Processed Foods, Superfoods, Good Old-Fashioned Foods

September 18, 2018 in Foodland Chronicles by Joyce Bunderson

Processed food – It’s true I’ve put a lot of trash on processed foods. I’ve been writing about them for years and eventually, I edited my reference to them and called them highly processed food and ultra processed foods. I did that because the food industry didn’t like all the negative press they were getting on their highly processed foods. So they started a narrative. That narrative brought up ordinary processing (as opposed to highly processed). They pointed out, and rightly so, that frozen vegetables; oatmeal; canned tuna and salmon; canned beans; pasteurized milk; “baby” carrots; and prewashed spinach, to share a few examples, are processed. It seems to me that the public probably knew that other public health nutritionist and myself were not really referring to these minimally processed whole foods. But, being a relatively powerless position, I did not want to try to fight city hall – the Giant Food Processing Machine. This would NOT have been a David and Goliath style battle; it would have been more like me on a motor scooter with a slingshot vs. an armada or heavily armed helicopters and jeeps. It seems as though there continues to be confusion about processed foods, so I’m revisiting the issue.

The U.S. Government defines “processed food” as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” But let’s face it, there’s processing and highly/ultra processing. The food processors often add many ingredients to foods that you would never add if you cooked the food yourself. Some of the additives are super cheap replacements for ingredients that a home cook would use. For example, often when you make soups, stews, sauces and casseroles, you would use onion, garlic and herbs and a little salt and pepper. The food processors on the other hand, use a heavy hand with the salt and frequently use some chemically concocted ingredient that simulates the tastes of the herbs and sometimes even the vegetables. The foods often have a huge sodium (salt) load, but also additives, sugar, fat, and other ingredients that contribute nothing in terms of nutrition, and in the excess the processors include of these cheap additives, progressive harm can be inflicted, not the least being diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular diseases.

There’s a nice little guideline listed on this site (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-processed-foods/) for total fat; saturated fat; sugars and salt. If you want to use a processed product, the guideline is helpful in comparing the label; the guideline can help you know if the processer added way too much sodium, fat, saturated fat or sugar. It also may startle you into cooking the item yourself; then you’ll have the option of leaving out some of the additives and reducing the excess of others.

Some items that pop into my mind as being major offenders in processing are: Granola Bars (most are nothing more than candy bars with some oats thrown in); Instant Ramen (2000 mg of sodium – 500 mg more than the American Heart Association’s daily recommended intake); little ‘fruit’ gummy snacks (often called fruit snacks – what a misnomer!); sugary breakfast cereals (one of the biggest rip-offs in the food processing world – often sugar and a non-whole grain, with a load of additives); savory snacks like potato chips, cheese puffs, and the majority of offerings in the cracker section of the market); canned soups, stews, and frozen casseroles; frozen dinners; frozen vegetables with added sauces; cakes, cookies, and other pastries; and of course, don’t let me forget processed meat. Again, you have to look at the additives and the excesses to understand the damage they can do to your body.

Some foods are processed to make them safe for consumption – one example is milk, which is pasteurized milk to remove harmful bacteria. Freezing vegetables to keep them from spoiling is another minimal and desirable processing. Rolling whole oats to make a reasonable cooking time. Pressing olives to make olive oil. Grating off peels of carrots to make snack-ready “baby” carrots is another example of useful minimal processing. One that I use frequently is pre-washed spinach. I’ve never been able to get every last grain of sand off spinach; this was a godsend for me. Because of pre-washed spinach, I was able to add fresh spinach to our regular meals.

I could be wrong; but I really believe that Big Food Processing is not really fooling the public. Maybe the above will help you make a fair assessment of what kind of processing you’re willing to accept.

Superfoods – I just noticed that Harvard Public Health has published a list of Superfoods. They did say: “No single food – not even a superfood – can offer all the nutrition, health benefits, and energy we need to nourish ourselves.” I definitely agree with that. Over the years, I’ve not been too comfy with the term superfoods. The reason for my discomfort is that the list makers have almost always made very specific foods. The other lists of superfoods that I have found have been very specific; for example, they have listed blueberries and I could never understand why blackberries or raspberries, for example, would be left out. Or they would choose a specific nut. My guess was that possibly some of the other list makers had some agreement or association with the specific food listed. I’ve decided to share Harvard’s list right here in this paragraph, for two reasons, 1) People love the concept of superfoods and 2) The Harvard list is not too specific. It includes berries; fish; leafy greens; nuts; olive oil; whole grains; yogurt (Beware of added sugar versions of yogurt). My suggestion for yogurt is to look for active cultures and buy plain and sweeten it yourself – I love Greek yogurt for its body). Going on with my list; cruciferous vegetables; legumes; and tomatoes. That’s a nice little concise list of superfoods. If they seem fairly commonplace, with not one esoteric tropical fruit among them, we all might just as well call them Good Old-Fashioned Foods.

Good Old-fashioned Food – I really believe you will know what it is when you see it. It can be pretty like a fresh peach or an orange; colorful like a yam, raspberries, broccoli, or green beans. It might offer variety and greater healthy germ and fiber like brown rice; chopped almonds or a dollop of yogurt. It’s just plain ordinary food. In my mind, good old-fashioned food is not highly or ultra processed and truly doesn’t need to be called super.