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What Makes a Food Overly Processed?

Split Pea I read once that we should eat only what we could hunt, pick, gather or grow. Wow, what a concept! When I think about the nature of the human body, it does seem logical that our cells must naturally crave these "whole and real" foods. And yet we are a nation that loves our fast, processed, packaged food. We do seem to be somewhat unique in that addiction and we can break it if we try. About 15 years ago I went on a trip to Peru. Once I arrived at my hotel in Cusco, toured the grounds and then my room, I remember thinking: "Where are all the garbage cans?" There were none that I could see. I began to wonder if the people of that great land generated much garbage. So I really looked around and discovered that when it came to food and cooking, I barely saw a package or a can or a box to throw away. They prepared fresh, whole foods from scratch. It was wonderful! Of course, I don't expect all Americans to live on diets that contain no processed foods at all, but I do think we can learn to assess the varying degrees of food processing and choose wisely. (Technically, a processed food is one that has in some way been altered from its natural state. This broad definition even includes peeling, chopping, slicing and cooking.) The food industry processes foods to make them convenient to cook and eat. They also process foods to preserve them, allow long-term shelf life and for safety purposes such as killing bacteria. Canning, freezing, juicing, boxing, dehydrating, pasteurizing and aseptic packaging are various ways the industry processes foods. In my opinion, the problem comes when food is so altered from its original state that it barely resembles what it once was, or it is loaded with fillers, binders, trans fats, preservatives, flavor enhancers, excessive amounts of sodium and sugar, and numerous additives. I call these foods overly processed, chemically altered, flavor-enhanced, stabilized, emulsified, petrified-if-you-ask-me, non-food food-stuffs - or "overly processed" for short. They are never fresh, always packaged, dried, treated and mostly convenient - "Hey, I think I'll pick up some groceries at the gas station." (Not the best idea!) Fresh LentilsI've heard it recommended that you should shop the perimeter of the grocery store where you find the fresh produce, meat, seafood, dairy and cheese sections - staying away from the packaged stuff in the middle. Another way to begin is by eliminating the overly processed items on the list below, which is by no means complete, but a good place to start. Remember: the food in our Whole Foods Market stores is free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats. Avoid:
  • Packaged breads with enriched, bleached flour, preservatives and added sugars, including high fructose corn syrup.
  • Canned soups with added sugars, a lot of sodium, and added MSG and other chemicals and preservatives.
  • Cup of soups that contain a good deal of sodium (400 to 500 mg per serving is enough. Many brands contain over 1, 000 mg per serving).
  • Conventional boxed cake mixes and canned frosting.
  • Frozen meals and dinners with ingredients you have no idea how to pronounce. If the ingredient listing goes on and on, put the package back in the freezer.
  • Processed, preserved deli meats, hot dogs, bologna, salami, etc.
  • Sugary breakfast cereals with artificial colors, chemical preservatives and way too much sugar.
  • Odd looking chips that may or may not contain either corn or potatoes, but do contain other ingredients grandma never used in her kitchen.
  • Packaged foods containing partially and fully hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Packaged foods containing high fructose corn syrup.
Now let me be clear, I completely understand time savers like frozen veggies, rotisserie chicken or packaged broth are entirely reasonable and still add good nutrition. So, what are the "good" processed foods? When you need convenience but don't want to sacrifice health or taste, look for the following foods that are processed without preservatives and chemicals (again, not a complete list): Stock:
  • Low/no sodium canned beans
  • Low/no sodium canned tomato products
  • Low/no sodium vegetable, beef or chicken broth
  • Vegetable and/or fruit juices
  • Packaged whole grain breads, bagels, tortillas and crackers
  • Old fashioned rolled oats
  • Frozen unsweetened fruit
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Frozen natural (100%) juice concentrates
  • High fiber, whole grain hot and/or cold cereals
  • Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cream and cheese
  • Nitrate-free deli meats
  • Expeller-pressed or cold pressed vegetable oils
Make gradual changes and have some fun with this eating change. Healthy eating can be a fun adventure - finding new recipes, trying new foods and cooking something you have never experimented with before. Here's an interesting article I found regarding the cost of eating healthy. It may surprise you. So, what do you do to reduce overly processed foods in your diet? Got any questions on making this switch? Let me know.

