Today, in place of Friday Favorites, I’d like to share something I’ve been working on for the past couple of days.
One topic I’ve been very interested in lately is food (shocker!), specifically the topic of whole foods and how we use food to fuel and heal our bodies.
It’s a concept that never really occurred to me until I started and went through the Whole30, but now it’s something I spend a significant amount of time reading and thinking about it. It makes so much sense, but when you get right down to it, food is either medicine, or it is poison.
I don’t pretend to be a perfect eater — far from it. I love pizza and fries and beer; pretty much anything salty and fried is my kryptonite. But lately I’ve eaten less of that stuff and become more conscientious about what I’m putting in my body. Of course I can always do better, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
The first step in understanding a lot of the complexities around food these days is understanding the difference between healthy, whole foods and what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances,” or a large majority of processed foods. Pollan is the author of “In Defense of Food” and the subsequent documentary, whose mantra for good health is “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
But let’s start with some definitions, shall we?
Fresh food: Food that has come from natural sources, like plants, seeds, animals and fungi. According to the FDA: "When used in a manner which suggests that a food is unprocessed, the term ‘fresh' means that the food is in a raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or preservation, except: The addition of approved waxes or coatings; The post-harvest use of approved pesticides; The application of a mild chlorine wash or mild acid wash on produce; or The treatment of raw foods with ionizing radiation not to exceed the maximum dose of 1 kiloGray”
(Yes, those exceptions are kind of concerning for me, but there you go).
Processed food: “Food processing is any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is available for us to eat.” (Source) Most of the food we eat is processed, whether that means it’s frozen, dried, ground up, de-shelled (shelled? I don’t know), or pre-baked. Processing in itself is not a bad thing, but it can be taken to extremes, as we’ll see.
“Ultra-processed food”: According to researchers at the University of Sao Paulo and Tufts University, ultra-processed foods are: “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.” (Source)
Excuse me. What?
Now some statistics:
- Processed foods make up 70% of the U.S. diet (Source)
- 57.9% of Americans’ calorie intake comes from “ultra-processed” foods; just 29.6% comes from minimally processed or unprocessed foods (Source)
- Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugars Americans eat (from same article as above)
So what does this mean?
Growing up, I never really considered the difference between all these different kinds of foods and “food products.” I honestly thought it was all the same. And labels? It must be true if you put it on a label! “Fat Free.” “Natural.” “Low Sugar.” “Heart Healthy."
Turns out, very few regulations exist controlling what can be put on a label. And just because something is “fat free” does not mean the manufacturers didn’t load it up with sugar to make it taste better (news flash: the fat is what makes it taste good) (also: fat is good). There is currently no regulation around using the word “natural” on a label, and products labeled as such may still contain GMOs, hormones, pesticides or artificial ingredients! (Source)
Let’s take, for example, a favorite growing up: Special K Strawberry Protein Meal Bars. These are marketed as a weight loss food. Part of the “Special K Diet.” But what is in these, exactly?
Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, sugar, soluble corn fiber, vegetable oil (palm kernel and palm oil, soybean and palm oil with TBHQ for freshness), strawberry flavored fruit pieces (sugar, cranberries, citric acid, natural strawberry flavor with other natural flavors, elderberry juice concentrate for color, sunflower oil), corn syrup, fructose, inulin, milk protein isolate, contains 2% or less of dextrose, water, nonfat yogurt powder (cultured whey protein concentrate, cultured skim milk, yogurt cultures, heat-treated after culturing), glycerin, color added, sorbitol, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, salt, citric acid, strawberry juice concentrate, xanthan gum, BHT for freshness, partially defatted peanut flower, almond flower, wheat starch (Source)
I recognize almost nothing in that ingredient list as occurring in nature. It doesn’t even contain strawberries! It contains cranberries flavored to taste like strawberries. How is that even allowed?!
What about Honey Nut Cheerios? The box features these promises:
- Naturally flavored
- Can help lower cholesterol
- Gluten Free
- Made with whole grain
- Low fat
- Helps reduce the risk of heart disease
- Excellent source of iron
And the ingredients?
Whole grain oats, sugar, oat bran, corn starch, honey, brown sugar syrup, salt, tripotassium phosphate, rice bran oil and/or canola oil, natural almond flavor, Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) added to preserve freshness (Source)
There are FOUR different kinds of sugars listed in the first six ingredients! It’s a shame because I really, really like Honey Nut Cheerios (Bee Happy, Bee Healthy amiright?).
How do these ultra-processed foods affect our health? According to Authority Nutrition:
- Processed foods are usually high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup: "Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.”
- Processed foods are “hyper rewarding” and lead to overconsumption.
- Processed foods contain all sorts of artificial ingredients; including chemicals, flavorings, texturants, colorants and preservatives (i.e. not real food).
- Processed foods can become addictive: "Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.”
- Processed foods are often high in refined carbs: “These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.”
- Most are low in nutrients: many of the nutrients our bodies need are found in whole foods, but not processed foods.
- They tend to be low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing; fiber functions as a prebiotic that feeds the friendly bacteria in the intestine (it helps us poop!).
- Processed foods take less energy and time to digest, about half the time. This means you burn less calories digesting processed food than whole foods, which can and likely will have an affect on your waistline.
- Processed foods are often high in trans fats or processed vegetable oils: i.e. unhealthy fats.
Suffice it to say this new information was incredibly eye-opening, and it’s completely changed the way I look at food. Now, rather than looking at the calorie content, I look at the ingredient list first. If sugar is one of the first four ingredients or I can’t pronounce a majority of the ingredients, I probably won’t eat it. At the very least I think a lot longer before I do eat it.
So what can we take away just from this information?
- Processed foods are not necessarily bad, but ultra-processed foods will likely have a detrimental affect on your health.
- Labels are often misleading.
- Eat real food. But what is real food? Anything that can be sourced from nature: fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, meat, dairy (minimally processed), etc... For me, this means doing more shopping at my local fresh food stores (Whole Foods, Fresh Thyme) and farmer’s market.
Honestly, this is just the tip of the iceberg in this very complex food conversation, but I think it warrants discussion as much as possible. I plan on diving deeper into this topic as inspiration strikes, touching on such things as the food industrial complex; the importance of protein, fat and carbs; how food is marketed; and how all of these things affect the health of society.
In the meantime, here are some resources you can seek out to learn more on the topic:
Documentaries (all on Netflix!)
“In Defense of Food”
“Forks Over Knives”
“What the Health” - I have not watched this yet, but hear it’s very interesting