The Impact Of Processed Foods On Our Health
You've probably heard a hundred times, "avoid processed foods as much as possible." But what are "processed foods" and why is it so important to avoid them?
A broad definition of "processed food" is food that is changed from its natural, raw state. But for the purpose of our discussion, it's safe to use the following definition: Processed food is food altered chemically by additives such as flavors, flavor enhancers, binders, colors, fillers, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, etc., or which has been manufactured through combining them or using other processing methods. Generally speaking, if the ingredients aren't "natural", then we can consider the food to be processed. Of course, we could jump through more hoops to define the word "natural" but frankly, I don't have enough pistachios for that. Suffice to say "natural" is unprocessed!
So we could say that unprocessed, natural foods contain everything in them that nature intended. So I guess nature is the food processer of natural foods! Food processed by people, however, are altered, usually by the addition of something (as listed above) or by the removal of the good stuff in some way during the processing process. Take heat for instance...
If you read the directions for a gelatin recipe (like Jello®) you'll see the warning: do not use fresh pineapple. The reason is that the enzyme papain in fresh pineapple prevents the gelatin from jelling. However, you can use canned pineapple, and the gelatin will jello. The reason is that the heat necessary in the canning process inactivates the papain enzymes. The food processing technique of canning destroys the living enzymes in whatever is being canned. (Consider the implications of that last sentence.)
The idea of consuming unprocessed foods is the foundation of a "raw food diet." Raw food folks focus on eating unprocessed foods, preferably organic, i.e. no irradiation, no preservatives, no pesticides, and no genetically modified organisms or GMO's. They don't eat food heated above 118 degrees because heat kills the natural enzymes needed for the digestion of food. (Canned pineapple anyone?)
It is further believed that enzyme depleted foods accelerate the aging process. Heating food changes the pH and makes it acidic, and makes your body a welcome feeding ground for disease. Heating food converts easy-to-absorb minerals into inorganic, hard-to-absorb minerals, which can cause calcium stones; whereas organic minerals are easier to digest, creating alkalinity, helping to rid the system of excess acidity. Heating food also destroys most vitamins. Heating food destroys the natural life force contained in live foods. Raw foodists believe that cooked food is dead food. Eating live food has live energy-or life energy-and thereby provides the energy of life.
Think about this: A raw seed will sprout and grow, whereas a cooked or processed seed will not sprout, and of course, it will not grow either. For days, and even weeks, raw, unripe fruit will continue to ripen. Heat-processed fruit begins to decay within days. So much for heat!! (For an even creepier example, take two healthy seeds; place one in room temperature water that had been heated on the stovetop. Place the other seed in room temperature water that had been heated in a microwave. The seed placed in water previously heated on the stove will sprout. The seed placed in water previously heated in a microwave will NOT sprout, ever. Garlic cooked on a stovetop still contains immunity-enhancing allicin. The allicin in garlic cooked in a microwave is destroyed. The 'processing' that takes place during microwaving destroys everything: all vitamins, minerals, enzymes, all life force. (Consider the implications of that last sentence.)
Of course, food processing doesn't stop at heating. I was on a plane recently, and the flight attendant distributed individual little bags of chips. As I began to nibble my chips, my tongue immediately detected something unreal. Something in these chips was just too...too unidentifiable. So upon inspection of those tiny little words, I spotted monosodium glutamate (MSG), which I avoid like the plague. So I asked for pretzels instead. The ingredients were reasonably natural and reasonably harmless.
"Processed free glutamic acid" or MSG is probably the star of food additives-but it doesn't shine. MSG has been shown to induce migraine headaches, fast heart rate, skin rash, irritable bowels, seizures, depression, and other MSG-induced maladies. MSG has been identified as a "fifth taste," sometimes referred to as "umami." Many MSG-sensitive people claim that there is no taste to MSG. For me, I "taste a tingle" when MSG hits my tongue, and it makes me feel "off." Enough MSG can put my beloved hubby into a three-day migraine episode. Glutamic acid is a neurotransmitter. It carries nerve impulses to nerve cells called glutamate receptors, and triggers a response or reaction. Our mouth and tongue contain glutamate receptor cells, and upon ingestion of MSG, it leaves us with the perception that food being ingested with MSG had a larger, longer lasting taste than it would have had without the use of MSG.