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Jeremy Warner says …

I've been writing a blog on eating a more basic, less processed diet for about six months now and feel more strongly than ever that we would all be healthier if we ate the basic foods. It goes beyond the emptiness and toxicity of some of the ingredients found in packaged foods. Processing by its nature (except for the case of fermenting or pickling or aging) makes food easier to digest, which means more calories get absorbed. The simpler sugars, especially fructose, that are found in processed foods cause more extreme swings in insulin, possibly leading to diabetes. And the pleasures of preparing fresh, natural ingredients cannot be understated!

pnw fitness says …

So true. Once I pretty much ditched the processed foods, there way pretty much no trash. Produce bags and some meat wrappers.

Renee says …

Thank you, I have been a proponent of fresh organic food also. There is nothing like a fresh salsa! Besides the taste of fresh food, the benefits are astronomical. Please keep blogging. Maybe one day, the food processors will figure out that we don't want high fructose corn syrup and aspartame (formaldehyde).

Jilliann says …

I completely agree! I have felt and appear much healthier since I cut trans fat and high fructose corn syrup from my diet! I practice this as much as possible...religiously actually! :)

Cullen Riggs says …

I always feel better from eating minimally processed food. Tonight for instance three vegetable whole grain penne with pesto, whole grain focaccia and a salad. Total cost was around $5 per person, most processed ingredient was the packaged dried whole grain penne. Most of the vegetables were grown in my garden or within 50 miles of my house.

ClareKey on Twitter says …

Thanks for the informative article. I have been, for a while, getting off with fresh products, thanks to a condition called Candida Albicans - I cannot eat anything that is processed or anything with sugar, yeast and fungi-related foods. I have to eat everything fresh and eating fresh fruit has made a big diffrerence to my life. This also helped me to lose 7kgs in 3 months, and 3 jeans sizes too. I had been battling to lose weight, was stuck in a rut and when the lifestyle changes came as well as the diet changes, the weight just went quickly.

Karla Heaman says …

Excellent post! This is something I have been very convicted about doing the last couple of years and it has really paid off. I've changed how I eat and how I feel and in the long run my family is alot healthier for it. The bonus I found is that I actually love whole real food and now the idea of most processed food kind of makes me ill. Karla

Cica says …

It's sad that processed foods are actually cheaper than whole nutritious foods. With the cost of everything on the skyrocket, it's hard for those with a limited income to eat right. But that's what the govern meant when they allowed the FDA to become involved. It (the FDA) first started out as an honest company which tried to prevent the "mismanagement" of food companies. Then it got greedy and now care less about the people, and more about how much money they could make, and are allowing these poisons to be put into foods. It's people like you (the writers of articles like this) that help us, the people, to save our own lives. THANK YOU!!!

Caycequilter says …

We just finished reading Fast Food Nation and we are terrified at what is in our food. Last night we gathered 3 boxes full of overly processed food and gave them to the neighbors. Then we went to Fresh Market store thinking to pick up lots of "safe" food. We were so disappointed. There were only 2 organic produce items: carrots and corn. The rest of the store carried mostly the normal brands you get a Wal-mart, but at much higher prices. sheesh. Tomorrow we will be making the 1 hour drive to the Wild Oats/Whole Foods store in Memphis. We don't know what to buy, or what to eat to replace the toxic mess that had been our food. We can't even figure out what to call the type of food we are looking for. Is "whole foods" the right term? We just want food with no natural or artificial flavors or colors, no chemicals to "enhance" the taste, feel, or smell of the food, and no preservatives or pesticides. We don't want beef or pork from the miserable animals in feedlots. We don't want meat or poultry that has been processed in the toxic conditions in processing plants. Is that type of food called "whole food?" Why? I know we are not going vegetarian, since we have no objection to eating meat, only to how it is raised, slaughtered, and processed. It is a whole new world for us, and I feel like a visitor from Pluto.

Cindy says …

I can not find the recipe that goes with the photo above which is tagged fresh-lentil-summer. Could someone please help me find it - it looks so delicious!

belinda baker says …

The Book, "Juice for Life" Also the book "Fit for Life" Incredible info on raw foods with enzymes and live foods, high water content food ,verses DEAD food (aka) PROCESSED. When food is heated at a certain temp, the nutrients are cooked out, therefore supplying us with 0 nutrition. Is it any wonder that there is so much obesity in americans! Belinda

belinda baker says …

Also, try the daniel fast, to get back to the basics. No meat, no refined sugar, no whitee flour, very good for the body.

says …

Hi Cindy, The recipe you see pictured above is our Lentil and Vegetable Salad. You will find it here: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipes/recipe.php?recipeId=575 Looks great! Enjoy! Alana

Ellie says …

How do you get started? It always seem's so daunting especially as i have such an addiction to food! Help!???

Nar says …

This thread was very inspirational. Thanks!

