The Surprising Truth About Processed Food

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Many people in the “whole food” movement can get a bit prissy about processed food.

“You should only eat whole, unprocessed food!”, they proclaim, as if it was a fact that any food that’s been processed is going to be harmful to your health.

While I do advocate a nutrition plan that consists mainly of whole foods with minimal additives, I also had a Frappuccino this afternoon without worrying about it.

The truth is that unless you’re picking the apple directly off the tree (this is a fun, albeit somewhat cheesy, family activity for the autumn months) or taking a bite directly out of the side of cow, the food you eat has almost always been processed in some way.

So looking at processed food as “always bad” and unprocessed food as “always good” is far too much of an oversimplification.

In fact, looking at any food as “always good” and any food as “always bad” isn’t the best perspective, from a psychological health point of view.

Food is neither good nor bad.

All food is conditionally favourable or unfavourable, depending on the person and their goals.

So let’s look a bit more closely at the issue of processed food.

Most people think of unsweetened yogurt as a healthy option, and unless you have a dairy intolerance I would generally agree.

Do you know of any cow that directly squirts out yogurt?

Me neither.

After being pasteurized to kill bad bacteria, milk needs to be fermented to create the rich, thick substance we know.

There are some people that argue that raw milk is better because it’s less processed (not heated to a high temperature) and contains more nutrients.

That may be true, but pasteurization also kills pathogenic bacteria that can cause illness or death…so I prefer to err on the side of caution and have my milk products pasteurized.

Fermentation, the process by which food is exposed to bacteria that feed on it’s sugar and starch, can improve gut health with good bacteria and beneficial enzymes while enhancing the absorption of the food.

Traditional fermented foods include cabbage, kimchee, and sauerkraut, fit the bill.

So fermentation is a form of processing that has additional health benefits from the unprocessed food.

One area where there’s little disagreement, is with the processing of meat products.

While grass fed or organic beef may indeed provide nutrients that can be considered healthy, processed meat with additives like nitrates (sausages, hot dogs, deli meats) seem to increase your risk of cancer.

So the less processing your meat has undergone, the better.

Now think of a food that’s not particularly processed, like fish that has only been chopped into loins or filets for easier cooking, that may still be naturally full of mercury, a toxic substance that we want to limit our consumption of.

So a lightly-processed food like fish may or may not be a healthy choice, depending on factors that have nothing to do with the level of processing.

Wild fish tends to be better than farmed, and small fish like sardines are better than large fish like tuna because they contain lower levels of mercury.

There’s another interesting case where processing may be a good thing.

Most people think of brown rice as the “healthy choice” and white rice as the less nutritious processed version.

White rice involves removing the bran from the whole brown rice kernel.

This outer germ contains phytic acid, which may interfere with the absorption of some minerals.

Brown rice also tends to have higher levels of arsenic than white rice (although both kinds are known for absorbing high levels of arsenic from the water in which they’re grown).

Many people with digestive issues, like myself, find that brown rice causes digestive difficulties, while white rice doesn’t.

So when people are quick to demonize processed food, remind yourself that there are two sides to every story.

Yes, you generally want your food to as close as possible to it’s natural state, but there are a few notable exceptions to that rule.

Keep an open mind and recognize that not every food that’s been processed is bad and not every unprocessed food is necessarily a great choice for you.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 8-year-old boy. She is a YouTuber, writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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