Q&A: What Does ‘Processed Food’ Mean, Anyway?

Q&A: What Does ‘Processed Food’ Mean, Anyway?

I get asked this question all the time – and the ‘right answer’ depends on where you’re coming from, and how strictly you want to manage your nutrition. Personally, I’m lazy, and short on time, so a girl’s gotta hustle – and that means my definition of ‘processed food’ is a little wider in scope than a strictly ‘clean eater’ might suggest.

The strict answer, then, is pretty obvious – nothing that’s been processed, at all. You’re talking apples right off trees, potatoes straight outta the ground, and so on. And in some circumstances, that’s totally doable. I’m lucky to live where I do, because I’m pretty much surrounded by farmer’s markets, organic food shops, and so on – so when I can buy from these places, I do (although those organic food shops? Hella expensive. A girl’s gotta eat – and this girl definitely can’t afford to eat there).

But in most cases, these things are harder to come by. In most towns, farmer’s markets – if there at all – happen maybe once a week, at best. And if you’re following a strict definition of processed food, you’ve gotta live with the fact that even the contents of the vegetable aisle have been through some kind of process to get to the supermarket shelf looking pristine and uniform.

To my mind: ain’t nobody got time for that.

So my logic is less focused on the processed-ness of the foods, and more about the ingredients in ‘em. ‘Processed foods’ is a handy cover-all term, but what I’m talking about is the kind of product that’s got several ingredients – many of which you can’t spell or figure out – before they get to you for cookin’.

For instance, Greek yogurt is something I love – but lined up in pots, it’s pretty clear it’s been processed on a mass scale. However, the ingredients list is short, and quite clearly things it’d be made of on a one-by-one basis (milk, and yogurt cultures – that’s it). On the other hand, a can of diet coke is made of the following:

Carbonated water, colour (caramel E150d), sweeteners (aspartame, acesulfame-K), natural flavourings including caffeine, phosphoric acid, citric acid. Contains a source of phenylalanine.

Another pretty good comparison is bread. Bread is basically flour, water, yeast and maybe a dash of salt or sugar, depending on what floats your boat. But, say with Kingsmill’s Soft White bread – and I’m choosing this as a totally random example, no shade to Kingsmill (I’m sure they’re nice people) – it’s more like this:

Wheat flour, Water, Yeast, Salt, Vinegar, Vegetable Oil, Soya Flour, Emulsifier: E472e; Preservative: Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth); Flour Treatment Agent: Asorbic Acid (Vitamin C.)

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything particularly wrong with any of those ingredients. I don’t believe in scaremongering, and I don’t believe in chucking out hard and fast rules about anything food related – because frankly, I know what it’s like to try to feed yourself on £6 a week, and I don’t think anyone should be shamed for their food choices, whether they’re a result of taste, or limited options.

But I do think the best rule of thumb to follow is this: when you can choose whole foods, do. My shopping list tends to be pretty simple – a selection of meats (chicken, beef and salmon, for instance), a variety of salad and veggies (onions, peppers, tomatoes, and so on), some eggs, sweet potatoes, and fruit, depending on whatever I fancy.

Along with some herbs and spices – a mixture of fresh and dried – and some staples like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, it’s possible to make some healthy, generally unprocessed meals across the board, without spending a fortune on it. You know you’re getting all the nutrition you need, and none of the added extras you’re not sure about – and in most cases, that’ll help your body to do all the things it needs to do to run right, and if you need to – lose weight.

There’s a lot to be said for logic in this kind of situation – because it’s very easy to look at a Big Important Diet Rule and think ‘well, I can’t do that – so I might as well order a pizza and be done with it.’ I have definitely done this.

But really, it’s all about making a compromise and doing as much as you can that’s positive and achievable in your own life. I still eat processed foods, because sometimes I need a stock cube, and other times I need a hangover cupcake – but 90% of the time, I’ll cook from scratch, and eat whole foods.

Figuring out what works for you takes time, and it won’t all come at once – which is what makes it unlike a ‘Cut Out All Carbs’ or ‘Never Eat Fat’ kind of diet rule. But by taking it slow, and working out your own version of healthy, clean eating, it’s possible to fit it into your life and stick to it, long-term.

And most importantly: enjoy it. Life’s for livin’, and food’s for eatin’ – so bon apetit!

4 thoughts on “Q&A: What Does ‘Processed Food’ Mean, Anyway?”

  • Interesting, I’ve never actually considered that ‘processed food’ doesn’t have a fixed definition. In my head, the term applies to dinner, because dinnertime is when my will power / motivation to make wise choices is lowest. To me, ‘eat less processed food’ means ‘eat dinners prepared by people’, rather than by factories that put all kinds of extras in the food that I don’t want. It does include occassional take-away food, as long as I know there is an actual chef cooking it with fresh ingredients. I’ve got a mental list of take-away places that cook from scratch located on various routes from work and the train station to home.

    For food (products) in general, my approach basically matches yours.

  • “processed” is one of those catch-all terms that, if you look at it, doesn’t actually mean anything, or at least not anything sensible.

    If I slice an apple into pieces before eating it, I’m processing it. But I don’t think one can rationally argue that doing so has any substantial health-issues.

    The same goes for “additives”, you quite simply can’t say that “additives are bad” because that’s equivalent to saying, like some people sometimes do, that “chemicals are bad” (and then they forget that -every- substance is a chemical, including, for example, water.)

    Instead, you actually do need to actually look at what was done and what was added. Yeah, that’s trickier than just spouting of on “processed food”, but it has the benefit of actually making sense.

  • Interesting and quite informative article. I never knows that processed food could have such a complex chemistry. From now on i will prefer fresh food instead of processed and factory made. Processed food becomes handy for busy people like me but some time it contains some unwanted substances which may decrease its position at health scale, but better choice would be fresh instead of preserved and cold stored foods.

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