Christy says …

My husband and I just recently switched to eating whole foods, and cut out most processed foods from our diet. While I feel fine, my husband has been experiencing stomach pain and discomfort, slight nausea, constipation, and a "full feeling" (i.e. bloating). These symptoms have been constant, not just occuring after he has eaten. Is this normal? If so, how long should he expect these symptoms to last? Thank you.

Christy says …

Ellie: You want to know how to get started? We just went to the grocery store and stocked up on fresh veggies and fruits (that we like). We went home and cut up all the fruit and made a huge salad. We cut up all the veggies to make them readily available to grab at any time out of the fridge when we are craving something crunchy. We quit drinking soda pop, and now make pitchers of iced tea. You just have to do it; it's that simple. Also, once you start eating whole foods, you will find an almost instant decrease in your appetite, and you will discover you no longer crave chips, candy, etc. It's almost scary how addictive those processed foods are!

marymuses says …

If high fructose corn syrup is on your list of foods to avoid, why am I finding it on the ingredient list of food from your store? I was very disappointed today to read the ingredients on a key lime tart I'd bought and discover that there's HFCS in the crust. I really love shopping at Whole Foods, and one of the reasons I do so is because I feel confident that your food is free of unnatural ingredients. But one of the worst offenders is in an item from your bakery! I grew up on a farm, and I know how the corn that ends up in HFCS is grown. A good deal of it is genetically modified. Gross. I will still shop in your store for some things, but this definitely gives me pause when it comes to grabbing a treat as I'm heading out. I don't want to have to read the ingredient list to know that I'm getting something of high quality that does not contain GMOs.

Oso says …

Hi, What is the deal on whole foods and HFC's? I used to work for WF and we had a long list of no no's and now if i ask anybody in the store they look at me like I"m speaking a foreign language. pity.

Tamara says …

I was in my local WF last evening and was more that a little surprised to find Heinz Ketchup on the shelf. High Fructose Corn Syrup is the second ingredient listed! Very disappointed!!

Elizabeth P. Cullen says …

Does Whole Foods sell frozen vegetables like artichoke hearts or brussell sproats? thank you.

Eibhlin says …

This is a great article with wonderful advice! What keeps our household on track, steadily removing overly processed foods from our kitchen, is how much better we feel as we make these gradual changes. I just wish more grocery stores were aware of what shoppers want to eat... and what we want to avoid. My husband and I drive 2 1/2 hours to shop at Whole Foods. We've done that regularly, even during icy New England winters, and even when gasoline was at $4+/gallon. However, after making that drive, it's frustrating to have to read labels, just as we do at our local grocery store. Though we find far fewer products with "problem" ingredients -- including high fructose corn syrup mentioned in this article -- we still have to read all labels carefully. For us, it's about eliminating high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). We are amazed at how much better we feel without it. We simply can't go back to how we felt before. We're constantly astonished at what contains HFCS and what doesn't. For example, the local upscale grocer's (not Whole Foods) house brand of pizza contains HFCS; the cheapo grocery store that we generally avoid... their house brand of pizza has no HFCS and it's surprisingly yummy when we want convenience food. I'm trying to make more time for cooking from scratch, as it seems to be the best solution. The health benefits -- nicely described in this article -- make it well worth the effort. I cheered when Seattle's PCC grocers banned HFCS from the shelves. I'm hoping that Whole Foods will choose a similar path, as more mainstream consumers reject HFCS and more manufacturers choose healthier alternatives. In the meantime, I'm grateful for how many non-HFCS alternatives are carried by Whole Foods. That makes it easier to phase into cooking "from scratch" while using ingredients that are more natural.

Magic of Spice says …

I found this article to be exceptional. I am of the school of thought that believes a large percentage of health as well as weight issues plaguing our country are above mentioned in your article. The desire to save time and/or money by having everything “Pre-made”, is of major concern. A love of food has become distorted having replaced the sights, smells and textures from a meals preparation, with that of a simple gratification, further simplified the business of fast food. Cooking and experimenting with recipes is a wonderful way to interact with family, allowing children a positive and healthful understanding of food. Even the shopping experience can be a family event rather than a daunting task to be checked off. My children (now grown) and I still discuss memories of our grocery shopping extravaganzas to this day. In fact my younger Son will call frequently as he is shopping and go through the necessary ingredients needed for his current creation. My older Son and Son in Law are also both contributors to our food blog. Having said that, I believe Whole foods to a literally a toy store for lovers of good food!

Emanuela says …

Why do you sell enriched flour ? How can I avoid enriched flour from your 365 brand ? Thank you

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@EMANUELA - Look for our 365 organic all purpose flour as it is not enriched.