I told my dad this summer that I try to eat mostly whole foods and stay away from stuff that's processed, his very mature response was to start listing all the foods he thought that meant I shouldn't be able to eat.
"So I guess that means you can't eat bread?"
There was a smug look on my dad's face when he said this, and I knew he was setting a trap.
"No, I still eat bread," I said.
"But bread is made through a process! And what about milk? That's processed! Are you going to give up milk too?"
My dad loves to catch me in a contradiction, and though I knew he was missing the point, I also knew that I couldn't tell him exactly why bread and milk are okay. That's when I decided to look into the subject a little further and find out exactly what we need to avoid when it comes to processed food.
I discovered that the big things to watch for are foods that are high in fat, high in sodium, and low in nutrients as well as foods that have a bunch of unnecessary chemical additives.
High sodium is one of the biggies. According to the Mayo Clinic, it's best to stick to low sodium foods, and an item is considered low sodium if it has no more than 5% of what your daily sodium intake should be.3 Unfortunately, many processed foods have far more than the amount of sodium you should get from one meal, sometimes more than you should get in one day. For instance, a package of Lipton chicken-flavored noodles has almost 900 milligrams of sodium in each serving, which is 40% of the recommended daily sodium intake.
Of course, many processed foods are also high in fat, especially trans fats. High fat and high sodium foods can cause a plethora of health problems including obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, liver overload, heart disease, and all kinds of cancer (in fact those who eat processed meats, have a 67% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who eat little or no meat products), not to mention dulled taste buds and water retention.2
This is part of the reason that Paris Hilton once famously said that only fat people drink Diet Coke. Because just like other processed foods, Diet Coke—and other diet foods—cause you to retain water and feel more hungry and thirsty rather than less. Sure, regular soda is bad for you too, but a lot of people who drink diet soda do so every single day because they have the false sense that it's not bad for them. This is why I think it's better to give in to the craving for a real soda once or twice a week than to have a diet soda in your hand all day every day.
Processed foods also tend to be low in nutrients. This is because processing takes many of the nutrients out of the food, meaning you don't even get what your body really needs.4 You may think you're eating something healthy when you bite into a canned green been, but it's not nearly as good for you as the fresh green beans sold at your local farmer's market, which are brimming with vitamins and nutrients.
And what processed foods lack in nutrients, they make up for in an abundance of additives. Unhealthy chemical additives that are added to food to make it stay fresh and last longer and look pretty. I like a red tomato as much as the next person, but I don't want the red color to be the result of unnecessary and harmful chemicals.
Ultimately, what this means is that you don't need to avoid processed foods like milk, frozen veggies, real fruit and vegetable juice, and whole grain bread and pasta, but you should avoid the following:
- canned foods with lots of sodium
- white breads and pastas made with refined white flour (instead of whole grains)
- packaged high-calorie snack foods like chips and cheese snacks
- high-fat convenience foods like canned Spaghettios or ravioli
- frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners
- packaged cakes and cookies
- boxed meal mixes
- sugary breakfast cereals
- processed meats like hot dogs, bologna, sausage, ham and other packaged lunch meats1
From what I've read, "If you have to eat processed foods from time to time, be aware of portion sizes and look for ones that are made with whole grains, that are low in sodium and calories, and that are free of trans fats."1
What's ironic is that when I was a kid, we were fed this kind of stuff all the time. I think that my mom—and many of our parents—believed that if a product was chicken-flavored or contained dairy of some kind (like Mac 'n Cheese), it was good for us. And why wouldn't she when that's what so many food manufacturers want us to believe? What's most shocking is that that kind of propaganda is still used today. The can of Spaghettios I have shown above has a picture of a round noodle flexing his muscles, a pathetic attempt to convince consumers that Spaghettios will make you strong and are, therefore, good for you. I know it's hard to make time to cook and it's even more difficult to get kids to eat a real meal, but I also worry that if you get hooked on that kind of stuff when you're young like I did, giving it up can be just as difficult as overcoming any other bad habit.
I was raised on Lipton noodles, Rice 'a Roni, Kraft Mac 'n Cheese, Spaghettios, Old El Paso tacos, and Hungry Man TV dinners, so I know as well as anyone how hard it is to quit this stuff. In fact, whenever I see a can of Easy Cheese, I go into convulsions. Oh, what I wouldn't give for just one more can of Easy Cheese!
In truth, I'm not exactly sure what I would give for that can, but I can tell you with certainty what I wouldn't give—even one day of my life, though that single aerosol can would probably take much more. And that's what we're doing when we eat processed foods—shortening our life spans. So whenever I feel like I'm about to give into the Easy Cheese craving, I head to the Southern Kentucky Farmer's Market and buy a bar of locally made, all natural cheese from Kentucky's own Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese. (The smoked gouda and dill havarti are my favorites.) And the funny thing is that I suspect that if I ever did give into my craving and buy an actual can of Easy Cheese, I would find that it doesn't taste nearly as good as I remember and wish I had gone to Kenny instead.
What's really frightening is how often we eat processed foods and how much space they take up in our lives—both on our tables and in our grocery store aisles. In fact, Americans spend 90% of our grocery bill on processed foods!2 Let me repeat that—90%! That's the exact opposite of what we should be doing. As I mentioned earlier this week, one way to do that is to avoid the middle aisles of he grocery stores and stick to the produce, meat, and dairy sections that normally line the outside of most American grocery stores.
In the movie Food, Inc., viewers are encouraged to vote with their dollars—meaning that they should spend their money on whole foods rather than processed foods and organic, natural, or local foods rather than foods that have been made with questionable practices and shipped around the world to get to our tables. It's great advice, and I try to follow it every day. I recommend you do too because if we all voted for natural whole foods, I bet that it wouldn't be long before the items we found in the middle aisles of our grocery stores would magically start to change.