What’s wrong with processed food?
By Kevin R.R. Williams
NUTRITION Processed foods are those that have been altered from their natural state. Without food processing, supermarkets would either be much smaller or have massive produce sections. Most people eat processed bread or breakfast cereals but not unprocessed grains like wheat, bran or uncracked nuts. They don't mill their own corn, nor churn butter.
Food processing allows consumers to have year-round availability of foods that have limited growing seasons. Frozen vegetables are usually processed within hours of harvest with little nutrient loss in the freezing process. In contrast, by the time fresh vegetables are picked and transported to market many vitamins are gradually lost. Then there's the convenience factor. Dried noodles, a bag of rice or a jar of pasta sauce make a quick and easy dinner after a long day at work.
It's quite difficult in today's industrialized society to eliminate all processed food.
Does it seem like I am trying to convince you to stock up on chocolate covered pretzels and squeeze cheese? Registered dietitians and health conscious consumers would not approve. Actually, most of the benefits mentioned are published by Asian Food Information Center  with an arguably vested interest in food processing. The point is that it's quite difficult in today's industrialized society to eliminate all processed food. Even if we strive to eat fresh organic vegetables from local farmers' markets, some portion of our balanced meal — olive oil, butter, bread, rice, seasoning — may come from a food processing plant. So likely, governed by our own consciences, we make reasonable concessions when shopping for healthy foods. Some processed foods even have "organic" or "natural" on the label.
The Great Consumer Deception
Food manufacturers are aware of consumers' growing desire to eat healthier whole foods. In response, they have introduced a number of product packaging methods that fool unwary shoppers into thinking they are purchasing healthy foods. Is the word "healthy" or "natural" prominently displayed? Closely examine the nutritional label. Does the package tout, "low sodium?" Read the ingredient list more carefully. One beverage prominently displays "100% Apple Juice" on the front label. Just below, it reads, "frozen concentrate juice with added ingredients." Isn't that an oxymoron? If something is packaged "organic," is it alright if it's also fortified with vitamins? This makes the fundamental question more difficult: How do you recognize processed foods? If you can't identify them, it's hard to cut processed foods out of your diet.  Here is a list of food package claims ranging from obvious to deceptive (sort by last column if desired):
Since the word "natural" is not regulated by the FDA, natural potato chips may use real potatoes (instead of flakes), for example, but like regular potato chips, they are still a high-carb food choice with little nutritional content. Natural candy may be sweetened with cane juice (instead of white sugar), but it can still contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess. Basically, "natural" means whatever the food manufacturers say. 
Processed foods are also made to dissolve quickly in your mouth to get you to eat faster and in greater quantities — often leaving you full, but not satisfied. There's another danger in feeding children artificially flavored food. Their perception of whole food is altered. A craving for watermelon or cherry flavored candy may not be quenched by corresponding fresh fruit that, by comparison, tastes less sweet.
What would you consider to be the four most harmful processed food additives? According to Reader's Digest, they are: trans fats, refined grains, salt and high-fructose corn syrup  Packages that are legally required to display nutritional information can also vary the serving size to an uncommon proportion to make direct comparisons more difficult. Rather than offer nutritional information for a small bag of chips, it may display statistics for a portion of bag or half a muffin.
Where Processed Foods Get Their Flavor
Processed food coloring and flavoring are often considered proprietary trade secrets. There are some 500 scientists in the world identified as flavorists making laboratory concoctions said to account for 90 percent of items bagged and toted home from U.S. grocery stores. Before any flavor can be blended, spray-dried, stuffed into a carbohydrate shell or otherwise altered, though, its chemicals have to be approved by the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. 
Food processors reap significant profits from turning government-subsidized commodity crops — mainly corn, wheat, and soybeans — into fast foods, snack foods, and beverages. High-profit products derived from these commodity crops are generally high in calories and low in nutritional value. 
How to Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods
Take pleasure in whole foods. Smell the aroma. Chew them well. Mentally describe and visualize the flavors. "Every bite should be like a wine tasting," says food writer and chef Bruce Weinstein. "The more you take away from your food, the more pleasure you'll feel eating it."  Here are some abbreviated suggestions from the book, Real Food Has Curves, co-authored by Weinstein:
- Seek true satisfaction from natural flavors.
- Read labels wisely.
- Relish what's on your plate without distractions.
- Give your palate time to change.
- Give preference to high-quality foods.
- Don't skip meals.
Especially during October Unprocessed, you can participate in a self-monitored challenge to ban unprocessed food from your diet. Helpful tips and suggestions are provided in the official guide from eatingrules.com.  But don't feel restricted to one particular month of the year.
With a balanced view of food manufacturing, careful reading of product labels, and a preference for organically grown whole foods, we can lessen our health problems and feel better. How will this information help you? Have you been motivated to eat A Bit More Healthy? Let me know in your comments below.
- Myths & Facts about Processed Foods. afic.org
- How to Avoid Processed Foods in a Healthy Diet. cbn.com
- What about that pesky “natural” on food labels? foodpolitics.com
- The Tastemakers. njmonthly.com
- 4 Most Harmful Ingredients in Packaged Foods. rd.com
- 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know. usnews.com
- Wean Yourself Off Processed Foods in 7 Steps. usnews.com
- Official Guide to October Unprocessed 2012. eatingrules.com