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. You hear it all the time—heck, I say it here all the time: Home-cooked foods beat prepared or convenience foods any day of the week.
But why, my friend wanted to know, are processed foods 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 all 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, like canning or drying, helps foods last longer.
- 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.
Here are some things that might affect your convenience food before it gets to your plate:
- 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. Are the ingredients organic? What conditions were they grown in? How old are they?
- Using the least healthy part of the natural product. 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.
- Just because an ingredient is at the end of the list doesn’t mean it’s not going to 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 any mother of a child with life-threatening allergies how much she relies 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. These plastics were (and still are, in some cases), used in baby bottles and canned foods. The BPA leaches into the food, but you’ll never find it listed.
- Vitamin and mineral loss.Water-soluble vitamins are not retained in fruits and vegetable even after minimal processing. Heck, once you slice a tomato it starts to lose Vitamin C.Vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed from whole grains in processing so they will last longer. Almost all 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 doesn’t 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 of oil and how much goes in it.
- 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 precious water and fuel and creates pollution.
A lot of 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/msg), 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. It’s naïve to assume that a food is healthy because only healthy ingredients are listed.
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