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Processed food—convenient, unhealthy

Published: 
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The simplest definition of a processed food is food that has been altered in some way during preparation. Sounds as if any food we eat is processed! Add a bit of this or that, fry, boil, heat, freeze etc, and the food is, by definition, processed. Food companies take advantage of this to advertise that processed foods are good for you, nutritious and so on.

Processed foods do taste good, are cheap and easily available. So many of us are too easygoing to check out these claims or are confused by the parade of false news on macco-media, many deliberately instigated by the food industry, that it’s easy to buy into this simplistic view.

Research on processed food has been suspiciously lackadaisical. It’s only been in the last two or three years that there has been an accepted classification of processed foods. There are processed foods that are nutritionally adequate and there are processed foods that are appallingly harmful. That information is hidden away inside scientific magazines and hardly known to anyone. It usually takes a generation before the findings that come out of research come into general acceptance. In the meantime is you to catch.

There are three main groups of processed food. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods: foods of plant (leaves, stems, roots, tubers, fruits, nuts, seeds) or animal origin (meats, eggs, milk) that are processed shortly after harvesting, gathering, slaughter, or husbanding. These are what people call “natural.”

Then there are the processed foods, manufactured by adding salt, sugar, oil or vinegar to whole foods to make them more durable and occasionally to also modify their palatability. These are foods recognisable as versions of the original foods. Examples are breads and cheeses, canned or bottled or pickled vegetables and legumes; fruits preserved in syrup; tinned fish preserved in oil; salted nuts or seeds and salted, cured, or smoked meats and fish, such as ham, bacon, and dried fish.

For the time being, most of these foods are acceptable in the diet in small amounts. I suspect, however, that in the future, we will be talking more and more about their unsuitability because of the increasing amounts of chemicals associated with them.

Then there are the ultra-processed foods or products (because they really are not food) and this is where the problem resides.

Ultra-processed products are made in factories with ingredients unknown to the domestic kitchen. They contain high levels of sugar, fat and salt. They are durable, convenient, packaged, highly palatable, and suspiciously, often habit-forming.

They typically are not recognisable as foods, although they may imitate the appearance, shape and sensory qualities of foods.

Many ingredients are derived from oils, fats, starches, and sugar whilst others are artificially synthetised from other sources. Numerically, most ingredients are preservatives and other additives, BAHADURsuch as stabilisers, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colours and flavours which is why you may have heard the advice, never eat anything that contains more than five ingredients.

Common examples are French fries, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, pasta; almost any packaged snack product or dessert; ice cream, chocolates, and candies; packaged breads, buns, cookies or biscuits; sweetened breakfast cereals; pastries, cakes and cake mixes; energy bars or drinks; jams and margarines; canned, bottled and packaged soups and noodles; sweet drinks; sugared and sweetened milk drinks; low fat yogurt; “fruit” drinks; preprepared meats, fish, vegetables and cheese; infant formulas, follow-on milks, and other baby “foods”.

Yes, all those infant formulas are ultra-processed.

Ultra-processed products are the major cause of obesity and those pesky NCDs, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks. There’s worse news now. A French study of the medical records and eating habits of nearly 105,000 adults has just found that a 10 per cent increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods in the diet was linked to a 12 per cent increase in cancers, especially breast cancer. Ultra-processed products now account for half of all the “food” bought by families for eating at home.

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