What is Wrong With Processed Food?
It is quite difficult in today’s industrialized society to eliminate all processed food.
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 with very few boxed and canned goods. Most people eat processed bread or breakfast cereals but not unprocessed grains like wheat, bran or uncracked nuts. They do not mill their own corn, nor churn butter.
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Food processing allows consumers to have year-round availability of foodstuffs 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.
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 processed food benefits mentioned are published by The European Food Information Council.  The point is that it is 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 is also fortified with vitamins? This makes the fundamental question more difficult: How do you recognize processed foods? If you can’t identify them, it is 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):
|Image||Claim||What It Often Means||Apparent?|
|Artificial Colors||Chemical food colors mixed in a laboratory. Usually the bright colors give away the presence of food coloring and dyes.||Obvious|
|Artificial Flavors||High-fructose corn syrup, salt and other chemicals.||Subtle|
|Candy||By itself, candy is processed. Popular candy brands may also be merged with a desert such as ice cream. Many candies claim fruit flavors. They are not fresh fruit no matter the flavor.||Obvious|
|Drink||A fruit “drink,” as opposed to “juice,” has very little, if any, real fruit juice. Often it is comprised of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colors.||Subtle|
|Energy||Usually paired with “drink,” includes caffeine, an addictive drug, as active ingredient along with other additives like sodium and taurine.||Subtle|
|Enriched||When a food such as flour is processed, vitamins and minerals are lost. Enriching the flour adds the vitamins back in, but their whole grain counterparts are much healthier.||Subtle|
|Fortified||Vitamins or nutrition is added. This may be desireable, depending upon what is actually being fortified. In place of the word “fortified,” various vitamins may be featured.||Subtle|
|From Concentrate||Juice has had most moisture removed before freezing in order to preserve shelf-life, limit amount of storage space required and control quantity of water added to reconstitute it.||Subtle|
|Fresh||Fresh doesn’t mean “just prepared” in most situations. It can also mean frozen or it can be part of a branded name.||Deceptive|
|Instant||Frequently used for hot cereals, product is freeze dried and mixed with animal stomach enzymes reactivated by water, effectively pre-digesting the food while it cooks.||Subtle|
|Low Sodium||Often a reduction of sodium is offset by an increase in sweetners, fat and calories to compensate for a more bland flavor.||Deceptive|
|Made With Real Fruit||With no law that requires how much real fruit has to be included in a food that uses this claim, often the amount is legible. Fruit should be near beginning of ingredient list.||Deceptive|
|Microwavable||Generally high-sodium, frozen food with preservatives, often in plastic containers that are rarely recycled.||Obvious|
|Natural||This word is unregulated by the FDA. In its unrefined state, the processed food may have been natural.||Deceptive|
|Natural and Artificial Flavors||Usually emphasis is placed on the word “natural” but content is mostly artificial; often less than 15 percent natural flavors, sometimes way less.||Subtle|
|No Refrigeration Required||Preservatives added to retard spoilage of normally perishable foodstuffs. Examples could be coffee creamer or cheese.||Obvious|
|Preformed Shapes||Whether they are neatly shaped wedges, tubes, dinosaurs, wafers, chips, or patties, they did not grow from the ground or come from an animal in that form.||Obvious|
|Pulp Added or Extra Pulp||Ever wonder where all the extra pulp comes from and why it tastes so odd? It is reconstituted from the pulp extracted from pulp-free juices.||Subtle|
|Squeezable||Squeezable versions of fruits, nuts, cheeses, chocolate or invented flavors are processed with stabilizers and homoginizers. Look for high-fructose corn syruyp.||Subtle|
|Spreadable||Prominently featured on foods generally thought to be solid. Maintaining spreadable consistency often requires chemical homogenizers and stabilizers.||Subtle|
|Sugarless or Sugarfree||A sugar substitute is usually added. Read label for saccharin, stivia or high-fructose corn syrup.||Subtle|
|Whole Grains||“Whole Grains” is not the same as 100% whole grain. A product like white bread originated from whole grains before nutrient-stripping processing. It may then be enriched.||Deceptive|
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, getting 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. This makes direct comparisons more difficult. Rather than offer nutritional information for a small bag of chips, statistics for a portion of bag or half a muffin may be listed—even though most consumers are likely to eat an entire bag or full 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. 
Vanilla flavoring—also called imitation vanilla—is not the same as vanilla extract. It's made with synthetic vanillin, which food companies sometimes make from a secretion from the anal glands of beavers. —MedMD
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.
A company called Apeel Sciences is providing a chemical-free spray to dramatically extend the life and freshness of produce.  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. eufic.org ^
- How To Choose Processed Foods To Fit Within A Healthy Eating Plan. summitmedicalgroup.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 ^
- This simple step can double the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. cnn.com ^
- Apeel Sciences. apeelsciences.com