Food in the United States has changed dramatically over the last century. Regardless of race, socio-economic status, geography, or religion, if you lived in the United States in the early 1900s, chances are that most of your food was coming straight from the land – be it animal, vegetable or mineral.
Now, chances are that most (61%, on average) of the food you buy is “ultra” processed – comprised of ingredients so fractionated, dissolved, dried, powdered, bleached, and otherwise re-formulated that they are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source. Pick a product – any product – off of a supermarket shelf, and there is a very good chance that the ingredient list contains a long and confusing jumble of substances that, until recently, probably didn’t even exist – at least not in human food (one interesting example: Torula Yeast).
A Quick Disclaimer: Technically, any food that is altered from its natural state falls under the umbrella of processed food. Scrambled eggs? Processed. Sliced apple? Processed. But hardly unhealthy. Some types of processing, like fermenting vegetables or grains, actually increase the health benefits of food. That is why we use the term “overly processed “ – this implies that many of the nutrients have been processed out of the food rather than maintained.
The problem with overly processed foods
The problem with overly processed foods is that the many stages of processing these foods go through either remove or damage much of the nutrition that was there in the first place. Take Canola Oil for instance. The process of processing the oil out of this seed (as demonstrated in this horrifying video) includes exposure to heat, oxygen and light – three things that cause oil to go rancid (hence “deodorizing” the canola oil before bottling to get rid of that pesky “canola odor”).
Another example of an overly processed food? Bread. Something that has helped to sustain civilizations the world over traditionally contained four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Since when did it take 30 ingredients to create one simple loaf? There are the dough conditioners to keep the bread soft, the preservatives to keep it from molding, and the added sugars to help give the crust its golden hue without getting (heaven forbid!) too crusty. Even the wheat itself has been through the ringer – “enriched” flour has been stripped of nutrients to increase shelf stability, bleached, and fortified (to add some nutrition back in, by way of synthetic vitamins). To add insult to injury, a highly processed loaf with 30 ingredients is somehow less expensive than a minimally processed loaf with just 4.
Breads and seed oils are two types of food that tend to be overly processed, but there are also certain ingredients that are ubiquitous throughout our food supply that are cause for concern. Even something as seemingly benign as fresh fruit can be coated in a chemical cocktail, the exact ingredients of which aren’t required to be listed on any label. Have you ever noticed that lecithin is in everything? It is an emulsifier, which means it does a very good job of keeping fat and water from separating in processed foods while they sit on a shelf. Unfortunately, a new study concluded that lecithin and other ingredients like it may also do a very good job of emulsifying our insides (okay, fine, the insides of mice – still terrifying). Experts now believe this is contributing to a rise in gastrointestinal disorders like IBS and Crohn’s. (This is one example of why it is important to test the safety of new additives more thoroughly, rather than using our own bodies as the proverbial guinea pig).
Demand drives supply
Our food system favors overly processed ingredients because they create inexpensive, shelf stable products that are more convenient for consumers (bread that doesn’t get stale, boxed meals that require minimal preparation, and so on). Food companies are very good at meeting our demand for highly processed convenience foods, and if we keep purchasing them, they will continue to dominate our food supply. If you want to see better foods in the supermarket, start by simply choosing products with fewer ingredients. Strive for improvement, not perfection. Don’t know where to start? Here is a handy list of tips and tricks to get you on your way.
Sound Food Tips:
- To keep bread from getting stale, minus the preservatives: Slice the bread right when you bake or buy it, wrap in foil, and freeze. Pull out a slice whenever you want it, pop it in the toaster, and voila – convenient fresh bread anytime.
- Stay away from highly processed seed oils. Opt for “expeller pressed” versions, where the oil is expressed using pressure instead of chemical solvents. Better yet, use less processed fats like extra virgin olive or coconut oil, butter or ghee.
- Utilize the Center for Science In the Public Interest’s “Chemical Cuisine” guide – a clickable list of additives divided into the sections “Safe” “Cut Back” “Caution” and “Avoid.”
- Opt for homemade salad dressing – a lot of the bottled versions contain added sugars, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other potentially harmful ingredients.
- When all else fails, chose an item with fewer unfamiliar ingredients. As food companies see a decrease in the most highly processed items, their products will shift to include fewer and fewer suspicious ingredients.