The processing of food reaches far and wide. Beyond canning, it can include freezing, refrigeration, dehydration, aseptic processing, and much more. Please know that there are plenty of processed foods that are not bad for your health. For example, milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating. While some people prefer it raw, raw milk can lead to food-borne illness. Another example is frozen vegetables. Freezing vegetables preserves vitamins and minerals and makes them convenient to cook and eat all year around. Fruit and vegetable juice is also an example of a healthy processed food, with some being fortified with calcium to make it even more nutritious. Oatmeal, frozen fish, frozen berries and 100% whole-grain bread are also processed foods that are good.
Hats off to the processing of food that makes the world's food supply safer to eat, because it can kill dangerous pathogens. Processed food has also made food storage much healthier and can extend shelf life. If there was a famine or a food shortage, give me a pantry full of processed food, as it would clearly 'out-live' the viability of raw food. Because of the miracle of food processing, food can be transported to areas stricken by famine. Scientifically speaking, food processing can even increase the bioavailability of some nutrients, such as lycopene, found in tomatoes.
So which processed foods should be avoided? Read labels, and avoid processed foods made with preservatives, artificial colors and sweeteners, flavor enhancers, trans-fats, saturated fats, and those laden with large amounts of sodium and sugar. Avoid them, or at least eat them sparingly.
Processed foods that may be bad for your health:
- Canned foods high in sodium or fat (remember: enzymes destroyed also)
- Breads and pastas made with refined white flour instead of whole grains
- Packaged, high-calorie snack foods like chips and candies (remember: MSG...)
- Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners, often high in sodium
- Packaged lunch meats, often super high in calories, fat, sodium and preservatives
- Packaged cakes and cookies
- Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat, sodium, preservatives, MSG
- Breakfast cereals loaded with sugar
- Other processed meats, i.e. hot dogs, bologna, sausage, ham (some studies suggest they may increase the risk of colorectal, kidney and stomach cancer.)
Granted, processed foods and pre-packaged meals are popular because they are often considered convenience foods. However, many people have forgotten (or never learned) that preparing natural foods isn't as time consuming or difficult as processed food manufacturers and sellers may have us believe. If you do use processed foods, seek out products made with whole grains, low in sodium and calories, low in saturated fat and free of trans fats. Pay attention to serving size, too, and balance out the processed foods with a fresh salad and fresh vegetables, and some whole grain bread.
Are you literally processing the life out of your food? The more alive your food, the more life force you'll get into your cells and into your body. I guess the best way to demonstrate the "unhealthiness" of processed foods is to discuss the nature of unprocessed foods.
Here is one dynamic example: Live plant. They contain chlorophyll, which is to plants what our blood is to our bodies. Chlorophyll is considered the "blood of plant life," and is the substance that makes plants green and carries energy to the plant; hemoglobin is the substance that makes our blood red and carries energy in the form of oxygen to our bodies. The molecular structure of hemoglobin and chlorophyll are surprisingly similar, and can explain why consumption of algae helps to increase our hemoglobin production, improves oxygenation in our bodies and is a fantastic source of iron.
Probiotics are another example of 'life in food'. The opposite of antibiotics, probiotics-like naturally occurring acidophilus found in yogurt, kefir, and fermented foods-encourages the growth and balance of friendly bacteria in the intestines necessary for good health. Regular use of probiotics can help with overall gastrointestinal health, prevent infections, and lessen your risk of getting "traveler's diarrhea".
The elimination of all processed foods is unlikely, but we can make better food choices and supplement our diets with missing components. Read food labels and learn about ingredients. If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. The shorter the ingredients list, the better. Make wise choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.