Food processing started out as a way to preserve foods and make them available for longer. However, some of the heavily processed foods we eat in large quantities these days are actually making us sick.
When we think about processed foods, fried potato chips, tomato sauce, crisps, fizzy cold drinks, sweets and candy bars come to mind. These are indeed foods that are highly processed and are certainly not the healthiest of food options.
Why are foods processed?
Foods are processed for a number of reasons, such as for preservation, extension of shelf-life as well as to increase enjoyment, by changing the flavour and texture through additives, processing or cooking.
Where did it all start?
The processing of foods probably started with the need to utilize fresh produce that is only available in certain seasons. Basil pesto and tomato sauce come to mind, without which Italian cooking would be unimaginable. Tomatoes and basil leaves are plentiful mid-summer, but difficult or near impossible to grow in winter. Preserving them in the form of pesto or sauce can make them available to enjoy throughout the year.
Another drive to preserve foods may have been survival, where the meat of a large animal that was hunted, could be made available through pickling or drying for a longer duration to feed a family or community.
Where did it all go wrong?
The processing of foods with advances in food technology has however evolved to the point where the processed foods we eat daily are in fact making us sick. The leading causes of death and the most feared diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes are strongly linked to the regular consumption of excessive amounts of sugar, refined starches, processed oils and additives, all of which are found mainly in processed foods.
Why are many processed foods unhealthy?
Many processed foods contain high levels of sugar, refined starches, processed oils and additives, all of which contribute to multiple health problems, either directly or indirectly, due to obesity and a lack of nutritional intake.
- Obesity: The two leading dietary causes of obesity are crisps and sweetened fizzy drinks. Obesity is a key contributing factor in the development of cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes.
- Empty kilojoules: Sweetened fizzy drinks and crisps are also referred to as empty kilojoules – they are packed with energy from starch, sugar and oil, but contain hardly any or no vitamins, minerals, proteins and fibre.
- Hidden sugars: We may be aware that sweetened cold drinks contain lots of sugar, but many people opt for the flavoured waters, fruit juices and ice teas, as these are perceived to be healthier alternatives. Unfortunately, most of these contain as much and sometimes even more sugar than your standard sweetened fizzy drinks. Tomato sauce, sweet chilli sauce, ice teas, flavoured waters, breakfast cereals and health bars add vast amounts of sugar into our diets without us even knowing about it.
- Additives: a long shelf life for processed foods can only be achieved through the addition of high levels of additives, such as preservatives, flavourants, colourants and others. Some processed foods that people think are healthy contain surprisingly high levels of salt and added fats. Did you know that some breakfast bran flakes contain as much salt (sodium) as a portion of crisps of the same mass? That is why it is important to read and understand the information printed on food labels.
Why do we love processed foods?
- Pleasure: Our brains are wired for survival and the “pleasure centers” in our brain are activated when we consume energy dense foods, notably those that are rich in carbohydrates and fats. Think of how difficult it is to stop munching on crisps once that bag is open. The brain rewards the body with such an overwhelming sense of pleasure, that the drive to finish the pack is almost instinctive.
- Affordability: Sweetened fizzy drinks, crisps, hamburgers and fried potato chips offer really good value in terms of an energy-packed, affordable meal for the family.
- Convenience: In addition to the guaranteed pleasure sensation and cost effective benefit of processed foods, some are available at your convenience. With drive-through take-away restaurants, there is no need to even get out of your car to purchase your meal.
One can easily see the “convenience food trap” that many of us fall into, especially when the budget is tight, stress levels are high and time is under pressure.
Raw Foods: The healthy alternative?
Raw foods entered our reality on the fringe, with raw vegetable and wheat grass juices consumed by the highly committed health-conscious crowd. However, looking at the latest food trends and the offerings from fast food outlets and supermarkets, raw foods are becoming mainstream.
Fresh salads, wraps with raw salads, vegetable juices and snack foods such as raw fruit, nuts, seeds and even raw bars, balls and bites made from dates and nuts are available everywhere. Smoothies, smoothie bowls and salad bowls are now popular treats at selected fast food outlets, providing a delightful distraction from the fried chips, burgers and sweetened fizzy drinks.
Food trends: cause or effect?
Was it the emergence of raw foods in our diets that encouraged the food trends such as “clean eating” and “naturally functional”, or did these food trends encourage the trend of raw foods? Whatever the cause or effect, raw foods are here to stay.
What are the benefits of raw foods?
- Nutritious: Raw foods are most often highly concentrated in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega fatty acids and even enzymes that benefit nutrient absorption and utilization.
- Convenience: Fresh raw fruit such as apples and bananas, or veggies such as carrots offer fast food in a healthy format – no preparation required!
- Functional flavour: the addition of raw cacao powder, cinnamon and ginger not only adds flavour to our food, but health benefits. That is why these flavours are so popular, as they also add health benefit to the foods they add flavour to.
Can a raw food diet be affordable?
The costly food items such as nuts, seeds, cocoa powder, dates, coconut and avocado makes it difficult for many people to follow these food trends. However, considering the options such as raw peanuts, carrots, apples, bananas and other fresh fruit and vegetables opens up cost effective options that can be enjoyed by a wider audience.
All raw? What about Beneficial Processed Foods?
Are all foods better in their raw state? Certainly not! Certain foods have to be processed for us to be able to eat them, such as olives. Other foods are nutritionally more beneficial in their processed form. For example, tinned pilchards and sardines provide higher levels of calcium and other minerals from the fine fish bones, that are only edible in the tinned format.
Yoghurt, a processed form of milk is also known to be more nutritious compared to milk and tolerated better by individuals that have dairy lactose intolerance.
Fermented food trend
Fermented foods are trending, with home-brewed kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso and fish sauce appearing in trendy restaurants and food stores. Fermentation of foods releases a wider spectrum of nutrients and also benefit the beneficial bacteria in our digestive systems, through the friendly microbes and supporting nutrients contained in these foods.
What to do:
The best guideline to follow with regards to dietary choices, is to always opt for the healthier or better alternatives available to us.
- Where raw, unprocessed foods area available and accessible, they are guaranteed to make beneficial contributions to our health.
- Processed foods can be consumed in moderation, but it is best to avoid the well-known sugary beverages, deep-fried foods and sweetened snacks.
- Read food labels: try to avoid foods with many additives and compare the “per 100 grams” amounts of sugar, sodium and fat on labels of processed foods.