Processed Food: Can’t We Just Say What We Mean?
It is a slow day for nutrition science, but it seems that there is an article in the mass media every day about processed foods and how they can and should be avoided (recent examples include: Make Your Own Energy Bar At Home And Eliminate All The Processed Junk, Fit in the City: Dump processed food and break diet 'curse', The Dr. Oz Show Recap: Dining out, canned & processed food raise stomach cancer risks, Mugshots of the Food World: Why These Foods Aren't Guilty). These articles can be a little confusing to me as a nutrition scientist. The confusion stems from the use of the word “processed”. I consider processing to be anything that is done to a food to change its form from how it comes to use from the plant or animal. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics gives a good overview of different types of processing, which includes chopping, peeling, slicing, freezing, heating, canning, milling, grinding, drying, mixing and baking. This applies to almost every food that we eat. Articles that claim that processed foods are bad for health usually contain conflicting information, based on a couple of incorrect assumptions.
For example, the first article in my list “Make Your Own Energy Bar At Home And Eliminate All The Processed Junk” apparently subscribes to the principle “foods should be whole foods –nothing processed, no junk”. Yet then provides a recipe for homemade energy bars that contains a list of ingredients that have all been processed in some way, and the recipe itself calls for the use of a food processor.
The article “Fit in the City: Dump processed food and break diet 'curse'” recommends not eating “anything that comes in a packet or has ingredients that sound like they were made in a laboratory”. The article recommends whole grains as part of the non-processed food list. Most whole grains that we consume have been processed in some way. Grains are normally dried to ensure a certain shelf life, most grains are at least partially hulled to remove the fibrous bran on the outside of the grain, and then normally undergo some type of rolling, cutting or milling. Whole grains are also then further processed into their final application, for example they are boiled to make porridge, or made into bread, crackers or pasta.
Ignoring the inconsistency in the title of the article “The Dr. Oz Show Recap: Dining out, canned & processed food raise stomach cancer risks”, as canning is a form of processing, the author states that women can halve their risk of stomach cancer if they stop “dining out, consuming canned and processed food”. Yet, stomach cancer risk is related to high salt consumption: processed foods do not necessarily contain high levels of salt. Even sea salt, which is considered to be less processed than table salt, would increase risk of stomach cancer just as any other salt. Stomach cancer deaths have actually been declining in recent decades, and the highest rates are actually found in China, with around 5 times more deaths higher incidence than in the United States, which has a remarkably low incidence compared to other high-income countries.
The final article Mugshots of the Food World: Why These Foods Aren't Guilty mentions soy foods such as tofu, miso and tempeh as “whole and unprocessed”, yet the production of each contains multiple processing steps such as soaking, grinding, mixing with coagulants, heating, microbial fermentation and mashing: the final product is in fact highly processed.
What are the general incorrect assumptions that the articles make?
Homemade food is not processed and is healthy
Almost all processed foods on the market today can be made at home. The internet abounds with recipes for foods that are considered to be highly processed such as corn dogs (for which one would also need a recipe for homemade frankfurters, if one has access to sheep casings and is not concerned with risk of botulism poisoning) and Twinkies that can be made at home. The types of foods that occasionally come out of my kitchen, such as quiche and chocolate cake, are also not particularly healthy and only make up part of a balanced diet when consumed in moderation*. Processing occurs outside the factory and in the home. Foods that are processed at home are also processed. Homemade food can be highly processed and is not necessarily healthy.
“Healthy” food is not processed
Almost all foods we eat have been processed somehow, if not by a factory then at home. Even foods that can be considered “minimally processed” such as cream, honey and sea salt, should not be eaten in large quantities as part of the normal diet. Other foods that seem to me like they are highly processed, such as tofu and products made with whole grain flour, are actually healthy. Processing also reduces risk of food-borne disease, and it seems that consuming a fully non-processed diet would increase likelihood of food poisoning. These articles equate healthy food with non-processed. But healthy food can be processed, and unhealthy foods can be non-processed.
Why do we have to equate processing foods in a factory with making them less healthy? It is simply not true! The techniques used to process food have been developed over thousands of years to increase the palatability or shelf-life of products, and are simply a fact of life. Foods’ healthiness is not related to it being processed, but rather to their intrinsic nutritional properties. When I was growing up, we had a name for the foods that people consider to be “processed”: junk food. Let’s call a spade a spade (or perhaps a fig a fig?) and stop pretending that it’s the processing that makes food unhealthy.
* A TalkingNutrition bonus: Easy flourless Chocolate Cake
This recipe is delicious and exceptionally easy to make. It only requires a source of heat, bowl, spoon and a little light elbow-grease. It contains six ingredients, and is gluten-free! But just don’t eat a whole cake every day….
120g dark chocolate
150g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 150 C / Gas 2. Grease a 20cm round cake tin, and dust with cocoa powder.
In the top of a double boiler over gently simmering water, melt chocolate and butter. Remove from heat, and stir in sugar, cocoa powder, eggs and vanilla. Pour into prepared cake tin.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Let cool in tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and cool.