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.

You may also enjoy:

Barriers to Home Cooking 

Healthy Last-Minute Dinners

The Best Techniques for Knowing When Food Is Cooked

11 Food Processor Tips for Bakers

flour tortillas on plate

When my friend Efrat asked on Facebook about the best tools for making bread, most people replied that they use their hands or a mixer. It seems that many people still see a food processor as a tool for slicing and chopping and the occasional cake. But if used correctly, the food processor excels at […]

Continue reading...

Ethiopian Lentil Wot (dip) and Injera

Hello, dear readers! I am reviving the website with two Ethiopian recipes that my 20-year-old son tried over the weekend. After the recipes, I’ll share a short review of a few new products from a company called Yoffi. After high school, my son spent a year volunteering in a town where he interacted with many immigrants from Ethiopia. He’s […]

Continue reading...

Don’t Judge a Fruit by Its Peel

very ripe tomato, pepper, avocado

Usually, when we pick fruits and vegetables, we look for the most attractive. But we pay a premium for that privilege. And what looks best in the store, is not necessarily the tastiest.

I noticed three different types of produce being sold for a discount: Tomatoes, avocados, and sweet peppers. As you can see from the pictures, the tomatoes looked dented and spotted, the peppers wrinkled (you may need to look closely), and the avocado skins mostly black. My adult son, who came along to help, was especially skeptical about those avocados. I told him that we might have to throw out 10-20% of the produce, but it would still be worth it.

Continue reading...

Spicy Beans with Coriander and Garlic

fresh-coriander sprigs

Remember those black beans I posted about recently? And how I planned to keep a container of beans in the freezer? Well, I defrosted the container in the refrigerator overnight Thursday. On Friday, my vegan son came home, and added beans to the rice and mushrooms he cooked for the Sabbath. He took the leftovers with him for […]

Continue reading...

10 Great Reasons to Cook Fresh Black Beans

freshly cooked containers of black beans

The kids are back in school, and while the heat hasn’t let up, the smell of routine is in the air. I just finished cooking a pot of black beans, and am enjoying anticipating how I will use them. Beans take a while to prepare, although less than you might think because soaking isn’t strictly necessary. If you’re […]

Continue reading...

Review: Vegan Start Passover Cookbook


I’ve been stressing about Passover cooking. My 18-year-old son became vegan a few months ago, and I’m afraid my usual menu plan might leave him hungry. Because of the prohibitions against seeds and legumes (kitniyot) in the Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish Passover tradition, vegan staples like lentils, beans and sesame are off the table. Fortunately, my friend Rena Reich came […]

Continue reading...

How Risky Is It to Eat Questionable Leftovers?

meat-thermometer for food safety

One of the most common questions on cooking sites and forums is whether leftover food should be thrown out. The best advice is to prevent these questions , by learning how to store food properly, estimate quantities, keep track of what you have, and use leftovers creatively.

But what happens if you fear your food has been hanging around for too long? You can look up storage times on various sites, but the recommendations tend to be overly cautious. So much depends on how the food was prepared, and the storage conditions. I suggest using those sites only as a general guideline. If the food looks and smells good, it’s probably safe.

Continue reading...

Easy and Elegant Herbed Turkey Breast

I was looking for something different for the holidays, when a friend suggested turkey breast. Turkey breast is easy to slice and serve, and leftovers can be stored in small containers for quick leftovers. It tends to dry out, so be careful not to overcook. To keep the turkey moist, I slathered it with a […]

Continue reading...

Cook for a Crowd with Ease

large mixing bowls on top of the cabinet

Reader Sarah writes: I read with great interest your planning and preparation for your amazing Bar Mitzvah for 35 people.  I think that it might be helpful if you gave your readers the “lay of the land” with respect to your kitchen.  For example, how many ovens, refrigerators, and freezers do you have and are […]

Continue reading...