In most of the world, year-round fresh food is available only to the well-off. Even in the US, access to year-round fresh food is a novelty, not even a hundred years old. For most people, winter was and is a time of boring, limited choices. Even so, food had to be “processed” to last. Fermentation, drying, smoking, salting and curing were all techniques used to eke out food supplies between first frost and early spring crops.
So why is “processed” such a term of abuse today? After all, processing foods has and always has had advantages – it can transform foods to make them edible, save preparation and cooking time, even adapt foods to meet specific health needs (such as gluten-free for caeliacs, sugar-free for diabetics).
The answer lies in the industrialized nature of today’s food processing. The differences between older, small-scale methods of preservation and the majority of today’s industrial methods are not so much in their goals, as in their raw materials, packaging, and the compromises made to extend shelf life. We’re no longer looking at making food last through the winter, but making it easily transportable and almost imperishable.
Result? Overly processed food – that’s pretty much anything with more than five ingredients, says Michael Pollan – is bad for you, and bad for the planet. Here are ten good reasons to avoid it:
- Time-consuming natural processes and substances are often replaced with fast, chemical treatments that have cumulative or unintended side effects.
- Processed foods are usually packaged to excess, wasting resources and posing a disposal problem.
- The same packaging that extends shelf life may incorporate materials that pose a health risk, such BHP in can linings.
- Salt – a long-standing natural preservative – is over-used in many processed foods, and can push your sodium intake to unsafe levels. Ditto sugar.
- Processing requires uniformly sized produce, which means less crop diversity and more food waste in the field.
- Vitamins and minerals lost during processing may not be fully replaced, even if the product is “fortified.” For example, bran and oil from grains are removed during milling, to extend shelf life. The processed product does not support a healthy gut as well as the less refined.
- Food giants like General Mills, Archer Daniels Midland, etc., like to deal with equally giant producers. Small farmers lose out – again, bad for the planet.
- By-products of commercial processing may not be used, posing a pollution problem (e.g., the whey from big yogurt manufacturers like Chobani can’t be fed to pigs or used for cheese).
- Raw foods may be sanitized, bleached, and oxidized during processing, usually through use of chemicals which are in themselves toxic (otherwise, why would they work?).
- Nutrition labels are often designed to disguise true make-up of processed food. Unrecognized ingredients found in industrially processed food may cause reactions in consumers.