September 2011 Archives

What is "processed"?

It all started with a simple question: Could I go without processed foods for 30 days?

Sure, I thought. I'd done a similar 30-day challenge before (buying no prepared foods like bread, sauces, etc. for a month), and while it was difficult, I learned a lot. So, I said to myself, what exactly does "processed" mean?

Then the fun began. 

I like definitions, and bounderies. You can't break a rule (on purpose) until you know what it is, and it's better if you know where it came from and why it's there. I've heard my entire life that "processed" foods are bad, we should all eat fewer of them, and that obesity/poor health/malnutrion/low resale value of your car are all the fault of these damn processed foods. 

Like many things nutrition, "processed" is most often defined by the "I know it when I see it" test. Cheese puffs? Processed. Apples? Nope. Hot dogs? Oh yeah. Cookies? Well, that depends on what kind. How about cheese? Those yellow squares have to be, but what about a block of cheddar? Does it matter if it's made by hand and sold at twice the price at Whole Foods?

But what, exactly, makes those foods processed? Is it the ingrediants? Many of the definitions I've found specify one of two tests (if not both) - you have to be able to recognize and pronounce all the ingredients, and it has to be something you could make in your kitchen. But if I can't pronounce or don't recognize something, does that make it processed, or just mean I'm uninformed? And I certainly can't make most breakfast cereals at home (Make a corn flake. I dare you), or cheeses for that matter. But neither is commenly placed in the "processed" pile.

Maybe it's what happens to the food - tearing it down, recombining, adding some fillers - that makes it bad. But that would lump hot dogs in with everything with flour in it - that can't be right. Almost all food preperation requires similar steps unless you're eating raw, so I'm not liking this defintion either. 

Perhaps a food's "closeness to nature" is the best way to judge. Fruit off the tree? Awesome. Same fruit in a can - "processed"? Maybe. Meat off the bone of any animal you killed? Assuming cooking isn't "processing", you're in good shape. How about milk? Sure, if it comes straight from the cow to your glass. But almost all milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep it from separating, both done through some funky processes. And that's how I like it, thank you very much. 

In the end, there isn't a good definition, because "processed" or not isn't the right way to look at our food. We need to see how food is prepared, what's lost or retained via processing, and eat everything in moderation and as part of an overall healthy diet.

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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