11 Reasons to Choose Fresh Foods, and a Few Reasons Not To

Happy New Year! This is an update of a post originally published December 23, 2011.

A friend was wondering whether it was bad to eat soy patties for lunch every day. This led to a discussion of ingredient lists on packages and concerns about processed food.

We’ve all been told to choose home-cooked foods over convenience foods.


But my friend wanted to know why processed foods are bad. Can’t we just check the list of ingredients? If there are too many chemicals that we’ve never heard of, we are wary. But maybe if the ingredients listed on a label are natural, the processing isn’t such a big deal.

Or is it?

My friend pointed out, correctly, that processing is often a good thing:

  • Cooking makes foods tasty and easier to digest.
  • Processing, including cooking, canning or drying, helps foods last longer. This in turn lowers the price in some cases, as less food needs to be thrown out.
  • Processing can eliminate pathogenic bacteria, as when milk is pasteurized.

So a certain amount of processing can work in our favor, although these benefits may also come with lower nutritional value. Still, the real problem is when foods get over-processed.

But there are also negative consequences when processing foods. Here are some examples:

  • Ingredients we don’t want. Manufacturers add emulsifiers and starches for improving texture, preservatives to keep food fresh longer, and flavors, colors, sodium, mono-sodium glutamate, and sugars to make food more palatable to the average consumer.
  • Low-quality ingredients. The label is only as specific as the law required by your country. The ingredients might say corn, but does that mean corn starch or cornmeal? Or maybe kernels? They are not equally healthy. What conditions were they grown in? How old are they?
  • Using the least healthy part of an ingredient. A classic example is apple juice concentrate, which contains almost pure sugar. Even though it’s natural. You’re getting sugar from a large number of apples, but without the fiber and the anti-oxidants. Fibers are also removed from grains.
  • Ingredients at the bottom of the list can still impact your health. Some ingredients can cause harm even in small quantities. And the product must contain a minimum amount of an ingredient for it to appear on the label, so you could be eating unpleasant things without realizing. Ask parents of children with life-threatening allergies how much they rely on package labels.
  • Toxic chemicals might be used in the manufacturing process, like enzymes that make foods softer or remove bitterness. But since they’re not officially ingredients, they won’t appear on the list.
  • Packaging.  A few years ago a toxic chemical, BPA, was found in certain plastics. Now there is controversy about whether small amounts of BPA are truly dangerous. But chemicals used in packaging (of both processed and unprocessed foods) can leach into food.
  • Vitamin and mineral loss. Water-soluble vitamins are not retained in fruits and vegetable even after minimal processing. Once you slice a tomato it starts to lose Vitamin C. When you remove the Vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed along with parts of the whole grains so they will last longer. Many processed foods contain white flour, which has a long shelf life. The company might add some of the vitamins and minerals back into the food in another form (think children’s cereals), but your body may not absorb them as well.
  • Oils and fats. Since good fats are expensive processed foods contain cheap, unhealthy oils, often in large quantities. Here the label will give you a clue—but you can only decide whether you want to buy the product or not. At home you can choose the type and quantity of oil.
  • Heating. Processed foods are usually exposed to high temperatures. High cooking temperatures create AGE’s, or advanced glucation end products. These toxic glucose byproducts are associated with high blood sugar and diabetes. They are found in most heated foods and, in great excess, in commercial infant formulas because cow’s milk must be heated at extreme temperatures to make it edible for babies. Reducing the amounts of processed and grilled foods also reduced the level of AGE’s in the blood.
  • Price. You pay for convenience. Even if you can get food for less than it costs you to make at home, you end up with lower quality ingredients, unnecessary additives, and unknown processing methods.
  • Environmental Impact. Processing uses valuable water and fuel, and creates pollution.

Many these concerns also apply to foods we buy in their natural state, to prepare at home. However, it’s much easier to research one ingredient than those from a long list, especially when you can examine the food for yourself. And even if you cook with white flour and soy oil, you still avoid many of the “extras” in convenience foods.

The main concern of a food manufacturer is profit. So it will aim for a product with cheap ingredients, a uniform taste that appeals to many (sugar/salt/fats), and long shelf life (processed foods last longer than fresh, even without the added preservatives).

As for labels, food producers only share whatever makes them look good. Whether the food is healthy or not interests them only as far as their marketing department. They will brag that a food contains no food coloring, while not mentioning that sugar is the main ingredient.

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