Why to avoid processed food

Jack and Jill ice cream cup

Is this really ice cream?

RECENTLY, AN ACQUAINTANCE TOLD ME she gives her kid Pop-Tarts for breakfast because “isn’t it better he eats something rather than nothing?” Quite frankly, I’m not so sure.

Processed foods shouldn’t make up the main dish of any meal. Really, they shouldn’t make up any part of any meal.

Here’s why:

Processed foods are linked to diseases.

The typical Western diet consists of highly processed foods and meat with a lot of fat, sugar, sodium, and refined grains. As Michael Pollan notes in Food Rules “Virtually all of the obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than a third of all cancers can be linked to this diet.”

When food is highly processed, the food becomes more easily absorbed by the body, which causes all sorts of problems with insulin and metabolism.

The more processed a food is, the fewer nutrients it has…

Processing cooks, mashes, extrudes, etc. the original food to make it into “food.” All that manipulation degrades the original nutrients that might be found in a fruit or vegetable.

For example, an apple is better than dried apples are better than applesauce is better than apple juice is better than apple toaster pastry.

… And the more chemicals and additives it has.

The act of processing food involves the use of chemicals. For example, most non-organic veggie burgers use the chemical hexane (an EPA-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin) to separate the oil from the soy protein. In fact, any product that doesn’t specify the oils were “expeller pressed” has used hexane to extract the oils.  And this is just one example.

And then there are all those chemical additives you can’t pronounce and that you certainly wouldn’t cook with at home such as emulsifiers (like soy lecithin), thickeners (like locust bean gum), or anti-foaming agents (like polydimethylsiloxane, a type of silicone).

Processed foods need a long shelf life, which means lots of preservatives. Remember that Happy Meal that hadn’t decomposed after a year of sitting out?

Besides having the nutrients processed out, these foods have had all the color and flavor processed out. That means the use of dyes and flavorings. You know, like in that strawberry Nutri-Grain bar — which has natural and artificial strawberry flavors as well as caramel color and red dye 40 (oh, along with high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup) because all the flavor, color, and sweetness of the strawberries has been processed out. (Remember, “natural flavor” doesn’t mean the flavor naturally occurring in the ingredients, just that the fake flavor is made from natural things, not chemical things.)

Eating processed food teaches kids food should taste like processed “food”.

If you look at the ingredients of processed food, you often find two or more sugars (like in Gogurt with sugar and high fructose corn syrup) or sugar in things that don’t need sugar (like french fries with dextrose (a corn sugar) to “promote browning.”)

Eating too much processed food teaches our palates to expect all this sugar, sodium, and fat. Food makers count on it – the more we eat the more we want.

But this isn’t what we want, especially for our kids. Right?

IT’S THE RARE FAMILY THAT CAN ELIMINATE processed foods completely from their diet. (If you have, please share how you did it!) But reducing your family’s consumption of processed foods is not some crazy idea. It’s something every family can and should do. Start with just one small change and work from there.

The bottom line: You are what you eat.