Posted on 16 Mar 2015 18:59
Did you know that everything in our food chain is processed? Harvesting crops, slaughtering livestock or catching and killing game or fish is the first step of processing.
Cutting, cleaning, packaging and refrigeration of these raw foods make them practical for the consumer to eat when needed. Processing also in some cases preserves nutrient content and prevents spoilage of food due to microbes.
Grass fed butter is processed, cows don't magically squirt out butter blocks in a chilled square. Bread is equally processed. Grain must be processed, or milled, before it can be used. Then, ingredients like salt, yeast and fats are added and baked to form a loaf.
Processed food isn’t just microwave meals, soft drinks and lollies. Not all processed foods are created equal, but they aren’t necessarily all unhealthy.
When we talk about "processed foods" we are typically referring to food items that have undergone multiple layers of processing. For example, grain extrusion or fortification when there is a significant loss of nutrients due to heating or refining. It's also the addition of ingredients such as colours, flavors, sugars, sodium and fat for taste enhancement or to prolong shelf life of an item.
Throughout history, sugar and sodium have been used natural preservatives. For example, bacon and cured meats can be kept over the course of months due to preservation with salt(s) (including sodium chloride, nitrates, and nitrites). In this case, first step of processing is killing and butchering the animal, curing with salt, then slicing.
Frozen foods are not less nutritious than their fresh
counterparts. Check the nutrition panel and ingredients.
This is why bacon, salami and ham are classified as processed foods. Commercially made cold meats have additional ingredients called nitrites added to prolong shelf life. Sodium nitrite is added as an antibotulinum agent, a bacterium that produces a toxin that that can cause serious illness. Nitrites in this case are added, but are also naturally occurring in high amounts in vegetables such as beetroot and celery. In fact, celery juice itself is used as a preservative, for this reason. Although once suspected to be dangerous, nitrites should not be feared.1
There is no standard definition of what is considered "processed food." It is not always so clear-cut. There are a few instances where the fear of processed food has been blown out of portion. We must question where this information has come from. Let’s address two examples of the most common myths around food processing.
Frozen Veggies Have No Nutrients
This is far from the truth, frozen veggies are snap frozen at the time of picking. In most instances it preserves most of the vitamins and prevents nutrients from being lost during transportation. The shelf life of frozen vegetables is 8 months and for frozen fruit it is 12 months.
Fresh veggies on the other hand can in some instances have less nutrients and phenolic compounds. Water-soluble vitamins and phenolic compounds are the first to start decreasing. Veggies age during the storage and transportation process so that by the time they reach you, your water-soluble vitamin content may have decreased.
Frozen veggies can be highly convenient, saving you time visiting the supermarket when you run out of greens, and requiring no peeling and chopping if you’re a busy person. In my household I use a mix of fresh and frozen fruit and veggies depending on what I am cooking and how much time I have. Often they can be significantly cheaper for those who are budget conscious.
This is not a recommendation to ditch fresh fruit and veggies. Both fresh and frozen have equal merit. There are a lot of fresh vegetables that taste better and have more crunch than frozen. There are also many fresh veggies that do not have frozen counterparts.2
Milk is a Highly Processed Dead Food
Homogenization and pasteurization are two processes that milk undergoes as part of it’s quality control. Homogenized milk is full cream milk that has been processed so that its naturally occurring fat globules break down into smaller particles, such as by pushing the milk through a sieve. This allows the fat to evenly spread throughout the liquid. This is why you no longer see milk with a fat layer floating at the top of the bottle.
Pasteurization, on the other hand, is where milk is heated to high temperatures in order to kill off bacteria found in the milk. This process prolongs shelf life and makes it safe for human consumption.
Due to large amounts of city dwelling populations that are found far away from dairy farms, transportation of milk to shops can sometimes take days. The problem with this is that bacteria in fresh products grow really quickly making milk the perfect breading ground for bacterium, which can cause food poisoning.
Raw milk on the other hand is milk that has not undergone any of the above processing. It is only safe if you are milking the cow in your backyard and drinking it straight away. Due to lack of transportation time, and lack of time for bacterium to grow, the acid in your stomach kills off any bugs. Raw milk is not safe if you don’t have a cow on hand. It is also illegal to sell if its packaged and transported and you don’t own the cow.
Both processes, homogenization and pasteurization, do not change the bio-availability of protein, fat or carbohydrates found in the original milk. Just because milk is heated does not mean it “kills of the nutrition.” If this were the case then cooked meat and veggies would also be “dead” and “not nutritious.” We know this is not the case.
The problem isn’t with processing but the degree of processing and the context in which the food is eaten. Labeling a food item as “processed” tells you little about its nutrition quality. It’s more useful looking at the nutrition panel for its content of energy, fat, protein, source of carbohydrate, sodium and sugar.
To make the best choice when at the supermarket, try to choose items with fewer additives, lower levels of sugar, and close to the original natural form. Less packaging or less fancy packaging is generally a good indication of less processing.
Food is just not that simple. Sure, it’s easy to say all food high in sugar, salt and fat are bad for us. Equally, not all processed food is “bad,” and it has been part of life since the beginning of man. I like to enjoy birthday cake and hot chips on occasion. Its all about context and moderation, not avoidance. Food is meant to be enjoyed not feared.
About the Author
Gabrielle Maston, B AppSc(EXSS) and Bsc (Nutr)(Honours in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics) is a qualified clinical and sports dietitian, exercise physiologist, behavioural health coach and personal trainer. Currently, Gabrielle runs a private nutrition consultancy and exercise physiology business in Sydney. She is a regular feature writer for popular fitness magazines and a sought after presenter in corporate health and well-being. Gabrielle passion is helping people lose weight, excel in sport and manage chronic disease by regaining their health through proper nutrition and exercise.