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All About Processed Foods

...and whether you should avoid them.

Processed foods

If you have come across the mention of Processed Foods, chances are the aura was tense somewhat, or you might have  been critical of your eating habit. 

Before we go further, I admit that it is a fast world and we have consume processed foods. Probably a loved one or somebody you know is either suffering some kind of chronic or lifestyle disease and processed foods were blamed. I have heard such cases and the mention of cancer and diabetes was not far off.

Let’s be honest. We have all heard of transitioning to Organic Foods, which are healthier. So what are processed foods and should we be concerned about them? I would be lying to claim I do not consume processed foods, even though I know of options available. I know I should be eating cassava, potatoes rather than bread or cakes. People in the countryside might find this possible but even then, not absolutely so.

Processed Foods: Definition

I will quote an authoritative source, NHS:

A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation

So how many foods do we consume that are not altered while processing? Virtually none. We eat cereals, chocolate and all wheat products daily and they are a staple in our diets. We take chips at lunch break, munch several sausages on our way home and take our children crisps. 

Some people claim to consume pizza daily and have been doing so for the longest time imaginable. But is their health something you should be concerned about. Yes…but read on. 

Consider this: A man consumed has consumed pizza as his staple food for 25 years. Not the only thing he ate but majorly, and almost daily for that long. Doctors were interested to assess whether there was any developing health condition. Obviously, we expected the man to be obese, diabetic or likely to suffer from any other illness. That was not the case. He was healthy despite family linked conditions of diabetes.

My attitude may sound like I am advocating for consumption of processed foods or ultra-processed foods. Not at all. I personally prefer natural and organic foods. But they are not cheap. You also may never know whether they are actually what they claim to be. Most are certified if you live in these developed countries that are strict on the quality of foods sold. Many countries have quality standard control bodies but how good they are is a question for another day.

Most foods are processed but not all processed foods are unhealthy. I will explain the three stages of food processing below.

Foods are processed to make them more palatable, digestible or just have a longer shelf-life. Basic methods of processing are freezing, canning, baking and drying.

Rice is processed by removing husks to make it cook faster. Meat is canned and processed into smokies so that you may buy and consume it readily after work. And the list goes on. Other common processed foods are in this list:

  • breakfast cereals
  • cheese
  • bread, cakes and most of wheat products
  • soft drinks such as soda
  • flavoured nuts
  • fruit snacks
  • margarine
  • bacon
  • smokies/ sausages
Soft drinks are highly processed

You can identify ultra-processed foods by the number of additional ingredients in foods besides the main product. A bottle of juice may contain 5% or 10% of orange juice. The other 90-95% are additional ingredients such as flavours, food colours, preservatives such as sodium benzoate among others. These additives are done, not to enrich but to achieve commercial objectives of commercial manufacturers. These are foods that have been mentioned alongside causes of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.

You will also notice that these processed foods are much cheaper compared to whole foods. In fact one one of the indictments against Coca cola’s soft drinks was addition to too much sugar and resulting cases such as diabetes cost too much money to treat patients. 

Why would foods that undergo so many processes cost much less compared to simple foods? My crystal ball tells me of at least two reasons: 

  • Economies of scale and forces of demand and supply. Ultra-processed are mass produced and it is possible to push prices to much lower compared to healthier whole foods. 
  • People are becoming more concerned of their health and demand for alternative foods is high. Rather than 5-20% concentrate of fruits, with pure fruits you get 100%. But that takes months before they are ready. 

Let’s go back to the “pizza man”. The man referred above had an underlying condition of diabetes, which did not worsen at the time he was tested. This is probably due to his strict adherence to daily exercising. This cannot be overemphasised and its importance can has been discussed widely and broadly. 

Stages of food processing
It is necessary to consider that there are three stages of processing foods: primary, secondary and ultra processing.

Primary processing is what is done to make foods edible or palatable. We grind corn, slaughter chicken, boil eggs but these do not change of food much. In fact, these are often considered whole foods.

Secondary processing is what is done to foods to make them even last longer or more palatable. We cook them, freeze or even can some foods. This stage makes foods more complex.

Ultra-processing is what I mentioned above: Additional of other ingredients such as sugar and salt, preservatives, fats, sweeteners, flavours and colours. These are the foods that you need to be careful with. Where possible, find alternatives to these foods. Excess of these additives lead to changes in our health and may result in other conditions. Consider sugar added in soft drinks such as sodas and accusations on leading to increased cases of obesity in many countries but especially in developed countries. 

It is possible to avoid ultra-processed foods and replacing the with primary or secondary processed foods. I will try to list some examples here:

  • White bread: Get wheat, grind it and make your own bread. If you can’t, purchase whole grain wheat and bake at home.
  • French fries/Chips: Consider eating plain tortilla chips or just DIY pita chips
  • Fried Chicken (KFC etc). Roast your own chicken at home from scratch. 
  • Frappuccino: You can opt for store-bought cold brew or better still, drip coffee at home.

My examples of (ultra) processed give you examples tell you how it is possible to adopt a healthier lifestyle with healthy foods. And these may also be cheaper. The only obstacle for most people is time. We are a fast-paced society that wants everything instantly: Instant coffee, instant chicken, instant potatoes (chips), instant and sweet drinks (soda, etc). 

That is a choice that you have to make. You will not always be busy. The choices you make today will reflect on your future health. Make a habit by starting with small, feeble steps and see them make you healthier and wealthier.

Healthy practices are essential, whether you are a junk food addict or organic food fanatic. He cycled daily for long distances. You need to adopt a similar habit. Remember, your health is your wealth.

Which ultra-processed foods are you dropping today? Do you think it is possible to prepare and save you a few cents? 

By jose

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