Why Processed Food Isn’t All Bad

Man at supermarket
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I’m not one of those dietitians who hates all processed foods. You won’t find me proclaiming the evils of food processing in aisles of the health food store or at the farmers market. Nevertheless, I am interested enough in the trend of others avoiding processed foods that I eagerly read Megan Kimble’s Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

The book confirmed what I thought already: striving to eat a completely unprocessed diet is ridiculous. At least, for me it is. Kimble’s account of her attempts to eat nothing but whole, unprocessed foods for an entire year, however, was interesting, informative and entertaining. Kimble investigates where to draw the health line in the food-processing continuum — which foods are so minimally processed that they are fine for the body and the planet, and which could she firmly stamp as “unacceptable” and how would she make do without them.

Unprocessed did prompt me to think more about processed foods. It also left me shaking my head and wondering what the point of the experiment really was — especially since not all types of processing render the food overly-handled, devoid of nutrients or laden with added substances that might be better avoided.

There’s Processed Food and Then There’s Processed Food

Not all processed food is bad for your health — Unprocessed acknowledges that. Obviously, there are levels of food processing, and I’m a big fan of some of it. Food processing started out mainly as a safety measure, one that would keep food fresher longer and prevent food-borne illness. Who can argue with freezing as a processing step that preserves food safely?

Let’s face it, pretty much all food purchased at supermarkets these days is processed in some way. Even fresh fruits and veggies — which many people consider to be unprocessed — are processed. They’re washed, treated to prevent spoilage, trimmed, cut into different shapes and often packaged either at a manufacturing facility or at the store. This kind of processing counts as “minimally” processed.

Then, there are the “highly processed” foods: cereals, crackers, breads, candies, pastries and snack foods, some canned foods, and, of course, frozen convenience foods. According to a recent study from the University of North Carolina, 61 percent of the food we eat is “highly processed.” So when talking about “processed food,” realize that it’s a very inclusive term, one that includes plenty of really healthful foods that we should be eating more of — not trying to remove from our plates. It might be better to start regularly describing foods as “minimally processed” or “highly processed” in order to differentiate the concept for consumers.

Processed Food Can Help You Eat Better

Yep, you heard me! Without some help in getting healthy foods to my table, I’m less likely to eat it (and I suspect many others feel the same way). For instance, it would take too long to shell all the beans and peas I want to consume, there’s no way I would crack nuts and seeds by hand the rest of my days, and you couldn’t pay me to take meat and poultry from its live animal status to plucked or skinned, trimmed and ready-for-the-grill status.

Therefore, you’ll find me somewhere in the middle: some processing is good, but too much isn’t. Tweet this

Kimble provides many examples of the trials and tribulations she faced while trying to un-process her diet. Waiting for salt to appear from seawater she collected in a pail, grinding her own wheat by hand, taking a class on butchering meat — these are not activities I see myself doing (though I did find reading about them interesting). The amount of time she devoted to sourcing and preparing various foods and ingredients sounded like a descent into drudgery to me. In many cases, Kimble chooses the path of complete processed food avoidance, finding it easier to abstain completely than make some small allowances. Not eating something at all when one cannot figure out the processing level of absolutely every ingredient in it sounds easy, but in real life she finds that it isn’t. She feels awkward in some social scenes, and left out in others (eating at restaurants was particularly difficult).

Tips to “Unprocess” Your Diet That I Agree With

Many people could improve their diets substantially by making just a few smart choices in the quality of food they purchase — and none of these choices require all-day efforts. Unprocessed includes three tips right up front in the book that I think make perfect sense.

  • Buy plenty of food that doesn’t need a label at all: fresh produce, for example.
  • Choose single-ingredient foods — one that have ingredient lists just one or two words long: rolled oats, cream, navy beans, wild rice.
  • Start reading food labels and think about which ingredients you want to avoid before you start shopping. You’ll save yourself some agonizing decisions (and time) while standing in aisle 9.
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Kitty Broihier
Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD, is a writer, nutrition instructor and recipe developer based in South Portland, Maine. She is president of NutriComm Inc., a food and nutrition communications consulting company. Find her work on nutricomm.com and glutenfreeslowcooking.com, and follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter.