Ever look around at everyone boasting about eating clean and wonder to yourself what was wrong with your choices because you look at labels and you choose low-fat or low-calorie options perceived by you as “good for you”?   Why exactly is “processed” food so bad for you?  And furthermore, what exactly is “processed” food?

Processed foods are typically made from clean harvested food crops or butchered animals and converted into more marketable options that often have more additives to prolong shelf life.  Notably, similar to processes used to produce animal feed.  Umm, GROSS!  The practice of food processing dates back to prehistoric times when people began fermenting, drying and preserving (with salt) their crops and kills to feed themselves.  Today’s methods in processing foods are similar which give us an abundant, some say safe, convenient and affordable supply of food.  I do not believe that all processed is bad, but if you look at your labels and more than one ingredient on the list reads as something you do not recognize, then you should question your choices.  In today’s world of rush here and there, convenience takes precedence over our choices in food.  It is a sad truth and one of the reasons that most of us are struggling to figure out our version of the “eat this, not that” cycle.

So what are some processed food items that may be bad for us and for our diets or even present health issues?  Let’s look at a few –

  • Canned foods with large amounts of sodium or fat.  As noted in the Mayo Clinic’s – Sodium:  How to tame your salt habit, “the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day — or 1,500 mg if you’re age 51 or older, or if you are black, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.”  Consider this, 1 can of Campbell’s Healthy Request Ministrone Soup has only 80 calories per serving, but packs in 410 mg of Sodium per serving.  If you consume the entire can, that’s 820 mg of Sodium in just one sitting.  Also consider that some frozen dinners are also very high in sodium, so you really need to read your labels.
  • Bread and pasta made with refined white flour instead of whole grains.  Remember papier-mâché projects in school?  Remember how simple it was to make it?  The usual tools were strips of newspaper and a bowl of paste. That paste was just standard white flour and water.  Yeah, imagining that in my gut makes me think twice!
  • High calorie snack foods like chips, candies and pre-packaged cakes and cookies.  Really, too many bad things here to even nail down one single thing, but I think we all remember the warning label, “may cause anal leakage”.  I’ll skip that, thank you!
  • Sugary breakfast cereals.  Read more of an Eat This, Not That review on Yahoo Health.  Why not opt for boiling some eggs and slicing some fresh fruit?
  • Processed meats.  Seriously, when we look at this it can be quite disgusting.  Check out the 5 Processed Meat Products We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love).  I mean really people, I grew up on Oscar Mayer Bologna!  Maybe that’s why I hate bologna today.  Hmmmmm

Ok, so we have read about some of the bad for us processed foods, but there are some good if you really look at your labels –

  • Foods that need little processing or production such as washed and packaged fruits and vegetables, bagged salad kits or lettuces, roasted and ground nuts and in most cases, coffee beans.
  • Foods that are processed to help keep and enhance nutrients and freshness at their peak such as canned tuna packed in water (really read your labels here), beans, tomatoes, frozen fruits and vegetables that are frozen in natural form and some processed baby foods.

Notable information – Based on a report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the term “natural” is allowed on labels where the item does not contain added colors, artificial flavors or any other synthetic substance.

Fast food restaurants also are a culprit to our processed food overload and really, if you go to their websites and read labels, you will be blown away by the list of ingredients they openly show on their pages.   Recently, I was told about one of my favorite, what I thought was healthy restaurants, Chick-fil-A.  Did you know the 2nd ingredient in their Classic Chick-fil-A sandwich is MSG?  Clearly all chicken is not created equal!  They are not alone though, other popular chains like Burger King and the iconic McDonald’s are also using this product in their quest to get us in and out and hooked on their fried food goodness!

Today, Americans eat 31% or more packaged food than fresh food and consume more packaged food than all other countries.  That is really astonishing and until recently I was in that 31% and consumed things where I read the labels and felt I was making a healthy choice in my food consumption.  I have to say, it is all quite scary to me.  Let’s go forth and make better choices.  Eating fresh healthier options does not always break the bank.  Plan your meals with what is in crop season and find a local farmer and/or butcher that sells meat that hasn’t gone through a processing plant.  You will be surprised that the cost difference isn’t as bad as you may think it is.