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Processed Foods: Are They Really all That Bad?

Processed foods were once considered a luxury, 50 years ago when they were first becoming popular, they were a luxury item that offered people a bit of convenience, in a time where many people cooked everything from scratch and went to their local butchers daily. These days, they have become almost a cornerstone of our society, they are everywhere we look and are also hidden in many things we eat. They have also become a tension point in the wellness community, something that many people are vehemently against and will avoid at all costs. While there are certainly negatives with many processed foods, they also have their benefits too. It is all too easy to say "I won't eat that it's processed" without actually thinking what the added benefits may be.

What Technically is Processed?


Most people think of packaged, preserved foods, often with lots of additives in them when they think of processed. They would be right, but there are also many other foods that are processed to varying degrees. Technically, food processing is transformation of raw plant and animal materials in to foods for consumers. Foods are only ever processed if it confers some benefit to the consumer, so although you may be up in arms about a certain preservative in something, think whether you would be happy if the food you bought from the shop was spoiled 36 hours later? Our society wants the cleanest foods possible, but we also want them to look perfect, taste perfect and last forever. We can't have it all!


Unprocessed: Raw, completely natural form of a food that is not cooked or altered in any way.
  • Fruit or veg picked and eaten straight off the plant!

Minimally Processed: Foods not substantially changed from their raw form, they still have most of their nutrients, and are highly perishable.
  • Washing, peeling slicing, juicing, butchering, pasteurisation and preservation.
  • Fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, meat and milk as you buy them in the supermarket are all minimally processed.
 

Processed: Foods that are radically changed from their raw form, they tend not be eaten alone and tend to be low in nutrients and high in calories.
  • Milling, crushing, refining and addition of chemicals are all forms of processing.
  • Flours, oils, sugars, starches and sweeteners.


Highly Processed: Foods made from combinations of minimally processed or processed foods, designed with consumer convenience in mind.
  • Mixing, baking, frying, curing, smoking and additives.
  • Granola bars, biscuits, pastries, ice cream, breads, cereals, burgers, nuggets, sausages etc.

As you can see here, using the word processed to demonise foods isn't really fair when you consider that literally doing anything to an ingredient makes it processed. Many of these foods are still extremely healthy for us and are full of nutrients even though they have been "processed". Any sort of cooking, baking or food preparation in your home further processed your food. Although flours and olive oil are processed, they are essential to cooking and most recipes!!

When does processed become bad?


The obvious group here is the highly processed foods, as a general rule, we know that many of these aren't great for us. They tend to be lacking in fresh ingredients and high in sugar and fat. However we mustn't bash all processed foods as pure evil, granola bars are highly processed, but there are many on the market that are full of wonderful ingredients that make a great afternoon snack. In an ideal world we would all eat completely fresh, unprocessed food all of the time, but that is not a reality anymore. We are no longer nomads who have all day to hunt and forage, we have jobs and families and lives that make that impossible. So we can aim to buy as much fresh food as possible, but there is nothing wrong with buying packaged food too, it still can have plenty of nutrients in it, just choose wisely.

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