Such a buzzword these days . . . Processed. The true definition of the word simply means "a series of actions or operations conducing to an end". When considered solely in the realm of food, this can be incredibly confusing. Am I right?
I recently had a reader name Alyssa reach out to me and ask a question to this effect. She mentioned that to her mind, bread is a processed food because of the steps involved to get the end product (grinding wheat, mixing ingredients, baking, etc.). She also mentioned that if she tried to stay away from all processed foods, she would likely never leave the produce section of the grocery store. Excellent point!
Let's break this down.
When health and wellness gurus use the term "processed foods", they usually are referring to foods that have ingredients added to them unnecessarily. Usually this is with regard to a longer shelf life but it can also pertain to things that are added to change the way a food looks, feels in your hand or mouth, etc. Using the bread example, there are types that contain only the ingredients you would use if you were to make it at home - flour, yeast, salt, butter or oil, etc. Then there are the types that are meant to sit on the grocery store shelf and then last a while in your cupboard which contain unhealthy preservatives such as potassium bromate and butylated hydroxyanisole (also known as BHA). Unhealthy bread additives are actually pretty easy to get away from, even if you don't have time or desire to bake your own. Usually the breads found in the bakery section (made in-house at your local grocery store) contain fewer preservatives and are generally less expensive. Those found in the freezer section usually don't have any preservatives, but their price tags usually reflect that. Dave's Killer Bread and other seemingly healthier brands don't always contain less preservatives, so be sure to read labels when searching for new favorites.
I always used to think I bought the "healthy" bread because it was multigrain or whole wheat or something along those lines. The mind-changing, mind-blowing moment for me came a couple of years ago . . . the girls and I were going to be gone, visiting family, for about a month. Matt was going to be home, so I bought a loaf of Oroweat or something similar before we left, but he didn't eat it all. When we got back, there was still about half of the loaf in the cupboard. I pulled it out, expecting it to be a green-ish colored lump of mold . . . but there was not a spec of mold on it! I was so grossed out!! I promised myself I wouldn't buy those mainstream brands anymore even if they seemed healthy. I started paying more attention to the ingredients and then I realized that the bakery fresh loaves are not only better for us, but they are usually less expensive. Storing it in the fridge or freezer can dry it out a bit, but it does help the bread last longer without the preservatives.
Meat is another great example of how complex that buzzword can get. Bear with me for a sec . . . . Yes, even you herbivores out there . . . Separating out the ethical, cultural, and political aspect of eating meat and also discounting the additives that most factory-raised animals are given while they are alive (Keep your eyes out for a post on antibiotics and hormones sometime in the future!), meat is still a hot topic. Of course, most people don't have the means or the aspirations to only eat meat that they have processed themselves. While admirable, it just isn't reality for everyone. Most of us buy meat that is already cut up from the grocery store or butcher shop. Taking a step back, the term "processed meats" doesn't refer to how it is cut or seasoned. Instead, it refers to the types of meat that are cured, once again to last longer and possibly go without refrigeration. Think salami, pepperoni, ham, bacon, and deli meats. When I was in grad school, nitrates had just come onto the scene as one of the seemingly direct links between processed meats and colorectal cancer. New research has shown that it is a lot more complicated than originally thought, but that there are ways to protect yourself and your family. This quick-read article sums it up, though it might leave you with more questions than answers! For our family, it is worth the extra little bit of money to purchase nitrate-free processed meats. I will be honest - we eat a LOT of bacon! . . . . aaaaaaaaand we aren't about to give that up. So, instead of avoiding it, we choose the healthier option. Since nitrate-free and uncured meats are becoming more mainstream, I can now find them in most grocery stores and for almost the same prices. Might be worth a look . . . remember, it's all about small changes and Keeping it Simple!
While bread and meat are great examples of the complexity of the term, when most people think of processed foods, the first thing that comes to mind is something that comes in a box. Or maybe a little packet. Think Rice-a-Roni or
Hamburger Helper. These types of convenience foods are meant to be a cheap, quick, easy way to feed a lot of mouths. Sounds great, until you take a look at the ingredients. Though I wouldn't normally cite Buzzfeed as a credible source, here is a pretty great compilation of simple recipes to take the place of some of the more processed foods we may be tempted to buy. Keep in mind that most of these are just as easy to make from scratch as they are from the box!!
I am grateful to Alyssa for the idea to write about this topic, and will defintely expand on it more in the future. One of my goals in writing these posts is to keep them short, so I will wrap it up for now. The thought I want to leave you with is what I consider my general rule: if it contains ingredients that I can pronounce and am generally familiar with, it's not necessarily too processed. I like to use the term "eat real food" because if the ingredients in it are real, then it's real and healthy for you (for the most part). Taking small steps to stop buying the junk can help you invest in your health and really make a difference in the long run. It is incredibly true that many things we buy have to be processed to some extent, because let's face it . . . you can't make EVERYTHING from scratch! You do have a life outside your kitchen.
Along with the links embedded above, here are a few other great articles I found while researching for this post. There might be some repeat information, but I thought they were worth mentioning - enjoy!
Here's to Keeping it Simple and Sustainable,
Interested in learning more? Subscribe here!