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What Makes a Food Overly Processed?

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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 Lentils

I'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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